HAMILTON — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are proving to be must-see TV in 2017 but are they serious Grey Cup contenders?
It's a question they'll try to answer over the next two-plus months but for the moment, the 4-2 Blue Bombers must concern themselves with the CFL's worst team — the 0-6 Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Would Winnipeg dare to look beyond the cellar-dwelling Ticats?
"Not with the games we’ve played this year," said veteran Blue Bombers defensive end Jamal Westerman Friday afternoon. "It’s not like we’ve been stomping teams out 60-5 or 60-10 or something like that. We’ve been in tight games. If you're watching Bombers games, tune in the last five minutes to see what happens."
With that in mind, here are five storylines to watch when the teams meet today at Tim Hortons Field (6:30 p.m., TSN, CJOB):
THE COMEBACK KIDS
The Blue Bombers have rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit or broken a tie to win seven times in their last 15 regular-season games, stretching back to the 2016. Two of those comebacks have come in their last two games.
Leading the way has been Winnipeg quarterback Matt Nichols, who has modest offensive numbers compared to some of his chief rivals, but has made a habit of rising to the occasion late in games.
"Matt's a good decision-maker — he anticipates his throws," said Hamilton head coach Kent Austin. "He manages the offence very well and he's accurate. The other thing he does is he'll make a play at a critical time of the game, he has a sense for the context of the game and what's playing out in front of him. Whether they need to kill the clock (or) whether they need to get a last-minute drive. He understands how to jumpstart the offence in those situations. He makes sure he strings a couple of first downs together and then pushes the ball when he needs to."
Whatever voodoo act Nichols is performing, his teammates appear to be buying into it.
"Of course you’d like to be going into halftime saying ‘We got it guys,'" said Westerman. "But I think it’s just a testament to type of team that we have, the type of character guys that we have in the locker room that no matter if we’re up or down, we’re always focusing on winning the game.
"We’re always talking about, if there’s time on the clock, let’s stop them. The offence is the same way, saying ‘Whatever it takes to get this win, we have to do it.’"
JONESING FOR A CHANGE
On the heels of a 60-1 drubbing in Calgary two weeks ago, Ticats management airlifted retired U.S. coaching legend June Jones into the fray as an assistant head coach. Jones' arrival, the club insisted, was not to be Austin's eventual replacement. Instead, he was to serve as a change of pace for a struggling team.
A long-time offensive guru, Jones was a quarterback for the Toronto Argonauts in 1982 and the offensive co-ordinator of Ottawa Rough Riders in 1986. He is considered an innovative football mind and was an early proponent of the run-and-shoot offence.
What changes the Ticats are able to make in such a short time remains to be seen but Jones has been hard at work this week.
"We're probably done a little more than we anticipated, honestly," said Austin. "We'll see how well we execute it. He's done a great job in teaching it and I think the guys have done a great job in responding to the teaching. There are some similarities, conceptually, with pattern structures — those sorts of things. How you execute is a little different and different for our quarterback in particular. We'll see."
The Blue Bombers aren't holding their breath.
"They are going to run their offence," said Westerman. "With June Jones coming in, they’re going to run a few things here and there but it’s kind of difficult to install an entirely new offence in a couple of weeks. He’s invented the run and shoot and been very successful at it so you know they’re going to add elements to it.
"You can’t game plan for things you haven’t seen them do. You don’t want to be out there chasing ghosts because a coach ran the triple option 10 years ago at Navy or something like that. You focus on what they do, focus on their personnel and try to play the soundest game you can play. Hopefully your scheme and your technique can handle everything they do and you make adjustments as you go along."
Much has been made of Winnipeg's poor record at home (13-26) since the opening of Investors Group Field in 2013 but did you know the Blue Bombers are 9-3 in their last 12 road games?
Nichols was unaware of the stat but not surprised by it.
"I don’t know what the reason is but I think it says a lot about a group of guys who can handle the tough elements this league has to offer when your’re on the road and be able to stay focused and get the job done," said Nichols. "I’d say out of those nine wins I don’t remember an easy one. We know we’ve got another challenge in front of us tomorrow."
Nichols admitted some extra focus on the road may help to explain Winnipeg's better performances.
"The one thing I’ll say is we just got here, we’re going to go to the hotel and have our meetings and our walk-through, those things don’t get over until four or five in the evening," said Nichols. "At home, we’re done at 11 o’clock the day before the game -- so maybe that has something to do with it. Guys are going over their stuff as a team, closer to game time. But other than that, I don’t know what I would say is the reason is for that."
Justin Medlock is widely regarded as the CFL's finest field goal kicker but some recent misses have dropped him to the statistical bottom of the league.
He failed to connect on a 47-yard attempt in Ottawa last week, his fourth miss of the season, but went on to hit on six of seven in the game to boost his season totals to 18 of 22 for an 81.4 percentage. That astonishing number is ninth among regular kickers in the league.
The former Ticat returned to his old home at Tim Hortons Field Friday and made a solo walking tour around the playing surface, checking the wind conditions, which can swirl and shift here, and are considered some of the trickiest around.
"It’s not too bad," said Medlock. "You’ve just gotta hit a straight ball somewhere and pick a good target. That’s the biggest thing. It’s a windy stadium, but sometimes you catch it on a good day, right? Hopefully, we’ll catch it on a good day tomorrow."
It is good to be familiar with your surroundings, as Medlock pointed out.
"There’s a house over here that I look at and a try to look at that Canadian flag," he said, referencing a row of houses on Beechwood Avenue that borders the stadium on the north end zone. "That’s when you know. If the trees are blowing a little bit, see the trees aren’t blowing as hard today, then it’s not as bad."
The Ticats will start their fourth right tackle in seven games with newly acquired Tony Washington slotting in for Quinterrius Eatmon, who was released this week. Washington was cut by the Edmonton Eskimos on Monday.
Hamilton's offensive line has given up 15 sacks, which is the fifth best total in the CFL but it has also permitted 57 QB pressures, by far the worst number in the league. Collaros has been under duress for most of the season and the Winnipeg defensive line should be eagerly anticipating this matchup.
"I think the last two or three weeks has been good," said Austin of his offensive line. "We had issues with that earlier this season, it's well documented. We've made changes there and our protection has been pretty good the last couple of outings."