Andrew Harris (33) during the game against the Edmonton Eskimos at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
It was, admittedly, a hanging curveball right over the heart of the plate. And Andrew Harris dug in, swung from his heels and absolutely, positively crushed the pitch into the stratosphere.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers had just completed their final walk-through practice in advance of Thursday’s West Division showdown with the unbeaten Edmonton Eskimos and Harris – the workhorse running back – was answering all the questions fired at him by a small gathering of reporters.
“How beneficial is it to have a healthy lineup?”
“Do you put any extra emphasis on this game, given it is against an unbeaten division rival?”
“Last week you rushed for 100 yards for the first time this season… does that matter to you?”
“What will it take to get those yards against Edmonton?”
“How does Edmonton not having Almondo Sewell change things for you?”
“Two scrappy teams with a lot of similarities… are you expecting a dogfight?”
And so it went over the course of a five-minute session in which Harris respectfully answered every question on a variety of possible angles. That’s when yours truly stepped to the mound and lobbed a meaty pitch lathered in barbecue sauce right into Harris’ wheelhouse…
“Do you think beating an unbeaten team would silence critics or convince the doubters out there about you guys?”
And Harris, looking straight into the bluebombers.com camera, grinned and replied: “We don’t care about the critics. It’s all about us. Honestly. We win, we’re going to be the same way. We lose, we’re going to come back and battle again.
“We really don’t care what people are saying about us. It’s about the locker room, the day-in and day-out and what we go through, how we battle and how we execute… it’s on us in the film room afterward.
“It’s going to be a battle. And we don’t really care what people are saying about us.”
Just for the record, here’s what some people are saying about the Bombers: good, not great team… four of their five wins have come against the East Division… defence isn’t championship calibre… rely too much on Justin Medlock’s left foot… etc, etc. etc.
So while Harris & Co. might not give a rat’s patootie about what the critics and doubters might be offering up, bubbling under the surface all this week has been a desire to be the club that hands the Eskimos their first ‘L.’
That’s a desire not fuelled solely by just the motivation to knock off an unbeaten squad, but to remain in the fight in the uber-competitive West Division, to win in front of the home crowd, and to extend a three-game win streak into four.
And if a little more legitimacy from outsiders might come with a win, so be it.
“This is a big game, but we’re not going to make a big deal about their record,” said guard Travis Bond. “We know they’re a good team but we’ll come in and put our best foot forward. We expect to win the game.
“But we always come in with a mindset, whether it’s here or on the road, that we’re trying to beat you up and then try to make it easier on us at the end. We’ve had some close games this year. This game… we want to show people that Winnipeg is for real, we can play ball and beat anybody on our schedule.
“We can’t help who we’ve played so far on our schedule. We want to beat everybody, no matter who it is.”
The Bombers are in a stretch where four of their next six and seven of their final 11 games will be played against West Division rivals. It’s worth noting that in their 15-5 run since late last July – not coincidentally when Matt Nichols, Bond and safety Taylor Loffler were inserted into the starting lineup – those five losses have been at the hands of Calgary (twice), Edmonton, Ottawa and B.C.
Regardless of what might be the party line, then, if the Bombers want to get a spot in the CFL’s high-rent district they’ll have to begin beating some of the loop’s heavyweights.
“I get that, but we’re still approaching it like a regular game and not making it more than what it is,” said receiver Darvin Adams. “We respect those guys. They’ve got a good record. But I feel like we’re a good team, too.”
GAME 8 | BLUE BOMBERS (5-2) vs ESKIMOS (7-0)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Investors Group Field
Streaks: Winnipeg: 3W; Edmonton: 7W.
Vegas line: The Eskimos are favoured by 1 point.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 2-1 at home this year; Edmonton is 3-0 away from Commonwealth Stadium.
Recent history: The Bombers and Esks split their two meetings a year ago, both teams winning on the road. Winnipeg won 30-23 on July 28th to begin a seven-game win streak; the Esks knocked off the Bombers at IGF 40-16 on September 30th.
