REGINA -- Never one to shy away from an opinion, Odell Willis kicked up some dust earlier this week when he commented to the Regina media about the struggles in Bomberland.
Winnipeg's 2-6 record heading into the Labour Day Classic could have been avoided, the Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive end said, if the club kept its "marquee" players and continued to build on the roster they had in place a season ago. On the eve of facing his former team at Mosaic Stadium Sunday afternoon, Willis expanded on his thoughts regarding the Blue and Gold struggles through the first eight games this season.
"They let go a core group of guys," he offered Saturday. "Pass rushers -- you can replace them all day -- but when you got core guys like Clint Kent and Joe Lobendahn, you can't replace those guys. That's like taking the quarterbacks away and hoping that the offence don't miss a beat.
"The team went to the Grey Cup last year, and it seems like it's a brand new team over there. I just don't understand... that's just my opinion. No knock to the management, I wish them well as the season goes on, but hopefully (Sunday), we just got to come take care of business against them."
Saskatchewan (3-5) has lost five straight games and, like the Bombers in the last couple weeks, has been dealing with whispers of coaching changes amid growing fan unrest.
Kickoff is at 3 p.m. (TSN, CJOB).
MOVING ON: Can we finally close the book on Brendon LaBatte? The former Bombers offensive lineman clarified some things Saturday about the circumstances of his leaving Winnipeg once CFL free agency kicked in last February.
Yes, the idea of playing centre for the Blue and Gold in 2012 pushed him closer to his home province.
"I went in in January and spoke with coach (Paul LaPolice) and I asked him where he honestly (saw) me fitting in and he drew me up at centre," he said. "That's where they had plans for me if I would have stuck around there."
LaBatte mentioned his years of playing left guard (in the CFL and in the CIS) and the reality that at 25 years of age, he's coming into his prime at the position. The mention of centre basically made him uncomfortable leading up to the free agency, he told reporters, as he didn't want to sign with Winnipeg under the guise of being a guard only to be moved to centre at some point later in the season (which he said he would have done without issue).
When you're a free agent, you get to choose what you want to do.
Would LaBatte still be in Winnipeg if the Bombers told him he'd be at left guard?
"Tough to say, hindsight 20/20, you look back and say you would or you should or however it would have played out. I definitely would have been a lot more inclined (to stay), I can say that for a fact. I had full intentions of being there."
COACH JOE-LO: Former Bomber and current Riders linebacker Joe Lobendahn on talk of his old team in Winnipeg considering his services as a defensive coach this season.
"No one called me," he said. "That could be something in the future, coaching, I've thought about it a lot. You just never know what's going to happen. I guess when I'm done with football, we'll see where that takes me."
Winnipeg's interim head coach Tim Burke suggested earlier this week that the Bombers bounced around the idea of bringing in Lobendahn to fill a coaching hole on the staff this season. The bruising linebacker signed in Regina, though, ending that consideration.
BIG GAME: Canadian players understand and many of the import players who have experienced it know what it's all about for the respective communities.
But what about the new players that come in from south of the border? Do they fully grasp what the LDC means to football fans in Manitoba and Saskatchewan? After all, this annual grudge match between flat-land neighbours, a booze-fuelled gathering that brings out the best (and worst) of the respective football fan bases, is pretty important in these parts. Do the young Americans get it?
"If you look at the Americans coming up, most of them are just happy to play football," Riders head coach Corey Chamblin said. "We've done a good enough job to let them know that, 'Hey, this is the rival game.' I've been on several teams where you have new Americans coming in and you just have to tell 'em: 'Hey, it's like the Alabama-Auburns, the Florida-Florida States and they immediately know it's time to strap it on because it's going to be a fight."
HASH MARKS: Since 1993, just two out of eight Winnipeg head coaching debuts have resulted in victories (Paul LaPolice, 2010; Jim Daley, 2004)... The Riders have outscored the Bombers 102-50 in the last four meetings... Winnipeg has yet to score a touchdown in the first quarters of games this season... Saskatchewan running back Kory Sheets leads the CFL with 847 yards from scrimmage. He's second in rushing (542), as well... The two teams meet back in Winnipeg for the Banjo Bowl next Sunday.
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