GAME-CHANGER

Ugli­est out­ing of Ni­chols’ ca­reer back in Septem­ber serves as mo­ti­va­tion for Bombers QB

Winnipeg Sun - - SPORTS - TED WY­MAN twyman@post­media.com @Ted_wyman

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.

CP

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.

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