MIKE AND MATT: COMPARE AND CONTRAST
The Bombers have been quick to praise the work of Edmonton QB Mike Reilly this week and with good reason: the man is the early front-runner for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award and has pushed, pulled and dragged the Esks to their 7-0 record. A solid narrative re-emerged on Wednesday: there’s a lot of similarities between Reilly and the Bombers’ Matt Nichols, both of whom were teammates back in Edmonton.
Asked what traits he and Reilly have in common, Nichols offered up a few stories that both highlighted their similarities and the respect he has for his old compadre.
“We both have daughters… both Washington guys… both like playing video games and watching movies. We both had the same college coach (Beau Baldwin) and so we think about the game very similarly. We’re both extreme competitors and want to be the best at anything we do. Hate losing.
“We were together for a while and I think both of our personalities rubbed off on each other a little bit. He’s a guy I gave a ton of respect for and still keep in contact with consistently.”
Nichols said he and Reilly were both ‘great teammates’ as they fought for the starting QB job in Edmonton. He told the story of how he spent most of the 2014 season after his wife and daughter went home during the year.
“Basically, every day after practice I ended up over at his place and we played an entire 82-game NHL season, with the playoffs, and we went to a seven-game series in the playoffs. It took a while. We’d break that up talking football.”
Nichols said he and Reilly played together as a team in their video game version of the NHL season.
“We won the Stanley Cup,” said Nichols.
With a drafted team or a certain team?
“Now we would be the Jets,” said Nichols with a grin. “But we were the Oilers then.”
PROTECT THY HOUSE
The overall number is still grotesque – the Bombers are just 13-26 at Investors Group Field since it opened in 2013 – but the club is 6-3 in its last nine at home dating back to last July. That doesn’t scream out dominance, but the home results are at least trending upwards.
“It’s simple: establishing this as a tough place to play has to start with us consistently winning at home,” said linebacker Maurice Leggett. “Even when we weren’t doing so well, this was still a tough place to play.
We’ve had some thriller games lately. I love the atmosphere here. These are the loudest fans in the CFL and we’re starting to give them a reason to cheer. They’re believing and that’s a good thing.”
“Even when you come to the stadium you see all those signs about being the ‘Loudest fans in the CFL,’” said Darvin Adams. “All we need to do is keep winning and that will happen. We need to do our part for these fans.”
TRADING SOME 3s FOR 7s
A few numbers to munch on while Bomber fans debate whether Justin Medlock has kicked too many field goals of late (12 in the last two games):
- The Bombers are averaging 34.4 points per game overall, second in the CFL to Calgary (36.3), but have averaged 31.6 offensive points – best in the league.
- Winnipeg has 24 touchdowns (including two defensive scores and a kick-return TD)
- The Bombers are on a pace that would see them score 62 TDs in 2017 – the club record is 72, set in 1994.
Harris said it will be crucial for the Bombers to grind out some long drives against the Esks to keep Reilly and his bunch on the sidelines as long as possible.
“That’s crucial,” he said. “I’ve been preaching this all season, but time of possession is crucial in this league and then getting touchdowns instead of three points is also crucial. (Edmonton) is a team that can score points and they’ve got an explosive offence and a great quarterback, so for us, we’ve got to stay on the field and control the line of scrimmage and control the ball.”
As Mike O’Shea pointed out Wednesday, the Bombers got points on eight of their 13 possessions last week and punted only twice.
Worth noting: Medlock connected for six field goals in the win over Hamilton, with four of the six coming after the Bombers scrimmaged inside the Ticats 30-yard line – from 34, 31, 30 and 34. But on those four shorter makes, the Bombers also put together drives of nine plays (45 yards), 11 plays (59 yards), three plays (four yards) and seven plays (43 yards) to get into range.
- Matt Nichols is now 23-17 in his CFL career as a starter – and 15-5 in his last 20 with the Bombers – after last week’s win in Hamilton. He has thrown for 2,024 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions this year and has QUAR rating of 83.4.
- Mike Reilly is 40-27 in his career, including 2-1 vs. the Bombers and is third in the CFL in passing yardage this season at 2,329. His QUAR rating is the CFL’s best, at 96.3.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#1 Darvin Adams, WR: He pulled in another spectacular TD in last week’s win over Hamilton and finished the night with six catches for 83 yards. He is 10th in the CFL in receiving yardage, with 469 on 36 receptions.
