Time to get rough with Rid­ers

Blue & Gold must show Green their true colours be­fore play­offs be­gin

Winnipeg Free Press - - SPORTS - JEFF HAMIL­TON

“We didn’t play great a cou­ple games against them, they cap­i­tal­ized on some mis­takes. It is what it is,” Bombers quar­ter­back Matt Ni­chols said af­ter Fri­day’s walk-through at In­vestors Group Field.

“That’s the types of things that hap­pen over an 18-game sea­son. We’re a dif­fer­ent team than we were then. We’re play­ing good foot­ball. We have a lot of con­fi­dence right now.”

With that, here are five sto­ry­lines to keep an eye on dur­ing to­day’s game:

SEE­ING GREEN

The Bombers can earn that cov­eted home play­off game if they win their three re­main­ing games and Saskatchewan loses its last three.

While nei­ther sit­u­a­tion is ex­actly a slam dunk, what’s likely to hap­pen is both teams, each of whom are on three­game win streaks, will re­main ex­actly where they are in the stand­ings. If that hap­pens, it will set up a fourth game this sea­son, with the Bombers trav­el­ling to play the Roughrid­ers in the West semi­fi­nal.

Since there is a good chance of that hap­pen­ing, it would make sense that Winnipeg would want to beat Saskatchewan be­fore play­ing them in heated win-or-go-home bout, right?

“No, I don’t look at it like that. You play this one game and you look at it for what it is, and that’s need­ing a win to make sure we’re go­ing to make the play­offs,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said.

“Whomever we face af­ter that, you face. We cer­tainly don’t look that far ahead.”

Still, there are plenty of play­ers in the Bombers’ locker room who are view­ing this one as a must-win, whether that be to clear the men­tal hur­dle of beat­ing a team in a given sea­son or oth­er­wise. The Bombers have been rolling the past month, and are look­ing to con­tinue that streak.

“Ev­ery game right now is a must-win and a big one for us,” said Bombers run­ning back An­drew Har­ris.

“And again, a team that we’re po­ten­tially go­ing to play in the play­offs, it’s go­ing to be a big con­trib­u­tor to the con­fi­dence and know­ing that we can do cer­tain things and be suc­cess­ful in all three phases of the game against a team that we weren’t in the past.”

HAR­RIS HITS NEW HIGHS

Speak­ing of Har­ris, No. 33 is com­ing off his sec­ond-best rush­ing game of the sea­son, a 132-yard per­for­mance in last week’s over­time win over the Ot­tawa Red­blacks. His most pro­duc­tive game was dur­ing the Labour Day game in Regina, when Har­ris scam­pered for 158 rush­ing yards in a loss to the Roughrid­ers.

Har­ris led the CFL in rush­ing last sea­son with 1,035 yards. He’s al­ready topped that this year, boast­ing 1,233 yards through 15 games. He trails Ot­tawa’s Wil­liam Pow­ell by just two yards, though Pow­ell has a game in hand.

Thoughts of earn­ing back-to-back rush­ing ti­tles isn’t con­sum­ing much of Har­ris’s time, but it is im­pres­sive that at 31 he’s still at the top of his game.

“I think it’s been my at­ten­tion to de­tail, my ca­ma­raderie with the O-line, the com­mit­ment to (of­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor Paul LaPo­lice) and to want­ing to run the ball as much as we have,” Har­ris said of hit­ting new highs.

“Hav­ing guys like (Nic) Dem­ski and (Weston) Dressler, and dif­fer­ent guys that carry the ball to mix things up as well, those are all def­i­nitely con­tribut­ing fac­tors.”

When Har­ris is rolling most of­ten the of­fence is, too. He’s also leaned on heav­ily on first down to put the Bombers in good po­si­tion to move the sticks on sec­ond down.

He was able to do that against Ot­tawa, and with the tem­per­a­ture ex­pected to dip to­day, will be asked to carry a hefty load.

NI­CHOLS MAK­ING SENSE OF HIS TURN­AROUND

The play of Ni­chols will con­tinue to be a sto­ry­line for this game and the rest of the sea­son. The Bombers, like all nine teams in the CFL, are only as good as their quar­ter­back and it is no co­in­ci­dence this three-game win streak for the Blue and Gold comes at a time Ni­chols’ game is im­prov­ing. He had his best per­for­mance of the sea­son against Ot­tawa a week ago de­spite be­ing bed-rid­den the day be­fore, fin­ish­ing his night 27-for-36 pass­ing for 265 yards and a sea­son-high three touch­downs. The statis­tic that sticks out, how­ever, is how few in­ter­cep­tions he’s thrown of late. ●

Ni­chols has thrown just one in­ter­cep­tion in the last three games, and seven in the three be­fore that — in­clud­ing five in those two losses to the Roughrid­ers (two were re­turned for touch­downs).

“A cou­ple bad de­ci­sions here, a cou­ple bad breaks there, they can pile up quickly play­ing pro­fes­sional foot­ball,” Ni­chols said. “There’s no rea­son for me to ques­tion my prepa­ra­tion or what I do on a daily ba­sis to get ready for games. Went through a lit­tle bad stretch, kept do­ing what I do and got back to play­ing foot­ball I’m used to play­ing.”

Ni­chols’ chal­lenge will be great to­day, with the Roughrid­ers’ de­fence one of the best in the CFL. Saskatchewan leads the league in sacks (41), de­fen­sive touch­downs (9) and forced twoand-outs (90), which means Ni­chols will have to be at the top of his game.

DRESSLER’S STA­TUS UN­CLEAR

The Bombers looked to be get­ting as healthy as they have been all sea­son with the re­turn of Dressler a few weeks back. The vet­eran re­ceiver missed four games with a lower­body in­jury — all losses for the Bombers — but seemed to be rolling along since his re­turn three games ago — all wins by the Bombers — in­clud­ing scor­ing two touch­downs against the Red­blacks last week. But af­ter get­ting tan­gled up with de­fen­sive back Chris Humes dur­ing a 12-on-12 drill ear­lier this week, his sta­tus for to­day has been put in se­ri­ous doubt. In the two days since pulling up lame mid­way through Wed­nes­day’s work­out, Dressler had yet to test out his in­jury and re­mains a game-time de­ci­sion.

“You want to be on the field and play and do ev­ery­thing you can to help your team win but there’s a fine line there. When is some­thing go­ing to slow you down or hamper your game too much that some­one else that’s healthy is go­ing to be a bet­ter op­tion?” Dressler said. “I think that’s where we need to fig­ure that out.”

If Dressler can’t go, the Bombers will likely look to Corey Wash­ing­ton to fill the void. That likely would mean mov­ing Drew Woli­tarsky from wide re­ceiver to slot­back, and hav­ing Wash­ing­ton play the out­side.

Ei­ther way, if Dressler, who is as much a coach at times as he is a player and is a favourite tar­get of Ni­chols, can’t go, it will be a big blow to the Bombers’ at­tack.

BAT­TLE IN THE TRENCHES

Of the 41 sacks for the Roughrid­ers, de­fen­sive end Charleston Hughes has a CFL-high 15. At 34, Hughes con­tin­ues to feast on op­pos­ing of­fen­sive lines, and has been par­tic­u­larly good in his first sea­son in Regina.

What’s worse, at least for the Bombers, is Hughes’ stel­lar play has opened

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