Matt Nichols (15) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the Calgary Stampeders at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Thursday, July 21, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
Year after year, it’s been the same story for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. As regular – and as annoying and painfully predictable – as a trip to the dentist.
Yes, the Bombers and Calgary Stampeders have met 20 times in the last nine seasons, with the guys in blue and gold exiting on 17 of those occasions with their faces numb, their gums hemorrhaging and their mouths stuffed full of gauze.
So as much as they’ll tell you Friday night’s home opener against the Stamps is a new start, new team and blah, blah, blah, the Bombers know full well that any showdown with their West Division rivals is a measuring stick game, even this early in the Canadian Football League season.
And it’s especially so here in Winnipeg, where the Stamps have won eight straight, including all five meetings at Investors Group Field.
“They’ve been the best team in the league since I’ve been in the league and they’re a tough team to beat. And so for us, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” reasoned Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols on Thursday.
“We’re not putting added pressure on this game, it’s not going to make or break our season. But it will go a long way for us and for our confidence to beat this team.
“They’re a team that doesn’t make mistakes. They’re a team that plays the last four or five minutes extremely crisp with no mistakes and so to beat them, that’s something you have to match.”
“They definitely make you earn everything you get and it’s going to be a tough game for us.”
The Bombers, 1-0 after last week’s win in Saskatchewan, are facing a Stampeder squad that is hurting on their defensive front – all-everything defensive lineman Charleston Hughes will miss Friday’s game, while Cordarro Law is also on the hurts list – but has forever been able to plug and play bodies and still win.
They are led by dominant quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a powerhouse running back in Jerome Messam, and a veteran secondary with 251 combined CFL starts (the Bombers, by comparison, have 99; 69 by Chris Randle).
All that said, the Bombers didn’t seem concerned so much at Thursday’s walk-through practice with the names that make up the Stamps’ depth chart, but with fixing some of the mistakes and building on the good stuff from the season-opening win over the Riders.
“Calgary’s a great team and we respect them, but it’s about us,” said Bombers running back Andrew Harris. “We want to go out and compete. A measuring stick… the whole league is competitive right now and ever game is a battle. I wouldn’t say a measuring stick for us. It’s just another week to go out and get better.”
Still, a win over Calgary – so rare for anyone in the CFL, outside of the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the last little while – would do wonders for fueling the growing confidence in the Bombers clubhouse.
And it might convert a few of the Doubting Thomases out there, too.
“We don’t look at that stuff, even though a lot of people bring all those statistics up,” said receiver Darvin Adams. “This is a new year. We’re just trying to be the best team this year.
“Calgary’s a good team, but we’re a good team also. We’ll let the talking happen Friday night.”
“That’s the good thing about this game: last year stays in last year,” added Jamaal Westerman. “This is a new year, this is our second game of the season and the first game we play against Calgary this year. They have new guys, we have new guys. We have new things we’re going to do, they probably have new things they’re going to do, too.
“We respect them as a team and respect what they’ve done last year. But the only thing we focused on were the first two games they’ve played this year to see what they’re going to do.”
GAME 2 | BLUE BOMBERS (1-0) vs STAMPEDERS (1-0-1)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Investors Group Field.
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1W; Calgary: 1W.
Vegas line: The Stampeders are favoured by 3.5.
Home/Road: The Bombers were 4-5 at home last season; Calgary was 6-2-1 on the road last season and had a tie in Ottawa in their season opener.
Recent history: The Stamps swept last year’s season series, winning 36-22 in Alberta on Canada Day, 33-18 in Winnipeg on July 21, and then 36-34 back in Calgary on September 24.
BO KNOWS FOOTBALL
Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell has a swagger to him. He’s confident. He can be cocky. And he’s not afraid to let anyone know how good he is, much the same way a gunslinger sashays through the saloon doors before challenging all comers.
Mitchell won his first-ever start in the CFL at Investors Group Field – throwing for 376 yards and three touchdowns back in 2013 – and has averaged 318.2 yards passing and a 74.8 completion percentage in his starts here, with 11 touchdowns against five interceptions.
“What makes him so successful? It’s his confidence,” said Bombers cornerback Chris Randle. “You can look at him and know he can get what he wants when he wants to do it offensively. He believes in his ability to stretch the field and manage a game and he does a good job of managing both. They follow him, because he’s been a consistent leader and has led them to the promised land.
“Either you love his swagger or you hate it. I acknowledge it. I respect it. You have to have the same mantra yourself and it’s good to go against a guy who carries himself like that.”
Check out this chart, courtesy CFL stats guru Steve Daniel, that highlights how dominant Mitchell has been:
LIMITING THE ‘EXPLOSION’ PLAYS
The Bombers headed into 2017 desperately wanting to cut down on the big plays against their defence, especially after those busts saw them surrender more yards than any other CFL team a year ago. Riders QB Kevin Glenn hit them for three passes of more than 30 yards a week ago while throwing for four touchdowns.
But remember, this was not only the first game of the season for Winnipeg, but the CFL debuts for Roc Carmichael, Brandon Alexander, Cory Johnson, and the first as Bombers for Tristan Okpalaugo and Drake Nevis. That’s five new faces in the defensive dozen.
“The key is talking to each other and making sure that between the plays we’re on the same page,” said Nevis. “It’s good that we have a lot of veterans to lead, people that have been in the system for years, to be able to reach out to the people that haven’t so that we can play fast.
“It’s about executing the call and playing smart. It’s about handling your business and doing what you have to do, knowing that your teammate is going to do the same thing.
