Team faces stiff test in sea of green on Sunday
Two bitter prairie rivals lay it on the line in Regina when the Bombers and Riders battle in the West Division semifinal. Is this finally the year for Winnipeg? /
REGINA — It’s what the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been building for all season, since arriving for training camp in May.
Winnipeg (10-8) is now just three wins away from accomplishing its ultimate goal of winning the Grey Cup, a path that begins with arguably its bumpiest part of this final stretch. For the Bombers to hoist the CFL’s most cherished chalice, they will have to topple a familiar foe in the Saskatchewan Roughriders, a team that won twice as many games as it lost (12-6) and finished one spot ahead of Winnipeg in the West Division.
“It’s the ultimate goal (to win the Cup). It’s just exciting that we have an opportunity to get one game closer to it,” Bombers running back Andrew Harris said earlier this week.
“You can’t take anything for granted. You just seize the day, seize the reps, every chance you get just make the most of it because it can be taken away from you like that.”
Indeed, the Bombers face a stiff test in their pursuit of glory, and will have more than just a formidable opponent to compete with come kickoff in the West semifinal at Mosaic Stadium on Sunday afternoon. But rarely do worthwhile endeavours ever come easy, and this Prairie showdown should be no exception.
With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on during Sunday’s game.
A CLOSE CALL
The Roughriders enter as 2.5-point favourites. When it comes to calculating the appropriate point spread between two teams, the home side often gets an automatic three-point consideration in its favour, meaning the bright minds in Vegas see this one going down to the wire.
It’s a pretty safe bet this one will be decided by a small margin. Both the Bombers and Roughriders have played some of their best football of late, with each team suffering just one loss in their final six games. The Roughriders won the season series 2-1, claiming back-to-back games in September by a combined 13 points. The Bombers answered back in a big way in the final meeting last month, pitching a rare shutout in a 31-0 beat-down over the Roughriders.
“None of that matters because all of that was a dress rehearsal for now. Who are we? What have we grown to be? How well are we going to execute on Sunday?” Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill asked. “Those are the (answers) that have yet (to be seen), but that’s the exciting part about getting to this part of the game, in this time of the year is that we put it all on the line for this moment. We hope to put our best foot forward and we’ve been building a lot of momentum to this point and no reason to do anything different.”
As familiar as these two teams are, this will be the first West semifinal meeting between them in Regina since 1975 — a span of 43 years — and in the single-game playoff era (1965 to present), just the fifth time at this stage of the playoffs.
WIN OR BUST
I have the Bombers winning, for no greater reason than they’re due for a win in mid-November.
Winnipeg hasn’t won a playoff game since 2011, and over the past two seasons has bowed out in the first round, losing to the Edmonton Eskimos at home last year (39-32) and in B.C. the year before (32-21). Could third time be the charm for the Blue and Gold?
If the Bombers do lose again, they’ll officially become the team that’s good enough to make the playoffs but not great enough to stick around. It’s a sentiment that isn’t just felt by this author, but also Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea, who said earlier this week — in so many words — that success is only measured with a Grey Cup victory. A single win, he argued, wouldn’t mean much at all.
For those feeling the Bombers would blow up their roster with a loss, things are likely to look a lot different next season win or lose. Winnipeg has a number of pending free agents to resign, much as all other teams do, too, with the looming CBA renewal — and off-season bonuses withheld — sure to create more confusion than clarity in the coming months.
That makes this game all the more important for a team that has constantly preached the brotherhood-first credo in the locker room. Simply put, it’s win or bust for these Bombers.
SEA OF GREEN
Almost every one of the 33,350 seats at Mosaic Stadium will be draped in green and equipped with rested vocal pipes or other instruments aimed at throwing off the Bombers’ offence. The weather will also play a significant role, with the cold Prairie wind causing temperatures to drop to around -10 C come game time.
Neither seems to be much of a concern for the visitors.
The Bombers have blasted in artificial crowd noise all week — something they’ve done before for Saskatchewan, though I’d argue never this loud — and with much of the same pieces on offence the past three years, including offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice, that continuity has the Bombers clicking without the need to bark out play calls.
As for the weather, cold temperatures create a need to implement a running game and handing the ball off to Harris, the CFL’s leading rusher with
1,390 yards, was always going to be in the cards. The Roughriders have done a good job of stopping Harris since he arrived in Winnipeg for the start of the
2016 season, but he did explode for
158 yards on the ground the last time he played at Mosaic.
“In those situations, everybody wants to see you fail and there’s no better feeling than silencing a whole stadium,” Harris said.
“Saskatchewan is a great team, they play with a lot of energy and it makes the whole environment that much better.”
NICHOLS PLAYING WITH A CHIP
The biggest obstacle for the Bombers will be Saskatchewan’s defence, a unit that plays a high-risk, high-reward style.
While the Roughriders are among the best in some important statistical categories, including net offensive yards allowed per game (317.5; 1st), rushing touchdowns against (12; 1st), rushing yards against per game (91.9;
2nd), interceptions (21; T-1st) and sacks made (45; T-1st), they’re also susceptible to the big play.
No team has allowed more plays of
20 yards or more than the Roughriders, with 48. When you boost that number to plays of 30-plus yards, Saskatchewan has given up the third most (31), behind only Edmonton (38) and the Toronto Argonauts (39). Still, the Roughriders can make you pay, evident by the 11 defensive touchdowns they’ve scored this year.
As daunting as that environment can be for any quarterback, Winnipeg’s Matt Nichols seems to thrive when the stakes are the highest. In fact, Nichols’ best games have come with the season on the line.
In two playoff games with the Bombers, he’s 61-for-88 (69 per cent) passing for 761 yards and five touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Nichols has eclipsed 300 yards passing in just one game this year. What’s better is he’s entering the game with a major chip on his shoulder — a feeling he has deep inside, rooted from more than just a lack of playoff wins.
“Everyone has their own things where you’ve got to fight for what you want. I’ve always had a drive to get where I want to be and, right now, playing in this playoff game is where I want to be,” Nichols said.
“I’m going to do everything I can to perform well this week. That’s the only thing I’m really thinking about.”
COLLAROS A GO?
Let the guessing games begin for who will be behind centre for the Roughriders. No. 1 quarterback Zach Collaros suffered a concussion in a Week 20 win over B.C., when he was forced from the game after being on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit from Lions defensive end Odell Willis.
Collaros used the final week of the season to rest up, as Saskatchewan was on a bye, and he returned to practice Wednesday running the first-team offence. But after a closed practice on Thursday, followed by a workout Friday that included backup Brandon Bridge earning a fair amount of snaps with the main offensive group, Collaros’s availability for Sunday is in question.
Roughriders head coach Chris Jones wasn’t willing to name Collaros the starter on Friday, but that could simply be a savvy move by a secretive bench boss who isn’t willing to give away any secrets. But although Collaros said he was ready to go for Sunday, rarely do you see a No. 1 pivot share snaps in the final practice before the game.
While Collaros hasn’t had the kind of bounce-back season many expected him to — he threw for just nine touchdowns, or two less than Bombers backup Chris Streveler — he was 10-4 as a starter. The Bombers’ defence has played some incredible football over the past six games, and has been arguably the CFL’s best unit over that stretch, so there’s little worry seeping into the Bombers’ locker room over who will get the start.
If Collaros can’t go, Jones said he would turn to Bridge. Bridge showed flashes of greatness last year but has struggled mightily in 2018, with just one touchdown pass to go with three interceptions.
It’s unknown whether Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Zach Collaros will be ready to play on Sunday after suffering a concussion.