Andrew Harris (33) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and A.C. Leonard (99) of the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the game at New Mosaic Stadium in Regina, SK, Saturday, July 1st, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
REGINA – Matt Nichols first uttered it in the moments immediately after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers overtime victory in Montreal, referring to the annual Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl showdowns with the Saskatchewan Roughriders as ‘fistfights.’
That’s a common narrative floated by players and gobbled up by media and fans alike as the Canadian Football League officially hits the halfway point of the season on Labour Day Weekend.
Now the games really matter. Now the push for the playoffs get interesting. Now the intensity level cranks up a notch or three.
It’s good, after all, to feed the hype machine with these kinds of juicy narratives.
It’s just that Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea wasn’t buying a bit of it Saturday upon arrival in the Sasktatchewan capital.
“Our players have put in a pretty damn good start and have been working pretty hard,” said O’Shea. “If you say it didn’t start until after this, I think they might disagree with you. All the bumps and bruises and all the time and effort they’ve put in, it’s not all for naught.
“I don’t think our guys are saving anything, you know? They’ve laid it all out there every single week through the prep and in the game. I don’t think they’re saving something for Labour Day or after Labour Day or the push or whatever. I don’t know that you can.”
“Every game is filled with emotions and ups and downs. Our players have done a pretty good job so far of dealing with that. So, we’ll just try and stay as consistent as possible with the practice week, the preparation and the message.”
Clearly there’s some merit in living in the moment. And O’Shea’s charges have certainly adopted that mantra.
But there’s also no hiding that Labour Day represents a significant sign post in any CFL season. And for a Bomber team cruising along at 7-2 and in the midst of a five-game win streak, it also presents an opportunity to not only keep this good thing rolling, but chase top spot in the West Division, or at the very least, an opportunity to play host to a playoff game for the first time since 2011.
Now, maybe that’s thinking too far beyond kickoff Sunday, but it’s there for anyone who wants to study the big picture. The Bombers’ second half features six games against West Division opponents – two each against the Riders and Lions along with visits to Edmonton and Calgary.
“For me it’s just stay focused on what our goals for the game are and what our job is, focus on the play in front of you and not make it bigger than it is,” said Matt Nichols. “Obviously, these games are always big because of the rivalry between the cities and the fans and the atmosphere. We understand that, but at the same time if you get caught up in that, if you get caught up in that emotion you’re not going to be able to go out and do your job correctly.
“It’s just blocking all that out and understanding it’s just another football game.”
All of this isn’t to say the Bombers will be emotionless cyborgs running around Mosaic Stadium Sunday afternoon. This is a sport built on a combination of emotion and violence. And if a team isn’t ready mentally and physically to trade punches with an opponent, it can get rolled over in a nanosecond. What O’Shea, Nichols & Co. preach is controlling all that rather than letting it run wild and unchecked.
That might make for boring pre-game copy and sound bites, but who is to argue with 7-2?
GAME 10 – THE LABOUR DAY CLASSIC
BLUE BOMBERS (7-2) vs ROUGHRIDERS (4-4)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. (CT) Sunday, Mosaic Stadium, Regina
Streaks: Winnipeg: 5W; Saskatchewan: 2W.
Vegas line: The Riders are favoured by 3 points.
Home/Road: The Bombers are a league-best 4-1 away from home this year, a year after posting the best road record in the CFL at 7-2. The Riders are 3-1 at home this year, their lone blemish the OT loss to Winnipeg in the christening of new Mosaic Stadium.
Recent history: The Bombers edged the Riders 43-40 in Week 2 (Winnipeg’s first game of the season) and captured both meetings last year with a 28-25 win on Labour Day and a 17-10 victory a week later in the Banjo Bowl.
Dating back to a win in the Banjo Bowl of 2015, Winnipeg is on a four-game win streak vs. the Riders.
Labour Day Classic Numbers: The Bombers and Riders will meet in Regina for the 54th time on Labour Day since 1949 (the 1952 game was played in Winnipeg).
The Riders hold a 34-19 advantage and are 13-4 since 2000.
Winnipeg’s 28-25 win last year snapped an 11-game Labour Day Classic losing streak.
IMMOVABLE OBJECT VERSUS THE UNSTOPPABLE FORCE
The Labour Day Classic almost always delivers its share of storylines and subplots. But factor in the Bombers’ five-game win streak and 7-2 record vs. the surging Riders – winners of two straight after beating up the B.C. Lions and Edmonton Eskimos – and this one is especially compelling.
This isn’t just a showdown of two prairie rivals. It’s a two-week matchup that could set the tone for the second half of the season. A Bomber sweep of the next two weeks, or even a split, would give them the season series against Saskatchewan. And a Rider sweep feeds the thinking Chris Jones & Co. have got their ship pointed in the right direction.
“It always seems like at this time of year, you get to Labour Day and you take a peek at the standings,” said Weston Dressler. “That stuff starts to shake itself out and you understand how important each game is from here on out. That adds to it a little bit.
“There’s still a lot of football to be played. There’s a lot of games left, so any team can get hot or cool off. But, for us, it’s focus on one game at a time and focus on the opponent at hand.”
OF WESTON, FLANDERS & CO.
The Bombers have averaged 33 points or more in seven consecutive games. Unofficially, that’s a new club record. Entering Sunday’s game, Winnipeg features the highest scoring offence (34.2 points per game) and Saskatchewan has the second-fewest points allowed (25.4 points per game).
They make one lineup change this week, adding Dressler and choosing to sit T.J. Thorpe. Putting No. 7 back in the lineup is a no-brainer, but the move also potentially speaks of how the Bombers want to use Timothy Flanders more in their attack.