#8 Chris Randle, CB: Quietly putting up an all-star type season as one of the league’s best shut-down cover men.
#4 Roc Carmichael, CB: Appears to be much more comfortable now that he has moved to corner, opposite Randle. Should still expect the Eskimos to come after him.
#60 Travis Bond, G: It was just over a year ago when Travis Bond made his first start for the Bombers in a win in Edmonton. He’s a mammoth human being and a tone-setter in the trenches. With the Eskimos hurting along the D-line, the Bombers might be tempted to work behind #60 even more than usual when pounding the ball along the ground.
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster Wednesday and for the first time this season, there were no changes to the lineup. The injured list features CB/LB Brandon Alexander on the one-game and SB Weston Dressler, LB Ian Wild and DE Tristan Okpalaugo on the six-game.
The Eskimos, meanwhile, are a collection of walking wounded to the point that their team picture resembles an X-ray. They have 18 players who have started games currently on the mend.
“It certainly helps,” said Mike O’Shea of his relatively healthy charges. “We’ve talked about continuity for a number of years now and we’re fortunate enough to have that go through this week.
“Any time you can play beside the same guy for an extended period of time you’re going to get to know each other.”
The Bombers defensive front vs. Eskimos QB Mike Reilly
He’s dangerous in the pocket, runs like a fullback outside of it, is a nightmare to bring down and rarely makes mistakes. So just how do you defend a guy like Mr. Reilly?
“No matter who you are or where you’re blitzing or rushing from, you have to stay in your lanes,” said Bombers defensive end Jamaal Westerman. “And then when you get to him, you have to keep coming in waves and swarming to the ball. I’ve seen him pull himself out of a sack… I’ve seen him get another hand on the ball to throw it away rather than take a sack. I’ve also seen him pull out of a sack or duck under it and then run for a first down.
“When guys hit him, we’ve got to get him to the ground.”
#33 IS GOOD: THE SEQUEL
More Andrew Harris related numbers courtesy CFL status guru Steve Daniel:
- Harris rushed for 107 yards in last week’s win over Hamilton, his third 100-yard effort as a Bomber and 15th overall. In his career, Harris’ teams are 13-2 when he eclipses the 100-yard mark.
- Harris is chasing a mark never reached before in CFL history, with an outside shot at 1,000 yards receiving and rushing in the same season. He is on pace for 1,003 rushing yards and 872 receiving yards – a mark met only once in CFL history by Toronto’s Robert Drummond in 1997 (1,134 rushing, 840 receiving).
- Since 2015, only two CFL quarterbacks have recorded 10 or more game-winning drives while trailing or tied in the fourth quarter: Edmonton’s Mike Reilly has 12, Matt Nichols has 10.
- West Division teams have now won 10 straight, and 16 of the last 17, vs. the East.
- The Bombers-Eskimos combined record of 12-2 ranks among the best the two franchises have had before facing each other. On Sept. 26, 1990, the 10-0 Bombers fell to the 7-2 Esks 15-2; on Sept. 30, 1957 the 6-2 Bombers knocked off the 8-1 Eskimos 28-27 and on Sept. 23, 1961 the 6-2 Bombers crushed the 7-1-1 Eskimos 33-10.
- Edmonton’s Mike Reilly has thrown for over 300 yards in four straight games and has tossed a TD pass in 17 straight – breaking Warren Moon’s old record of 16, set in 1981-82.
Matt Nichols on whether he hears any trash talking from old teammate Odell Willis:
“He lets me know when he’s close to me, even after we complete a ball downfield. He’ll probably touch me on the shoulder pads to let me know he was close. A lot of it is Odell cracking jokes and laughing. I feel like I completely block that stuff out. Usually during the game I don’t even notice it and then later in the evening, I’ll be sitting at home and it’ll be like, ‘Did Odell really say that to me?’ He’s one of my favourite teammates I’ve ever had. He was a guy that before he got to Edmonton, he was a disruption in the locker room or a problem guy. What I had with him is the exact opposite. He was a team leader, a guy that brought passion every single day. That’s a guy you can get behind. I have a ton of respect for him and what he’s been able to do in his career.”