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August 23, 2017

Game Preview | WPG at MTL

Montreal Alouettes linebacker Dominique Tovell (49) and defensive back Dondre Wright (25) can't stop Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) as he runs for a first down in the dying seconds of the second half of CFL football action in Winnipeg on Thursday, July 27, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan

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MONTREAL – A show of hands, please, from all those out there in the Canadian Football League neighbourhood who still have some doubts about these Winnipeg Blue Bombers…

Ok, so… we see a few arms raised out there, no doubt from those who are holding on to the theory that until this bunch knocks off the Calgary Stampeders, they can’t be considered among the elite.

Fair comment. But there’s also this: Over the last 21 games, the Bombers have cranked out a 16-5 record – three of those losses to Calgary – that is second only to those same Stamps over that stretch.

Calgary: 18-2-1
Winnipeg: 16-5
Edmonton: 15-6
B.C.: 13-8
Montreal: 8-13
Ottawa: 7-13-1
Saskatchewan: 7-14
Toronto: 5-16
Hamilton: 4-17

Granted, in the big picture those numbers mean diddly unless there is a payoff at the end of November. But in the small picture, they represent something specific for the Bombers: Growth.

“Confidence is a huge thing in this business,” began Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols, while meeting with reporters at the team’s hotel Wednesday afternoon. “When you take the field and you feel like you’re going to win the game, that’s a good feeling, obviously. I’ve been on teams in the past where you go in hoping you’re going to win or hoping someone is going to make the play.

“Everyone goes in expecting to make that play to help this team win. That’s a big thing to have that mindset. We were close towards the end of 2015. We got some other pieces in place and last year we just got over the hump… we had played in a lot of close games and failed to seal them, but this team has learned how to win.”

No doubt adding Andrew Harris and Justin Medlock in free agency in 2016 helped augment the roster. And the decision to promote Nichols to QB1 was, in hindsight now, monumental.

But it’s deeper than all that, too. A team doesn’t crank out a 16-5 record just because the roster becomes more talented. It goes on a run like that because of the daily work put in, of suffering through the anguish of tough losses like last year’s West Semi-final and the euphoria of the rally against the Montreal Alouettes a few weeks ago.

Now maybe that sounds cornball or hokey, but it’s an idea the Bombers hold close. To paraphrase the Steve Miller Band, sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven.

“It starts with a belief and a trust, and then that develops into expectations to the point that no matter what happened the week before, you’re always working to exceed those expectations and keep getting better and better,” explained Andrew Harris.

“Once that belief and trust is in place, then there’s no finger pointing or blame when things don’t go well or an individual might let someone down. That’s ultimately what builds a great team. It’s getting to that point to where you are always positive and exceeding expectations every week.”

And those expectations mean there is less of the doubt that used to hover over this organization week after week after week through a stretch from 2011-15.

“Exactly,” Harris added. “There’s no doubt we’re going to get past whatever we’re going through now. There’s no doubt now that we’re going to overcome adversity. There’s no doubt that when we’re down and out, we can climb back and get it done. There’s also no doubt that the sky’s the limit right now because we’re constantly getting better.

“You look at the B.C. game and some of the games we were in earlier in the year. It comes down to a lot of the veterans in this team who have seen more things and been in more situations. It’s the mix of rookies we have, too. I mean, I’ve been on teams where the rookies had this sense of entitlement and were really complacent and lazy. Our guys really want to work and get up to speed with what we’re doing. There’s no cliques on this team, everyone hangs out and has fun together.

“We still have a long ways to go and that’s important to understand because in this league you don’t want to peak too soon. We’re going in the right direction.”


GAME 9 | BLUE BOMBERS (6-2) vs ALOUETTES (3-5)

Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. (CT) Thursday, Percival Molson Stadium, Montreal
Radio: CJOB: TV: TSN, RDS, ESPN 3
Streaks: Winnipeg: 4W; Montreal: 1L.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 1 point.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 3-1 away from home this year, a year after posting the best road record in the CFL at 7-2. The Alouettes are 3-1 at home this year.
Recent history: The Bombers knocked off the Alouettes 41-40 in Winnipeg back on July 27th, completing one of the greatest comebacks in franchise history by rallying for two TDs in the final minute.

