Andrew Harris (33) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game at McMahon stadium in Calgary, AB. Friday, July 1, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
There is the recent slide – losing two straight and three of the last four – that not only killed the outside shot at first in the division, but has now put the coveted home playoff game in question, too.
And so, heck yeah, it does seem like the big black clouds which hovered over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 2012-15 have settled in again, ready to unleash a fury that could see all the promise of this season washed away the moment the Grey Cup playoffs start
Funny, then, the mood in the Bombers locker room this week…
There was frustration, to be sure. Maybe even some anger. But the overwhelming vibe was one of resolve – and the club is surely going to need a stiff backbone as it braces to face the powerhouse Calgary Stampeders Friday in the hopes of finding its mojo again before the West Semi-Final.
“We’re determined because we’ve been through so much already,” said veteran receiver Clarence Denmark in a chat with bluebombers.com this week. “We’ve been through so much and came back and proved to everybody in this locker room and everybody outside this locker room that we can win games and be a great football team.
“We’ve got to believe in what we’ve done. We’ve won 11 games. That says a lot about our team and it wasn’t easy getting there. You have to go through some hard things in the journey.”
The unfortunate thing for the Bombers is some of those ‘hard things’ have come in the last month. The latest sees Nichols dressing as the third-string quarterback in Calgary, giving way to Dan LeFevour, who will make his eighth career CFL start and first as a Bomber.
The Bombers aren’t sure what kind of Stampeders squad they’ll face as they’ve got their own issues even in locking down first place, but having lost two straight. The Stamps will give Canadian Andrew Buckley his first start at quarterback – choosing to give Bo Levi Mitchell a breather – and there will be at least two changes to the defence with defensive backs Ciante Evans and Brandon Smith sitting this one out.
Still, this isn’t about who lines up where for the Stampeders. It’s about how a Bombers team that was 10-3 a month ago gets this thing back on the rails.
And if the Bombers could take care of business against Calgary – or get help from the Saskatchewan Roughriders in their game Saturday against the Edmonton Eskimos – then the mood heading into a home playoff date would change dramatically.
“Man, this would be big,” said T.J. Heath. “A lot of people, a lot of fans back home would love to see us home and playing in that stadium for our first playoff game.
“I told the guys yesterday our playoffs really start (Friday). I don’t want to get to the playoffs then start to win games. I want to go into the playoffs with a win. For us it’s critical to get this win and this home playoff game.”
GAME 18 | BLUE BOMBERS (11-6) at STAMPEDERS (13-3-1)
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. CT, McMahon Stadium, Calgary
TV: TSN, ESPN 3
Streaks: Winnipeg: 2L; Calgary: 2L
Vegas line: The Stampeders are favoured by 10 points.
Home/Road: The Stampeders are 7-1 at home this year, their lone loss a 30-7 beatdown by Saskatchewan on Oct. 20th. That defeat ended a 17-game home winning streak for the Stamps, the third-longest in CFL history.
Winnipeg is 5-3 on the road this year, but just 1-9 in its last 10 visits to Calgary. The last Bomber victory at McMahon was a 18-13 decision back on Nov. 1, 2014 when the Stamps had secured first place in the West.
Recent history: The Stampeders won the only meeting between the two clubs earlier this season, knocking off the Bombers 29-10 in Winnipeg’s home opener back on July 7th.
Game day weather forecast in Calgary: Environment Canada: Calling for snow, at times heavy, on Thursday and then periods of snow on Friday with a high of only minus-9.
The weather was an obvious topic upon the Bombers’ arrival in Calgary Thursday afternoon, what with the ground covered with the white stuff and more expected.
“You evaluate grit,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of playing in snow games. “It’s guys being able to do it, be successful in this weather, in tough conditions. They can’t let it be a distraction.”
“It is what it is, right?” said Bombers QB Dan LeFevour. “I mean, we’ve got to play in it just like they do. There’s no running from it. It’s there and it’s real and we’ve got to handle the elements and not make any excuses about it.”
