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This article was published 25/7/2019 (696 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
HAMILTON -- It’s as big a game as you’re going to find on the CFL schedule at this time of the summer.
The hometown Tiger-Cats are 4-1 and leaders of the East Division while the visiting Blue Bombers are 5-0, frontrunners in the West and the CFL’s only remaining unbeaten squad.
When they meet Friday night at Tim Hortons Field, it will mark only the sixth time since 1958 that two teams have squared off after five games with only one loss between them. Good teams like this are expected to provide some must-see TV.
The action is expected to be compelling but bragging rights are also at stake and an opportunity for the winner to create a bigger cushion atop the division awaits. With that, here are five storylines to consider heading into the heavyweight clash:
1. Bighill returns, Matthews stays home
Veteran linebacker Adam Bighill, Winnipeg’s best defender, returns to the lineup after a three-game absence while he nursed a hamstring injury.
Although the Blue Bombers defence hardly skipped a beat while he was away, replaced by a very reliable Kyrie Wilson in the middle, the normally durable Bighill’s presence will be a welcome addition against one of the league’s most challenging offences.
"With Bighill back they should be hittin’ on all cylinders and that’s what you want," said Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer. "You want to have the best record, you should beat people with the best record, so let’s play the game."
Bighill, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2018, didn’t enjoy the time off but understood the motivation for holding him out.
"It’s tough," said Bighill. "In this game, we live in one-week cycles and for me, I just want to be out there for my teammates and the past three weeks has been about being smart. I felt I obviously could’ve returned to play earlier but it’s always good to have people on your team who help you realize it’s a long season and being smart sometimes early in the season is the best thing to do."
Bighill’s return will tempered by the absence of wide receiver Chris Matthews, who was sidelined for the last two games with a finger injury.
His rehab was interrupted by an off-field incident at a downtown restaurant early Sunday morning where the 29-year-old was stabbed, treated for a minor injury and released from hospital. Matthews practised earlier this week but did not make the trip to Hamilton. Kenny Lawler is expected to start in his place.
2. Masoli’s Magic
Jeremiah Masoli, in his second full season as Hamilton’s starting quarterback, is off to an excellent start with 1,517 passing yards, completing 70.8 per cent of his passes, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Masoli’s active skill set gives defences headaches.
"The guy isn’t a textbook kind of quarterback, which is sometimes good for a defence but he makes it very dangerous for (us)," said Winnipeg safety Jeff Hecht this week. "He throws off balance, the way he throws rolling away, off his back foot. And he has the his ability to still put the ball 60 yards downfield -- across his body. So we have to cover the whole field the whole time, whereas with a traditional quarterback, when they break the pocket, the field shrinks for them…
"His arm and his ability to throw from anywhere, to anywhere, seemingly is the main thing we need to be aware of."
Masoli prefers to deflect questions about the magnitude of the Winnipeg-Hamilton game.
"(I’m) not really worried about their record, we’re kinda worried about what we’re doing and what we’ve got going on," said Masoli. "We’re just on a mission. They just happen to be the team we’re playing this week and we’ll just focus on that. It’s a great opportunity, nonetheless. But it’s early in the season. I’m not saying they will but they could lose every game from here on out. There’s no relevance for us."
3. Missing Simoni
All-star Simoni Lawrence begins his long delayed two-game suspension for a reckless Week 1 hit on Saskatchewan quarterback Zach Collaros and the damage to the Ticats defence could be severe. His replacement at weakside linebacker will be fifth-year Canadian Nick Shorthill.
"What’s missing will be better evaluated after the game," said Steinauer. "I mean, if you want a couple of things, his toughness, he can blitz, he can cover, he can run. He can play (middle) linebacker, he play D-end. He drops into the post and that’s all shown in the film, right? Asking somebody to do all that at the level he does it is a deservice."
Lawrence’s absence could make Hamilton more vulnerable to Winnipeg’s already powerful running game.
"I don’t think you replace a player like Simoni," added Steinauer. "To me, you turn the tape on and you’re be hard-pressed to find a better all-around defender. That’s no disrespect to anybody else. I just put him up there... Asking somebody else to replace or finding out what we’re going to miss is probably unfair because whoever steps in just has to bring what they bring to the table. We don’t really have any expectations of anybody replacing Simoni."
4. Making history?
Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols finished off a 31-1 win over Ottawa during Week 6 with 19 consecutive pass completions, establishing a club record. He is now only four shy of equaling Masoli’s CFL record of 23, set in 2016.
Nichols’ current mark is fourth all-time, which trailing Edmonton’s Jason Maas (22 consecutive completions in 2004) and Ricky Ray of the Eskimos (20 consecutive in 2009). In the midst of perhaps his finest season as a pro, Nichols said the possibility of claiming the record for himself is a non-issue.
"I didn’t even know when it was happening that was the case so I never let anything outside of the play in front of me affect my decision-making or what I’m doing," said Nichols. "So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a game we’ve been preparing hard for all week and we’re going to continue to try to make all the plays necessary to come out of here with a win."
5. Steinauer vs. O’Shea
Steinauer and Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea are old friends and former teammates. They won Grey Cup titles together as players in 1999 and 2004 and as assistant coaches with the Toronto Argonauts in 2012.
On Friday, they will match wits as opposing head coaches for the first time.
"It is special for Osh and I," said Steinauer. "It’s fun to talk about. I think he’s earned this type of recognition but again, they’re trying to win this week. We’re trying to win this week and this is fun but the game is going to be decided between the white lines."
Steinauer, a career assistant in his first season as a head coach, is thrilled to see his old buddy thriving in his sixth season at the helm of the Blue Bombers.
"I’m just happy for Mike O’Shea," said Steinauer. "It hasn’t been smooth sailing over there. Everybody’s looking at now but there were some rough times. There were a few losses in a row a couple of years back but his perservance, just his personality I see. I’m happy for him but when the ball’s kicked off -- what’s it gonna be like the next game? Whoever’s across, I’m going to (experience) the same thing with Jason Maas."
O’Shea warned reporters not to attach too much added significance to the battle of first-place teams.
"It’s just this game," said O’Shea. "It’s just this week. This is what the schedule brought up. Nobody knew that this was going to be the way it was going to be as much as Steinie and I both hoped that we’d have good records. The schedule-makers don’t know that... It’s too early in the season for thats."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.