Ugliest outing of Nichols’ career back in September serves as motivation for Bombers QB
REGINA — Like his teammates and coaches, Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols doesn’t like to hold on to memories of his football past for too long, but there was one game this season that has fuelled his fire over the last two months.
It was Sept. 8 and Nichols had the worst game of his career, throwing three interceptions in the first half — two for long touchdowns — and getting replaced for the second half of an eventual 32-27 loss to the Roughriders.
“That was the toughest game of my career,” Nichols said Saturday at Mosaic Stadium, where the
Bombers will face the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL’S West Division semifinal on Sunday afternoon.
“You understand that sometimes games like that happen. You’d like to minimize them, which I feel like I have and we have. Moving forward, I’m glad I’m playing the football I have the last month and a half.”
All he has done in five starts since that fateful day is lead the Bombers to five wins. He’s steadily improved and had his best game in a playoff-clinching win over the Calgary Stampeders on Oct. 26.
The turning point came during the bye week after the Banjo Bowl, when Nichols was able to do some soul searching and find some perspective.
He came across a quote from legendary NFL coach Bill Belichick, saying something to the effect of “Just because you have a negative result, it doesn’t mean you should change what you’re doing or change things you’ve done to be successful.”
“It was a great time for me to randomly come across that quote,” Nichols said.
“It made me understand that just because I had a couple bad plays here or there, it didn’t mean that I needed to change what I was doing in 30-some odd wins the last few years. It allowed me to take a deep breath and brush all the negative things off and get back to being me and performing well for my teammates.”
With Nichols looking sharp and healthy, the 10-8 Bombers have much more stability at the quarterback position than the 12-6 Roughriders currently do.
Saskatchewan’s No. 1 quarterback Zach Collaros is coming off a head injury, suffered in a game against the B.C. Lions on Oct. 27.
He has been practising this week but backup Brandon Bridge took a good amount of the first-team reps and the team signed veteran Drew Tate as an insurance policy. All three of those quarterbacks are listed on the Riders’ depth chart, along with thirdstringer David Watford.
Riders coach Chris Jones refused to commit to a starter on Saturday and said they have prepared both Collaros and Bridge to take the bulk of the snaps.
“I don’t think Jonesy’s confused about anything,” Bombers coach Mike O’shea said. “If he’s got the opportunity to use both, he’ll use both. We’re prepared for that. We know who these guys but most importantly it’s about what our guys do, our execution, more than anything else.”
It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be windy and the Bombers have history going against them — the last time they won a playoff game in Regina was 1955.
But this is a team that is seemingly built for playoff success, even in harsh conditions and in a hostile environment.
They have the league’s best running back in Andrew Harris, a stellar offensive line and a healthy Nichols who is playing at the top of his game.
What’s different about this team from the last two seasons — they lost the West Division semifinal both times — is that it has added a stifling defence to the mix.
“This is a very good defence,” O’shea said. “We’re limiting yards, we’re taking the ball away, we’re getting pressure, we’re getting to the quarterback when we need to. I think one of the major differences is the timeliness of when we’re getting these plays.”
The Riders defence has been even better this year. It’s led by defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Charleston Hughes but is filled with playmakers like linebacker Samuel Eguavoen and defensive back Ed Gainey.
Between the weather and the defensive dominance, you’d think it’s a safe bet that this will be a relatively low-scoring game.
Perhaps it will also come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes.
Nichols, it seems, learned that lesson the hard way back on Sept. 8.
Now is his chance to bury that memory for good.
Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols walks off the field after throwing an interception against the Roughriders on Sept. 8. Nichols calls it the worst game of his career.