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June 30, 2017

Game Preview | WPG at SSK

Matt Nichols (15) Picture: Arthur Ward

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Full disclosure: variations on the theme of this Winnipeg Blue Bombers season preview has been written by yours truly for both daily newspapers in this town and on this site every year now dating back to the 1990s.

That admission out of the way, let’s move on with some basics before we go further: the Bombers Grey Cup championship drought is now past a quarter century – dating back, officially, to November 25, 1990.

And it will remain looming as a backdrop whenever the curtain lifts on another Canadian Football League season in these parts until the streak ends.

Funny thing about all that…

Make no mistake, the Bombers desperately want to win a Grey Cup, just like their eight rivals in this league. But unless you’re from this town and have lived it, a 26-year drought doesn’t have the same relevance to those in the dressing room.

Consider the Bombers roster features 29 players born in 1990 or after, and of the two Winnipeggers in the lineup – Andrew Harris and Thomas Miles – Harris has a Grey Cup ring from 2011 and Miles just signed here this offseason.

So…

“Does the drought come up in the locker room? No,” began veteran receiver Clarence Denmark. “A lot of guys are young and I’m not sure they are aware of the drought. It’s not on our minds. We haven’t lived it so it’s not that personal for us.

“We’re just trying to win this first game. I understand it – the frustration – and we want to come through for what I believe is the best fan base in the CFL. But we can’t focus on that now, this early in the season.”

“Our goal every year is the same: to win a championship. But we don’t talk about the drought.”

The Bombers enter 2017 with the same confidence that enveloped the team last year in a 10-3 run to the playoffs. But they have more than their share of doubters outside their clubhouse – Vegas bookies had them at 9-1 to win the Grey Cup earlier this month, ahead of only the Toronto Argonauts at 18-1.

Most preseason predictions, meanwhile, had them finishing anywhere from third to fifth in the West Division.

“The drought stuff? It doesn’t really come up,” said Harris. “What comes up is we didn’t make it last year and you go year to year in this game.”

“The guys who have been around understand the drought. Me, I hear it all the time and I’m probably one of the reasons there is a drought, right? (Harris was the top Canadian in B.C.’s Grey Cup win over the Bombers in 2011). I know that left a sour taste in some people’s mouths.

“But all this winter I heard a lot of excitement about the organization and this team and I feel like we have the guys in this locker room to get to a Grey Cup game.”

The Bombers’ championship drought, FYI, is the longest in franchise history and the longest active absence currently in the CFL.

Some other drought-related tidbits:

  • The franchise has appeared in five Grey Cups since 1990, losing in 1992, 1993, 2001, 2007 and 2011.
  • In two of those championships, they were without their starting quarterback: Matt Dunigan in 1992 and Kevin Glenn in 2007.
  • During the 26 years without a title, the Bombers have been in nine division finals: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2007 and 2011 and missed the playoffs 11 times.

 

And all of those numbers, truthfully, don’t really resonate with many in the room.

“We talk about the Grey Cup because it’s our goal and it’s constantly on our minds,” said veteran cornerback Chris Randle. “That’s why we train, it’s what we do, it’s why we go away from our families. We understand it’s a hard task, but it’s everyone’s goal.

“But we don’t talk about the drought. Listen, you’ve got to understand your team, you’ve got to understand your team’s history. There’s been a lot of Grey Cups won by this organization. This town respects football, they respect this team. We have a good understanding of all that because our coach has let us know we’re playing for each other, we’re playing to win the Grey Cup and we’re playing to win for the fans.”

THE 4-1-1

GAME 1

BLUE BOMBERS (0-0) at ROUGHRIDERS (0-1)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. (CT) Saturday, Mosaic Stadium, Regina.
Streaks: Winnipeg: season debut; Saskatchewan: 1L.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 1.
Road/Home: The Bombers were a league-best 7-2 on the road last season; the Riders were 3-6 at home last year.
Recent history: The Bombers swept last year’s two-game season series, winning 28-25 on Labour Day in Regina and 17-10 a week later in Winnipeg. The two clubs played to a 25-25 tie in the preseason.


3 STORYLINES

REST VS. RUST

Same old, same old whenever a team steps into a game coming off the bye week. It’s an especially intriguing sidebar to monitor when that bye comes in Week 1 of the CFL season, as it has for the Bombers. By kickoff Saturday night, six teams will have already played two games before the Bombers make their 2017 debut.

The Bombers are bringing a relatively healthy lineup to Regina and the extra week has certainly benefitted the likes of Maurice Leggett and Andrew Harris, both of whom were nicked up over the last little while.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Bombers having more time to scout and prepare for the Riders, but this is a small league with so many familiar faces that copy and steal ideas from each other it’s hard to imagine that offering a significant advantage.

“It’s always nice, the more you can prepare for a team to be ready to go when game time comes,” said Nichols this week. “We had a couple of battles with them last year. They know what we’re going to be bringing, we know what they’re going to be bringing. It’s going to be a hard-nosed football game for four quarters and it’s really going to come down to who makes the big plays at the right time and who plays the last four minutes better.

“My approach never changes. I’m always a big-time studier, football junkie. I’ll watch a ton of film and maybe sometimes over-watch or over-think things, but my mindset hasn’t changed because we started with the Week 1 bye. It would have been the same had we played Week 1. I would have watched all the games from last year and all the preseason games. I feel like I’m as prepared as any quarterback in the league because I watch a ton of film.”