DAN’S THE MAN
Just a couple of weeks ago this game looked like a potential battle for first in the West – had the Bombers not hit their recent slide they would have entered this one 14-3 – featuring a marquee matchup of two of the CFL’s best quarterbacks.
Instead, it pits two teams on two-game losing streaks starting QBs not usually in the spotlight: Dan LeFevour will make his first start for the Bombers and eighth in his CFL career while Andrew Buckley will make his first career start for the Stamps.
LeFevour got the nod over Dom Davis after both players struggled coming out of the bullpen last week following the injury to Matt Nichols, primarily because of his experience. That, and head coach Mike O’Shea still remembers the game last September when LeFevour, then a member of the Toronto Argonauts, threw for four TDs before the Bombers rallied for a late victory.
“It’s hard to get that out of your mind,” admitted O’Shea on Thursday, while meeting with reporters at the team’s hotel in Calgary. “It’s interesting… training camp or a game against an opponent or whatever it is, a lot of players just leave a mark or a thought with you and it’s good or bad. Sometimes you just can’t get that out of your head. He certainly did well against us.”
LeFevour is 2-5 in his seven CFL starts and brings a unique skillset to the offence. He’s a big QB at 6-3, 236, and is most adept moving the pocket and while on the run. He’s operating on a short practice week and has had constant meetings with offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice to fine tune what plays he likes running most out of the playbook.
“The reps were limited this week, but in terms of scope of the whole season, I’ve gotten a lot of work in,” said LeFevour. “I’ve used the whole year as if I was the starter in preparing. But being named the guy this week, yeah, your workload increases a little bit. It’s just going over things two or three more times making sure you’re prepared. It’s staying on top of your film work, staying ahead… all those things.
“Trusting in yourself, trusting in your prep is the biggest thing. And then from there it’s just going out and playing. You can’t control everything, but there are some things you can control, which I feel like I’ve already done this week with my prep and my execution during practice. It’s time to go and do your best.”
A CANUCK GETS HIS SHOT
The big news in Calgary is Dave Dickenson’s decision to start Canadian QB Andrew Buckley to give Bo Levi Mitchell a chance to rest his body heading into the playoffs. Buckley will make his first career start in his hometown and on the same field where he played his college ball at the University of Calgary.
He’ll be the first Canadian to start at QB for the Stamps since Greg Vavra in 1985.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Buckley told stampeders.com. “I’m sure there’ll be a little bit of nerves. But that’s only normal, natural. I’ve spent a long time dreaming of this opportunity. Now it’s finally here.
“It’s a big deal, your first start.”
Buckley has impressed the Stamps since his arrival, and was especially sharp this summer in a 60-1 thrashing of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in which he went 10-fo-10 for 106 yards in relief.
“We’re excited to see him start a game,” said former Bomber QB-turned-Stamps QB coach Ryan Dinwiddie. “We want to see him run a full game plan. It’ll be a good reference point for him and us to see where he’s at, to take that next step to being the player that we expect him to be.”
THE HARRIS MILESTONE WATCH
The attempt by Andrew Harris to become the first player in league history to finish with 1,000 yards receiving and rushing in the same season has taken a hit in recent weeks. But he does have a shot at 1,000-yards rushing – he is at 967 – but is at just 829 receiving.
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.
Harris does have 100 catches – just three shy of setting a new CFL record for receptions by a running back. That mark of 102 was set by Saskatchewan’s Craig Ellis back in 1985.
- Dan LeFevour will start for Winnipeg, his first as a Bomber and eighth in his CFL career (2-5 overall). LeFevour last started a game last fall for the Toronto Argonauts in a loss to Ottawa, but was pulled. The last game he finished was a 46-29 loss to the Bombers in Winnipeg in which he completed 22 of 34 passes for 271 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
- The Stampeders counter with Canadian Andrew Buckley. Giving star Bo Levi Mitchell a chance to rest, although he is listed as the No. 2 pivot. Mitchell is an incredible 56-10-2 in his career and 9-1 in 10 starts versus the Bombers.
The Bombers’ 46-man roster for Friday’s game features three changes. Added to the roster are LB Frank Renaud, DB Kahlen Branning and RB/SB Timothy Flanders. OL Travis Bond and LB Jesse Briggs have been moved to the one-game injured list and coming off is DB Robert Porter.
Calgary has made seven changes, the most notable sees DBs Ciante Evans and Brandon Smith come out of the lineup, with dynamic RB/KR Roy Finch added.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#89 Clarence Denmark, receiver: The Bombers need more players to step up on offence and that includes the veteran Denmark. He has 57 receptions for 600 yards and is tied for the team lead with seven touchdowns, but has just four catches for 29 yards in the last two games, 10-92 in the last three.
#92 Drake Nevis, defensive tackle: It’s been a frustrating year for the veteran defensive tackle, who has been a scratch in three games and has just one sack this season, way back on Canada Day. But the Bombers have been getting better push up the middle of late and that includes the work of Nevis.
#66 Stanley Bryant, left tackle: The Bombers Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman could have his hands full lining up across from Charleston Hughes, arguably the best end in the CFL. Old teammates who love to go head-to-head.
#20 Timonthy Flanders, running back/slotback: Returns to the lineup after missing three games with a lower-body injury. His versatility as a rusher and receiver – same as Andrew Harris – makes the Bombers offence so much more difficult to defend.
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Here’s how the Bombers playoff situation looks heading into the final regular season game of the year:
- A Winnipeg win or Edmonton loss at Saskatchewan Saturday night = the Bombers clinch second place in the West and face the Riders in the West Semi-Final on November 12th at home.
- An Edmonton win + a Winnipeg loss or tie = the Eskimos will host the West Semi-Final against the Bombers; Saskatchewan will crossover and play in the East Semi-Final against Toronto or Ottawa
- Saskatchewan win = the Riders clinch third place in the West Division and will play in Winnipeg in the West Semi-Final; Edmonton crosses over to play in the East Semi-Final against Toronto or Ottawa.
Interesting take from veteran Weston Dressler this week on the difficulties facing a quarterback, let alone one coming in out of the bullpen as Dom Davis and Dan LeFevour did last week.
“A quarterback makes a mistake, pretty much everyone knows it, because they’re directly involved in every play. A receiver makes a mistake on the back side and it can go unnoticed or sometimes not even affect the end result of the play.
“A receiver can also make a mistake that directly affects the play that aren’t noticed by a casual fan or people who don’t understand all the details. And that blame gets thrown on the quarterback. All quarterbacks understand that’s part of the job, that you have to be able to take a lot of that and handle that mentally.
“We have faith in both Dan and Dom.”
- The Stamps have not lost consecutive home games since July 28th and August 18th, 2012 – a span of 49 home dates.
- Charleston Hughes needs just one quarterback sack to reach 100 in his career.
- The CFL issued two fines to players for their actions in last week’s Winnipeg-B.C. game. Lions LB DyShawn Davis was fined for ‘leading with the crown of his helmet’ on the hit on Andrew Harris, while Bombers LB Kyle Knox was also dinged for leading with the crown of his helmet on B.C. running back Tyler Davis.
- The Stamps have allowed only 21 points in first quarters all season, best in the CFL.
- The Bombers have committed just 17 penalties on special teams this year, the lowest since the league began tracking in depth infractions by offence, defence and special teams in 2009.
- Weston Dressler needs 67 receiving yards to move past Robert Gordon into 23rd spot on the CFLs all-time list.
- The Bombers defence has surrendered over 400 yards offence in eight of their last 10 games.
- The Stamps have beaten the Bombers in 14 of their last 15 visits to Calgary and 23 of 26 since 1992.