“I think that’s more the line, the angle: Timothy Flanders is a dynamic football player who can do a lot of different things and certainly helps our offence and our team,” said O’Shea. “He’s good on special teams, too.”
Asked about the decision to sit Thorpe, O’Shea used the opportunity to rave about the man coming into the lineup.
“(Thorpe) has been consistent and has made some good catches and some tough yards after the catch,” said O’Shea. “But… Weston Dressler. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: he’s got to be one of the smartest guys in the league. He’s just good to have on the roster, and besides that, he’s incredibly fast and athletic. He understands the game and makes some big catches and big yards after the catch. He’s a guy you certainly want to keep on the roster.
“It’s not just on the field. He’s just aware of all the situations. He’s just one of those guys that you just love talking to about football, about the game, about how things go, about how things should work.
“Without even asking him I would think he enjoys learning about football on a daily basis…. There’s something about a guy that just gets it. He’s one of those guys.”
HELLO, OLD FRIEND
The Riders made the controversial move to sever ties with Darian Durant in the offseason and brought in Kevin Glenn, the former Rider and former Bomber, to at least tread water with the offence until a long-term replacement at the position could be found.
Funny thing about that: At age 38, the veteran pivot still has the exact same skillset as he did when he broke into the league in 2001. Consider this stat: The Riders are 3-1 at home this year, and in those four games, Glenn hasn’t thrown for less than 320 yards and has 13 touchdowns against four interceptions.
“You see they’re starting to gel,” said Jake Thomas, the Bombers defensive tackle “They’ve got a lot of big-play threats and their running game is starting to come along the last few weeks. Any time you have a dual threat offence it’s always tough.
“For the defensive line is about being assignment sharp, making sure we’re where we’re supposed to be. Knowing (the ball) is going to be out quick is about getting your hands up and hopefully we can get a paw or two on some of his throws.”
- Matt Nichols is now 25-17 in his CFL career as a starter – and 17-5 in his last 22 with the Bombers – after last week’s win in Montreal. He has thrown for 2,641 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions this year and has QUAR rating of 88.9 – best in the CFL.
- Saskatchewan’s Kevin Glenn is making his 200th career start and owns a 98-100-1 record in his career. He has thrown for 2,344 yards this season with 16 TDs against eight interceptions and sports a QUAR rating of 79.4 – fourth best in the CFL behind Nichols (88.9), Edmonton’s Mike Reilly (88.3) and Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell (85.3).
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#8 Chris Randle, CB: Arguably the Bombers’ best defensive player this year, Randle has three interceptions in his last two games – including one in OT last week that sealed the victory over Montreal.
#9 Justin Medlock, kicker: He was clutch in the OT win in Regina to start the Bombers season and also hit the game winner with zeroes on the clock in last year’s Labour Day Classic. ‘Money’ Medlock continues to be clutch.
#16 Taylor Loffler, safety: Loffler has been playing hurt for a good chunk of the season, often missing practices during the week but suiting up on game day. Loffler leads the Bombers with 40 tackles and 47 defensive plays, including two forced fumbles, two knockdowns and one fumble recovery. He’ll be busy against a dynamic Riders offence with a ton of weapons.
#7 Weston Dressler, receiver: The veteran pass catcher returns to the lineup after missing four games with a lower-body injury. He was leading the Bombers in receiving when he was injured – 23 catches for 342 yards and two TDs, both in the win in Regina – and figures to be one of Matt Nichols’ favourite targets again.
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster Saturday and the only change sees Dressler in for Thorpe.
The Bombers offensive line vs. the Riders defensive front.
Chris Jones built a reputation in this league for playing an aggressive defence that constantly disrupted an offence’s gameplan. But that wasn’t always the case upon his arrival in Saskatchewan as the Riders searched for the right pieces to play that kind of scheme. What we’re seeing now from the Riders is much more representative of a Jones’ D.
“They just swarm. They’re aggressive. They’re very physical,” said Andrew Harris. “I feel like he just picks athletes who are big-body types, who are fast and are out there to make plays. For us, we have to hit them in the mouth first and get them off balance. I think we’re going to do that with a number of different things we’ve got in the gameplan and I’m looking forward to it.”
- The Bombers enter the LDC on a winning streak for the second straight year, having won four straight in 2016 and currently on a five-game run. The Bombers haven’t won back-to-back Labour Day games since 2003 and 2004.
- Matt Nichols will be the first Bombers quarterback to make consecutive Labour Day starts since Buck Pierce in 2010 and 2011. And the last time a Winnipeg quarterback won back-to-back Labour Day weekend games? Dieter Brock in 1979 and 1980.
- Among the NFL cuts this week: 2017 Bombers draft pick Geoff Gray (by Green Bay, a possible candidate for their practice roster), former receiver Chris Matthews (Baltimore) and Mekale McKay (Tennessee), the receiver whose rights were acquired from Hamilton last year in the trade that sent Johnny Adams to the Ticats, and defensive end Andy Mulumba (L.A. Rams) the club’s first-round pick in 2013. The club has indicated it will not comment on any of their statuses as they still must clear waivers and after a determination has been made as to whether they be added to practice rosters.
- The Riders had three defensive TDs in last week’s win over Edmonton, a team record. It marked only the 19th time in CFL history that any team had three defensive return TDs in one game.
- Winnipeg’s five-game win streak has occurred just twice since 2011 (including last year’s seven-game unbeaten streak) – both with O’Shea as the head coach and Nichols at the QB.
“There’s a buzz that certainly surrounds the stadium and the community in these situations, these games. You can’t help but notice it. I enjoy that part of it. I enjoy CFL fans and the experience they have on game day. But I do that every week. It’s not just the Labour Day game.” – Mike O’Shea.