WEATHER ALERT

The return of Rourke Lions star QB expected to see limited action in possible preview of Western final

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (14-3) host the B.C. Lions (12-5) Friday night in what will essentially be a glorified pre-season game.

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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (14-3) host the B.C. Lions (12-5) Friday night in what will essentially be a glorified pre-season game.

It’s the same story across the league as the CFL’s playoff picture was finalized last week.

Regardless of what happens in Week 21, the Lions and Calgary Stampeders are slated to meet in the West Division semi-final next Sunday at BC Place with the winner advancing to play the Bombers at IG Field on Nov. 13.

The Bombers have a chance to make history tonight, though. If the Bombers win, they would set a new franchise record for most wins in a regular season.

“I wasn’t aware of that, ” admitted Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros on Thursday. “We haven’t talked about it. Fifteen is better than 14, though.”

Even though there’s nothing at stake in the standings, there are a few things, outside of this being a potential Western final preview, that add a sprinkle of intrigue to this game.

Let’s take a look with this week’s edition of 5 Storylines.

The return of Rourke

Nathan Rourke was the best story in the CFL until a Week 11 foot injury forced him to get surgery.

Despite missing half the season, Nathan Rourke’s 25 touchdown passes are the second most in the CFL. (Heywood Yu / The Canadian Press files)

How good was Rourke before he got hurt? Let’s just say this: despite missing half the season, Rourke’s 25 touchdown passes are the second most in the CFL (only Collaros has more with 35) and his six games of 300 yards passing or more remains the most in the league.

More importantly, the Lions are 8-1 with Rourke under centre and 4-4 without him.

There was no guarantee Rourke would play again in 2022, as it sounded like the best-case scenario for the quarterback from Oakville, Ont., was a possible post-season return. So much for that as the Lions announced this week Rourke will start Friday night and play the first quarter.

Both offences will likely look vanilla as neither side will want to reveal much, if anything, as there’s a strong possibility, they’ll play again in two weeks with a spot in the Grey Cup on the line.

It’ll be a small sample size, but it’ll be interesting to see how well Rourke will be able to move around the pocket. He’s one of the more athletic passers in the game as he scampered for 304 yards on 39 attempts this season. If Rourke looks like his old self, the road to a third straight Grey Cup will become that much more challenging for Winnipeg.

Welcome back Ellingson and Wolitarsky

This meaningless contest will mean something to receivers Greg Ellingson and Drew Wolitarsky. It’s a crucial opportunity for the veteran receivers to knock off some rust before Nov. 13 as Ellingson and Wolitarsky have been sidelined for weeks.

Wolitarsky had 35 catches for 462 yards before a knee injury in the Banjo Bowl. (Matt Smith / CFL files)

Ellingson started the year as Collaros’ go-to target and even led the CFL in receiving at one point. Injuries have derailed his season by limiting him to a career-low seven games. The 33-year-old Ellingson hasn’t played since Week 10 and needs to see some live bullets if he’s going to be sharp in the playoffs.

Wolitarsky was putting up some of the best numbers of his career — 35 catches for 462 yards — before a knee injury in the Banjo Bowl took him out.

The Bombers have had every receiver not named Dalton Schoen or Rasheed Bailey hurt at some point this season, but it appears Collaros will have all of his weapons at his disposal at the most important time of year.

Nic Demski missed practice this week with a calf injury and won’t play Friday night, but head coach Mike O’Shea told reporters Thursday that it’s nothing serious. Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat will also play for the first time since Week 15.

Schoen vs. Rhymes

Dalton Schoen’s 1,357 receiving yards is only 11 yards ahead of BC’s Dominique Rhymes for the most in the league.

If Schoen can remain in front, he’ll be the first rookie receiver to lead the CFL in receiving yards since Curtis Marsh had 1,560 yards with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2000. Before Marsh, you have to go back to 1988 when a rookie David Williams finished on top while with the Lions.

It’ll be fun to see if Schoen and Rhymes get targeted early and often in order to win the race. No matter who finishes in first, both receivers have been incredibly important to their teams. As previously mentioned, Schoen has been one of the few constants on the Bombers’ offence this year. But not only that, the lock to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award made up for the loss of Kenny Lawler who signed with the Edmonton Elks in the off-season.

The Lions boast one of the best receiving corps in the league, but just like the Bombers, they’ve been hampered by injuries. Rhymes has stepped up while Lucky Whitehead and Bryan Burnham have missed time. Whitehead has been out for three games but makes his return tonight. Burnham is still recovering from a fractured wrist he suffered in Week 16. Burnham’s expected to be ready to go for the Western semi-final.

Ford’s time to shine

You don’t see many Canadians starting at defensive back in the CFL.

The Bombers, however, thought Tyrell Ford — a University of Waterloo product from Niagara Falls, Ont., — could be an exception to the rule when they selected him in the second round, 13th overall, in the 2022 CFL Draft. The Bombers traded their first round pick to the Montreal Alouettes for defensive tackle Cameron Lawson, making Ford Winnipeg’s top selection in 2022.

Tyrell Ford has appeared in all 17 games this season but Friday will be his first career start on defence. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Ford has appeared in all 17 games this season but Friday night will be his first career start on defence. He’s starting at corner next to American rookie Jamal Parker who’ll be playing halfback.

If the Lions care about coming away with a win, expect them to throw a lot of balls in Ford’s direction. He’s already proven that he’s a good athlete as his 4.42 40-yard dash was the best out of all prospects at the 2022 CFL Combine, but tonight will give everyone a sense of whether or not Ford is a hit or a miss.

Just stay healthy

If Rourke never got hurt, there’s a good chance the West Division regular season crown would’ve came down to this game.

Instead of this being an all-time classic, the only thing these teams care about now is staying healthy.

The Bombers and Lions are saying all the right things and trying to make this game sound more important than it is, but at the end of the day, both sides will walk away happy regardless of what the score is if everyone can come out of it in one piece.

However, the Bombers do need to squeeze something out of it. Coming off a bye and heading into another one next week is a lot of time off before the division final.

So, with that in mind, after sitting out the 40-32 loss in Vancouver in Week 19, Collaros and key offensive linemen Stanley Bryant, Patrick Neufeld, and Jermarcus Hardrick will see some reps and play this week. If history repeats itself, expect Collaros to play around four drives as that’s how many he played in last season’s regular-season finale in Calgary when the Bombers were in the exact same position. The Bombers are starting predominantly all of their starters, but the second half will likely feature a lot of new faces.

It’s a shame that skipping this week entirely isn’t an option.

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...

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