“We’ve got a great group of guys here. Hungry, focused, and always ready to get better. There’s a lot of professionals in here, man.”
STOPPING THE 33 TRAIN
Jerome Messam is a very large man. Listed at 6-3, 254 pounds, he’s probably the biggest back the CFL has seen dating back to the days of Mike Sellers of the Bombers. He’s a battering ram at the first point of contact, but also quick enough to run away from defenders in the open field.
And, oh, he’s been particularly nasty against the Bombers. Consider that in his last nine games against Winnipeg, he has rushed for 684 yards on 101 carries – a 6.77-yard average – and two touchdowns.
“He’s a big, powerful back and he keeps his legs moving,” said Jamaal Westerman. “He’s shiftier than people think. You have to gang tackle him. Messam is probably one of the bigger running backs anybody has played. He’s probably 265. He likes to eat a lot. I’m always calling him… ‘You eat today?’ Hopefully he gets to about 270 and slows down a little bit. He’s a big powerful running back, but he’s also shifty and he does have the speed.”
Asked if he might recommend a couple of local restaurants to Messam, all in the effort of getting him a bit heavier and potentially a bit slower, Westerman grinned.
“I’m going to recommend a couple restaurants. Winnipeg is good for him, he could get real heavy. It’s supposed to be warm, too… a lot of butter and stuff, a lot of salt (in his meals). That would be good.”
Friday night will be rookie Cory Johnson’s first game against the Stamps and Messam. Asked what he had seen on film of the big Calgary back, Johnson shrugged his shoulders.
“Just that he’s a big back. He’s pretty good,” said Johnson. “With any team we play, with our D-line we want to shut down the run. They say it’s a passing league and when they come to play us, we’re going to make sure they know that: That it’s a passing league because running is not going to happen. I feel like this is a good team for us to send that wave through the rest of the teams. We’re not going to tolerate the run.”
- Matt Nichols improved to 13-8 as a starter for the Bombers and 18-15 overall with last week’s win in Regina. He completed 23 of 36 passes last week for 331 yards and a career-high four touchdowns against one interception for a QUAR rating of 80.4.
- Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell continues to add to his incredible numbers. He is 44-7-2 as a starter and 8-1 vs. Winnipeg. After two weeks of the CFL season, he has a QUAR of 85.9, second only to Edmonton’s Mike Reilly, who is at 92.9.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#89 Clarence Denmark, SB: A tip of the hat to ol’ reliable, who suits up for his 100th CFL game Friday – all of them in Bomber colours. Denmark had just one catch for 33 yards last week, but was also overthrown by Matt Nichols on another attempt that would have resulted in a touchdown.
#67 Cory Johnson, DT: He had three pressures from his tackle position in his CFL debut last week, and lining up alongside Drake Nevis and Jake Thomas as part of the D-line rotation, was a big presence from the inside.
#84 Ryan Lankford, WR/KR: Lankford was a busy man in the kick-return department a week ago, especially after Kevin Fogg left the game with a lower-body injury. He had three punt returns for 15 yards and six kickoff returns for 176 yards and a juicy 29.3-yard average.
#21 Brandon Alexander, DB
He and Roc Carmichael were tested by Kevin Glenn last week and should expect more from Mitchell on Friday. The Bombers coaching staff have been raving about Alexander’s motor since camp and he’ll be counted on to be big on defence while playing a ton of special teams again.
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster on Thursday and there is just one change from the lineup that took to the field on Canada Day: Fogg is down this week and will be replaced by rookie DB Brian Walker. Fogg joins Addison Richards and Jackson Jeffcoat on the one-game injured list while defensive back Bruce Johnson and linebacker Shayne Gauthier have been placed on the six-game injured list.
The Stamps have been battling injuries early this year and have made seven changes this week. Out of the lineup are DL Charleston Hughes, OL Shane Bergman, DBs Adam Thibault , Marvin Ross and Jarrett Bush, long-snapper Pierre-Luc Caron and receiver Marken Michel. Comng aboard is former Bomber Rory Kohlert, along with DB Osagie Odiase, RB Ante Milanovic-Litre, LB Wynton McManis, WR DaVaris Daniels, DE Aston Whiteside and DL Randy Colling.
RB/KR Roy Finch, meanwhile, will be serving the second of his two-game suspension.
The Bombers receiving corps of Darvin Adams, Weston Dressler, Clarence Denmark, L’Damian Washington and Julian Feoli-Gudino vs. Calgary’s veteran secondary of Joe Burnett, Ciante Evans, Josh Bell, Jamar Wall and Tommie Campbell.
Matt Nichols threw for a career-high four TDs and 331 yards last week as the Bombers’ experienced receiving corps – and CFL rookie Washington – exploited the Riders secondary. The Stamps, even though they surrendered 425 yards through the air last week, offer considerably more resistance.
- The Bombers are 7-4 in their last 11 home openers dating back to 2006, with one of those victories over the Stamps – a 42-30 decision in 2009. The Bombers starting QB that day? Stefan LeFors. Winnipeg is 41-35-1 in 77 home openers since their WIFU debut in 1936.
- The Stamps have won their last eight visits to Winnipeg by an average margin of 10.4 points.
- Justin Medlock is on the longest consecutive field goal stretch in his career, having now hit 23 straight – also a Bomber team record – breaking his own mark set last year between July 16-September 16.
- Bo Levi Mitchell has more TD passes vs. the Bombers (18) than any other club. Matt Nichols, meanwhile, is winless in six starts against the Stamps – twice as a Bomber and four times as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos.