Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) looks for his receivers during the first half of CFL action against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Winnipeg Friday, October 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
It sure as heck hurt physically and it most certainly stung mentally. And the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are none too happy about what happened last week after being punched straight in the kisser by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Now the question is: what are they going to do about it?
“This is a great chance for us to punch back,” began right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick after the Bombers completed final preparations for Saturday’s home date against the B.C. Lions. “This is a great chance for us to respond, a great chance to show the kind of character we have in our room.
“I think we learned from it and I’m glad it happened now instead of later. They say you learn more from losses than from wins and I think that’s the case with us. I don’t think we took (Hamilton) lightly, but it’s just a reminder that you have to come to work every week, every game. You’ve got to be ready to play your game.”
“I know we’re excited to punch back.”
“The way we saw it, Hamilton just played a little harder than us last week,” added right guard Travis Bond. “We wouldn’t call this a ‘Redemption Week’, we’re just trying to get back to where we were. We’re not worried about what people are saying about last week because that’s in the past.”
The Bombers, now 10-4 and 8-2 in their last 10, were flatter than a run-over hat in last week’s loss to the Ticats. The defeat didn’t sit well with the entire group, but particularly with the leadership group who referred to the effort in the post-game and the days since as being ‘punched in the mouth.’
This week’s practices have been up-tempo, but it’s what the Bombers bring Saturday afternoon that will be telling. Yes, if a Ticats squad that entered last week’s game at 3-10 played desperate football, then this talented Lions crew – now 6-8 after losing six of their last seven – will be bringing a similar sense of urgency to Investors Group Field.
“Last week just wasn’t good enough,” said defensive back T.J. Heath. “We’ve played way better ball than that and we know we can play way better ball than that. It just wasn’t good enough, man. At the end of it all it was like they wanted it more than we did. It was a reality check for us.
“We had two days off (after Hamilton) and we were all still together and everybody was saying, ‘I can’t wait to get back to practice.’ That was nasty. That was a nasty loss that left a bad taste in our mouths. Now we have the opportunity to come back and hit somebody else in the mouth and the guys are ready for it.”
The Bombers haven’t dropped two straight games dating back to consecutive losses late last September to Calgary and Edmonton. So there’s that storyline serving as a backdrop, but an even bigger one with playoff implications – a Bombers win or tie clinches a playoff berth and inches them closer to hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2011.
There’s also this: the Lions have won two straight against the Bombers, rallying to win 32-31 in last November’s West Semifinal and rallying again to win 45-42 in Vancouver in July.
“But we want to bounce back from last week moreso for our sake,” said cornerback Chris Randle. “I don’t think we need to change what we do. But to add that element, that understanding and urgency that we’re playing a desperate team, isn’t a bad thing. We’re not in our locker room saying, ‘Oh we lost last week because of this.’ But we understand this is what it’s going to be like. So, strap up and come ready.”
“We know they’re going to be fighting with everything they’ve got,” said Hardrick. “We learned last week a team that is fighting for everything will bring everything. That was a valuable lesson: going against a team that sees it as a playoff game, I got that from the headlines, but I didn’t feel the fire. Now we know.”
GAME 15 | LIONS (6-8) at BLUE BOMBERS (10-4)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. Investors Group Field
TV: TSN, RDS-2, ESPN 3
Streaks: B.C.: 3L; Winnipeg: 1L
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 7 points.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 5-2 at home this year, marking the first time since Investors Group Field opened in 2013 that the club will have a winning record in their own building. B.C. is 3-4 on the road, but after a 3-0 start away from home, are now riding a four-game road losing streak.
Recent history: The Bombers and Lions met in Vancouver back on July 21st, with Winnipeg surrendering a 15-point lead in a 45-42 loss. The Lions have won two straight against the Bombers, dating back to last November’s 32-31 victory in the West Division Semi-Final.
Game day weather forecast: Environment Canada: Cloudy. There is a 60 per cent chance of rain showers or flurries in the morning. Wind from the north at 20 km/h with a high of 7.
“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow? Come on?,” began Andrew Harris with a large grin. “That’s music to my ears. As a running back and a guy that likes to pound the ball and short passes… the O-line loves that stuff. It’s just football weather in the prairies.”
KEEPING AN EYE ON THE HAND
It’s been THE story in Bomberland all week, dating back to last Friday’s loss to Hamilton after Matt Nichols did not play the second half following an injury to his throwing hand. The practice week opened with Nichols wearing a modified glove with his thumb, index and middle fingers exposed and his ring finger and pinky covered, and as the days passed, he seemed more and more comfortable with that set up.
Asked Friday how close he was with his passing compared to before the Hamilton game, Nichols said ’10 out of 10. Exactly the same.’
Nichols did say he would dump the glove on Saturday if rains or the conditions are wet because his grip would be affected. But the bigger issue is simply that he is available to take the first snap from centre, period. Nichols has started 27 straight games, sporting a 20-7 record, and some numbers to hammer home how important he is to this franchise:
- Nichols has more wins (22) and TD passes (54) in 34 starts than the nine other quarterbacks who combined for 70 starts before him during a stretch from 2012-17 (Drew Willy, Buck Pierce, Max Hall, Joey Elliott, Justin Goltz, Alex Brink, Brian Brohm, Robert Marve and Dominique Davis). That bunch combined for 20 wins and 51 TDs.
- Nichols’ pass efficiency rating during his time here is 97.6; the nine others combined for an 82.5.
- Since 2015, the Bombers have a winning percentage of .647 when Nichols starts, a number which trails only Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell (.854) during that time.
The Bombers will be without RB/SB Timothy Flanders (lower body), but it doesn’t appear that the offence will undergo a dramatic transformation in his absence, or in an effort to shore up the protection in front of Nichols to protect his hand… and the rest of his body.
“Every time you step on the field there’s always risks involved,” said Nichols. “I’m never going to go out there and shy away from anything or try and protect it. If something happens, something happens. But I’m going in playing the game the way I always play it.”
WHAT THE…? HOW THE…?
The Lions roll out more weapons than an Expendables movie and yet a preseason darkhorse Grey Cup pick in some circles sits last in the West Division at 6-8 and fighting for their playoff lives after dropping six of their last seven. Many fingers have been pointed at QB Jonathon Jennings – he has thrown nine TDs against 13 interceptions and lost his starting job to veteran Travis Lulay, before Lulay was lost for the year with an injury – but the problems go deeper than just their pivot play.
The Lions are last in QB pressures (71) and second last in sacks (20), are tied for the fewest turnovers forced (20) and have the second-most turnovers (23). In his last three regular season starts against the Bombers, FYI, Jennings has thrown for 372, 422 and 327 yards, but has also been intercepted seven times in 98 pass attempts.
“You see they have a good quarterback, a good running back and good receivers and so you ask yourself why they are struggling,” said Bombers defensive back T.J. Heath. “But they’ve got guys who can play ball. First things first, we’ve got to take care of our responsibilities.”
Critical for the Bombers is to get more push from their defensive front. This number from CFL stats guru Steve Daniel: in their first seven games, Winnipeg racked up 20 sacks and had 44 QB pressures. In their last seven games they have just nine sacks and 36 pressures.
“We’ll try and push the pocket and not give him the opportunity to get out and run,” said Bombers defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo of pressuring Jennings. “He’s a really athletic quarterback. He goes for the deep ball and doesn’t mind holding it and then creating off of the rushes. I can’t wait to play him.
“My job is to get after him and that’s what I plan on doing. I’m going to keep him contained, but I’m going to do my best to try and get him down.”
“One of the things we’ve really focused on this year is not worrying so much about what they do, but fixate on what we do,” added Jake Thomas. “As long as we’re assignment sharp hopefully it will work out. They do have a lot of weapons, but every team in this league has a lot of weapons.
“They’re definitely one of the harder teams to prepare for, especially with a mobile quarterback and they have one of the better running games and passing games in the league.”
THE HARRIS 1K-1K WATCH
We keep writing about this because, frankly, outside of the push for playoff spots this might be the most compelling storyline as the CFL reaches the home stretch.
Andrew Harris has a legit shot at becoming the first player in CFL history to finish a season with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. With four games remaining, Harris has 819 rushing yards and 783 receiving yards, meaning he would need to average 45.35 along the ground and 54.25 through the air to make CFL history.
Robert Drummond of the 1997 Toronto Argonauts was the closest to that goal previously, rushing for 1,134 yards and finishing with 840 through the air.
“I think his teammates are more excited than him for his production,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “What it results in, I don’t know, but on a daily basis, on a game-by-game basis they’re excited whenever Andrew gets the ball, to block for him, to get down the field for him.”
There’s more…. With 88 receptions Harris is also chasing the CFL record for most receptions by a running back – 102, set by Saskatchewan’s Craig Ellis in 1987.
And if he should crack the century mark, he would become just the fifth Bomber player to do so after Eugene Goodlow (100 in 1981), James Murphy (116 in 1986), Gerald Wilcox (111 in 1994) and Milt Stegall (106 in 2002).
- Matt Nichols starts for the Bombers and is now 20-7 since taking the No. 1 QB chores late last July. Nichols is the CFL’s top-rated quarterback and has thrown for 4,002 yards and a league-leading 27 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
- Jonathon Jennings will get the start for the Lions. He is 18-16 in his 34 career starts with the Lions, but is just 3-7 in 10 starts this year. He has thrown for 2,607 yards with nine TDs versus 13 interceptions.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#5 L’Damian Washington, receiver: Washington was one of the feel-good stories of training camp. But after scoring a touchdown in the opener, he dressed for just two more games before losing his job to T. J. Thorpe and spending his days since on the practice roster. He draws back into the lineup with the injury to Timothy Flanders.
#83 Julian Feoli-Gudino, receiver: The Bombers welcome back Feoli-Gudino from injury, but he’s been working primarily at slotback this week instead of wide receiver. Matt Coates is listed at wideout, meaning the Bombers could have a lot of sets where they are starting two Canadians in their receiving corps.
#54 Tristan Okpalaugo, defensive end: Making Jonathon Jennings a little uncomfortable in the pocket will be mammoth for the Bombers Saturday afternoon. Enter Okpalaugo, who lines up opposite Jackson Jeffcoat and will be tasked with morphing into a nightmare for the Lions’ QB.
#92 Drake Nevis, defensive tackle: He was brought aboard in free agency to provide some push from the interior of the defensive line after a solid season last year in Hamilton in which he had five sacks in 14 games. But, like Euclid Cummings before him, Nevis’ production has been limited, with just one sack in 11 games and being a spectator for three other contests. That has some commenting on the Bombers scheme up front, but with Nevis and Cory Johnson working the inside along with Jake Thomas, the team clearly is hoping to limit the Lions’ inside run game and hope for some pressure from their tackles in passing situations.
The Bombers 46-man roster for Saturday’s game features two changes with RB/SB Timothy Flanders moved to the six-game injured list and DB Robert Porter coming off the roster. WR Julian Feoli-Gudino returns to the roster after missing one game with an injury, while WR L’Damian Washington has also been activated from the practice roster.
The field side of the Bombers secondary – cornerback Brandon Alexander and halfback Brian Walker – vs. Lions QB Jonathon Jennings and the receivers that line up opposite.
The Lions have a stacked receiving corps and in their earlier meeting this year, really tried to attack both Walker and Alexander on the field side of the Bombers secondary. Expect more of the same Saturday.
- Saturday marks the annual Purolator Tackle Hunger game. Fans are asked to bring a tin for the bin or provide a cash donation in support of Winnipeg Harvest and drop them off at any of the games (which open at 1:30 p.m.) or at the Tailgate presented by Duraco Windows (opening at 1 p.m.). Fans who help the cause can also take a photo with the Grey Cup, which will be on display in the tailgate area.
Bombers fans donated close to 128,000 pounds of food last year and the club is hoping to exceed that total.
- The three newest members of the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame – Terrence Edwards and builders David Asper and Gene Dunn – were inducted at the Blue Bombers Legacy Gala Dinner on Wednesday Night and will be honoured at halftime on Saturday.
- The Lions and Bombers play each other in Winnipeg twice in the next three weeks. That oddity marks just the second time in Lions history they have returned to the same city over such a short span. The other occurrence came in 1955 when the club visited Calgary on September 19th and October 3rd.
The Bombers, meanwhile, are home to the same team in this short a span for the first time since 1956 when Saskatchewan visited on September 10th and 22nd.
- B.C. blew a 19-point lead in last week’s loss to Ottawa, the fourth-largest blown lead in franchise history. They spit up 21-point advantages in loss to Toronto in 2015, to the Bombers in 2010 and Hamilton in 1973.
- Justin Medlock has connected on just two of his last six field goal attempts but this is worth noting: of his 12 misses this season, eight have been from 45 yards or more. As well, the average length of his attempts has been 37 yards. All other CFL kickers, by comparison, have an average attempt length of 32.6 yards.
- The Bombers have lost just 62 man-games to injury through 2017. Just FYI, the average for the other eight teams is a whopping 193 man-games lost. Edmonton tops that list at 246.