SUN­DAY SHOW­DOWN

Team faces stiff test in sea of green on Sun­day

Winnipeg Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF HAMIL­TON jeff.hamil­ton@freep­ress.mb.ca Twit­ter: @jef­fkhamil­ton

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.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

It’s un­known whether Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers quar­ter­back Zach Collaros will be ready to play on Sun­day af­ter suf­fer­ing a con­cus­sion.

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