HELLO, OLD FRIEND

It’s hard to imagine there isn’t a defensive blitz or coverage package that Roughriders QB Kevin Glenn hasn’t seen in his 17-year CFL career. And in last week’s 17-16 loss to the Montreal Alouettes, he still flashed a skillset that hasn’t changed since 2001: a quick read/quick release approach that makes him difficult to sack and dangerous if he gets into a groove.

Glenn was busy in the Riders’ season-opening loss, completing 31 of 44 passes for 298 yards with one TD and one interception. He threw for over 275 yards five times in nine starts last year in Montreal before being demoted and then traded to Winnipeg. Two of those efforts – 332 yards in a season-opening win and 283 yards in a loss in late August – came against the Bombers.

“He has been around a long time so he’s seen it all,” said Bombers defensive end Jamaal Westerman. “I mean, he’s seen every blitz you can throw at him, every coverage, every adjustment you could make. It’s really about trying to be active on the D-line and try to get your hands up because he’s a guy who can get the ball out of hands extremely quick and he knows the best thing is for the ball to be in his playmakers’ hands. So, get your hands up and try and bat a ball and just continue to play and continue to rush because he knows where he wants to go with the ball.

“Any time a DB maybe jumps a route and he has to hold it for another second, as a defensive line we want to be on him, sack him, hit him and force him into a bad decision, which is tough with him because he’s seen it all.”

Matt Nichols (15), Kevin Glenn (5) and Dom Davis (6) in Calgary in 2016.

EMBRACE THE MOMENT

Making the trip west to Regina is always a tough assignment for the Bombers, and especially so with the game coming on Canada Day and in the debut of new Mosaic Stadium. But there’s pressure on the Riders, too, after last week’s loss and last year’s 5-13 campaign.

The key for the Bombers, then, is to keep an even keel, but also embracing the emotion and the moment.

“I really believe from the players’ perspective that when the ball is snapped, they don’t even hear the crowd because they’re so focused on what they’re doing,” said head coach Mike O’Shea.

“I think it would be great to always have games on Canada Day. It’s important and the CFL is so woven in the Canadian culture and fabric. I think it’s excellent. But it really is another game for these guys and until we finish the game there’s no celebrating Canada Day.”

QB COMPARISON

Matt Nichols, the Bombers’ Most Outstanding Player last season, will make the 33rd regular season start of his career on Saturday. He is 17-15 overall and 12-8 as the Bombers starter, including 10-3 last year. He completed 69.5 per cent of his passes for 3,666 yards with 18 touchdowns last year – both career highs – against nine interceptions and posted a QB rating of 97.1. He is 4-1 lifetime against the Riders.

Here’s how Nichols’ first 20 games as a Bomber starter compares to others who reached that mark:

Riders QB Kevin Glenn is no stranger to Bomber fans, having been a fixture in blue and gold during two stints in Winnipeg. He is 94-97-1 all-time as a starter, with a 10-8 mark against Winnipeg.

3 BOMBERS TO WATCH

#4 Roc Carmichael, DB: He caught everyone’s eye from the very first moment he stepped on the field during mini camp. He’s an older CFL rookie at 28, but has 19 NFL games under his belt with Philadelphia and Houston and showed superb cover skills playing both halfback and linebacker in camp. He’ll start in the spot usually held by Bruce Johnson (injured).

#5 L’Damian Washington, SB: Bomber fans should know his backstory by now (if not, check it out here) and it’s part of what makes him such an intriguing new player. He’s quick, has flashed solid hands, but also has to know that the team is very high on T.J. Thorpe, who is recovering from injury. Translation: this is a produce now business and this is Washington’s opportunity.

#10 Sam Hurl, LB: The veteran Canadian will get a ton of snaps at middle linebacker for the Bombers, allowing them to use impressive newcomer Cory Johnson in their defensive line rotation.

Roc Carmichael (4)

X FACTOR

#54 Tristan Okpalaugo, DE

The Bombers won a free agent bidding war to land the former Toronto Argonaut over the winter, and in the process look to have instantly upgraded their pass rush. Okpalaugo had 22 sacks in 36 games for the Argos in 2014-15 and was the East Division’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2014. If he can still get after it, the defence will have the other bookend they’ve been seeking opposite Jamaal Westerman.

NOTABLE

The Bombers unveiled their first 46-man roster on Friday, although which two players are on the reserve list won’t become official until closer to game time. The team also moved defensive back Brian Walker, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and receiver Addison Richards to the one-game injured list, while defensive back Bruce Johnson and linebacker Shayne Gauthier have been placed on the six-game injured list.

JUICY MATCHUP

Bombers defensive tackles Cory Johnson, Drake Nevis, Jake Thomas and Faith Ekakitie vs. the interior of the Riders defensive line, including former Bomber Brendon LaBatte at left guard, centre Dan Clark and right guard Peter Dyakowski.

Winnipeg’s defensive line makeover includes Okpalaugo, mentioned above, but also the new crew – aside from Thomas – in the middle. The Bombers want to be stouter against the run and bring more heat from the middle of the line this season and this crew has a ton of tools in their toolbox.

FYI

  • The Bombers are 4-5-1 in their last 10 season openers and 2-1 under head coach Mike O’Shea.
  • In two games against his old club last season, former Rider Weston Dressler pulled in 14 passes for 212 yards.
  • In the two games against the Riders last season, the Bombers didn’t commit a single turnover and forced seven of their own – two fumbles, two interceptions and three turnovers on downs.
  • Bombers kicker Justin Medlock connected on 8 of 11 field goal attempts in the two games against the Riders a year ago, hitting seven of eight in a Labour Day Classic win – including the winner with no time remaining – and going one for three in the Banjo Bowl.