Winnipeg and Montreal split their season series last year, with both clubs winning on the road. The Als spoiled the Bombers ’16 home opener with a 22-14 win at Investors Group Field on June 24th, but Winnipeg answered in Montreal with a 32-18 victory on August 26th.

3 STORYLINES

SOME LOVE FOR MATTY ICE

It’s taken awhile, but more and more eyes across the CFL are getting opened in appreciation of the work being done by Matt Nichols. It’s not just a coincidence that since he took over as starter, the club is 16-5. His numbers over that span are proof: he’s completed 69.8 per cent of his passes for 6,080 yards with 32 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.

And so it came up upon arrival here Wednesday, when Herb Zurkowsky of The Montreal Gazette said to Nichols ‘I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but you have a pretty good win-loss for a guy Edmonton basically discarded. Is that what continues to motivate you?’

“I’m a guy that’s always had a chip on my shoulder and that will never go away, no matter how much people tell me I’m bad or how much people tell me I’m good,” Nichols said. “It’s tunnel vision. It’s working hard each week for my teammates and making sure I work hard for them.

“It comes from where I was brought up – small town, hard-working people and I kind of took on that mentality. You get overlooked in high school, overlooked coming out of college… it’s just something where you always feel like you’re not always trying to prove people wrong, but prove to yourself that you can do it.”

“Everyone goes through stuff and everyone has reasons for why they play.”

And if it’s true that a team takes on the identity of its head coach and its starting quarterback, then these Bombers are the spitting image of Nichols and Mike O’Shea.

“We don’t really worry about how much respect he gets anywhere else – he’s got the respect of the entire room to a man, the coaching staff, the whole organization” said O’Shea of Nichols. “To wonder why would just be a waste of my time and everyone else’s, too. He’s meant a lot to the club, obviously. We’ve gone on quite a tear with him in there. He’s a fiery leader, he’s ultra-competitive, he’s smart, he’s a pro… those are all good things. All of that rolled into one makes him a leader people will follow.”

IN PURSUIT OF 1K-1K

The CFL has been abuzz about Bombers running back Andrew Harris since the first kickoff on opening night, and with good reason. His receiving totals have been gaudy, to the point that he is threatening the club record for catches by a tailback – 71, set by Robert Mimbs in 1991 – but also the league record of 102, set by Saskatchewan’s Craig Ellis in 1985.

But in posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing games for the first time as a Bomber and third time in his career, Harris has cranked up another attack on the CFL record book – he’s on a pace to become the first player ever to finish with 1,000 yards receiving and rushing.

“That’s a big accomplishment, for sure,” said Harris earlier this week. “I said it’s a goal of mine, but the No. 1 goal is to get to the Grey Cup and if that’s going to help my team get to the playoffs and play for a Grey Cup, then so be it.”

Harris is currently on pace to rush for 1,114 yards and finish with 1,033 yards receiving. The only player who has come close to threatening those marks was Robert Drummond, who rushed for 1,134 yards and had 840 receiving yards for the 1997 Toronto Argonauts.

Harris would need to average 50.5 yards rushing and 54.1 yards receiving in the final 10 games to reach that 1K-1K mark.

REMEMBER THE RALLY… AND DON’T FORGET THE FIRST 58 MINUTES, EITHER

The Bombers have rolled into Montreal on a four-game win streak, the first of which came with the miraculous comeback against the Als in Winnipeg at the end of July which saw the club score two TDs in the final minute in a 41-40 victory.

That rally helped, to some extent, gloss over a horrendous defensive effort in which the Als rolled for 495 yards net offence, including a whopping 183 along the ground.

And that fact hasn’t been lost on the Bombers all week.

“As a group, when we put the film on and watch it, people understand the mistakes that were made,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “And they learn from them, correct them and go on the field the next time and do their best not to duplicate it.

“As I’ve said, it’s just easier to digest when a set of mistakes didn’t cost us a win. And it almost did. These guys understand that.”

QB COMPARISON

  • Matt Nichols is now 24-17 in his CFL career as a starter – and 16-5 in his last 21 with the Bombers – after last week’s win over Edmonton. He has thrown for 2,414 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions this year and has QUAR rating of 88.1 – second best in the CFL to Edmonton’s Mike Reilly (95.5)
  • Montreal’s Darian Durant is 3-5 this season and 61-59 in his career as a starter – including 11-6 vs. the Bombers – with Saskatchewan and now the Als. He has thrown for 2,070 yards with 10 TDs against eight interceptions this year, but struggled in last Saturday’s loss to Toronto, completing 14 of 27 for just 93 yards with one interception.

 

3 BOMBERS TO WATCH

#21 Brandon Alexander, CB: He returns to the lineup after missing three games due to injury and will replace Roc Carmichael – who will be the extra defensive back – at cornerback. Alexander has already proven to be versatile enough to play defensive back and linebacker, when Moe Leggett was down, and brings an energy to the defence and special teams the coaching staff has been raving about since training camp.

“It always starts with his work ethic,” said O’Shea, “as has been noted several times from mini-camp right on through. The guy steps up and wants to work every single play…. He’s not going to give an inch.”

#54 Tristan Okpalaugo, DE: The Bombers signed him in the offseason to be a difference maker opposite Jamaal Westerman and he was showing flashes of that early in the year before an injury sidelined him for the past six weeks. Of course, the work of Jackson Jeffcoat helped offset the sting of his absence and now it will be intriguing to see how the coaching staff works the D-line rotation.

#23 T.J. Heath: He’s still tied for the CFL interception lead with four, but hasn’t stolen one since the third game of the season. Heath was hard on himself for dropping a couple of opportunities in last week’s win over Edmonton, but his hands are too good for the drought to extend much longer.

X FACTOR

#3 Kevin Fogg, DB: Looks to make his first start of the season and could get a healthy dose of Nik Lewis, who is nine catches shy of tying Geroy Simon as the CFL’s all-time receptions leader at 1,029.

NOTABLE

The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster Wednesday and there were a couple of changes, with DE Tristan Okpalaugo and CB Brandon Alexander added in place of DB Abu Conteh and DB Brian Walker. Walker was moved to the one-game injured list, joining LB Ian Wild (extended on six-game list) and SB Weston Dressler.

O’Shea played coy when asked if safety Taylor Loffler, who missed practice all week, would start against the Als. If he can’t go, Derek Jones could get the call.

JUICY MATCHUP

The Bombers defensive front seven vs. Montreal’s O-line and running back Brandon Rutley.

The Als romped and stomped all over the Bombers run defence in the game in Winnipeg at the end of July, cranking out 183 yards along the ground – including 90 on the last drive when the home side desperately needed the ball back. The Als managed just 41 yards rushing and 138 net yards offensively in last week’s blowout loss to Toronto.

FYI


  • Montreal’s Nik Lewis, who is 10 catches shy of becoming the CFL’s all-time reception leader, has caught passes from 21 different quarterbacks in his career. Henry Burris leads that list at 508. Interestingly, on that list are three one-time Bombers – Kevin Glenn, Khari Jones and Danny McManus. Glenn and Lewis were teammates in both Calgary and Montreal; Jones and McManus hooked up with Lewis as teammates with the Stamps at the end of their careers.
  • Over the last four games, Matt Nichols has a QUAR rating of 94.4, tops among CFL quarterbacks during that span. He is on pace for a club record of 5,431 passing yards and could be the first Bomber QB since Glenn in 2007 (5,114) to eclipse the 5,000-yard passing mark.
  • The Bombers have scored 33 points or more in each of their last six games – the longest streak by the club since the final six games of the 1981 season.
  • Justin Medlock’s 28 field goals through the first eight games has him on a pace for 63. That would break his own CFL record of 60, set last year.