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This article was published 7/9/2018 (464 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Has there been a more meaningful Banjo Bowl game in its 15-year history?
Whether that’s true, when the Bombers face off against their Prairie rival Saskatchewan Roughriders Saturday afternoon at Investors Group there will be plenty at stake. The only guarantee will be a high level of emotion from both sides, with the Blue and Gold eager to get back on track and the Roughriders hoping to continue their run through the CFL.
"It’s a game we’ve got to win to potentially set up the tiebreaker for the final match," Bombers running back Andrew Harris said Friday following walkthrough. "But most importantly, to get our mojo back and get in rhythm and get back in the win column."
The Bombers (5-6) have lost three straight to fall below .500 and sit in fourth place in the West Division. They’re coming off a 31-23 loss to the Roughriders, who extended their winning streak to three games to improve to 6-4 and second in the division, in last week’s annual Labour Day Classic.
Fans should also play a big role in this one; it’s the first time in 2018 that IGF has been sold out, with all 33,134 seats filled.
"We understand what this means to the fans," added Harris. "We’re excited about it and we’re looking forward to it and (Saturday) can’t come soon enough."
With that, here are five storylines to keep in mind for the game:
The last time the Bombers lost three games in a row was the final three weeks of the 2015 campaign. Though they would be victorious in the Banjo Bowl earlier in the year, Winnipeg added just one more victory in the final seven games to finish outside the playoff line.
It’s hard to believe this team could miss out on the post-season, despite their struggles through 11 games. They do have the luxury of a weak East Division – only Ottawa has a winning record – but given the way Winnipeg has played in recent weeks not even a crossover seems like a lock.
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea was asked if he sensed a greater sense of urgency given what’s at stake. A loss would not only create more space between the two teams in the standings but would eliminate the Bombers bid to win the season-series – the ultimate tiebreaker in the event they’re tied in points at the end of the season.
"I hope not. If they’re able to give more this week than they have the last bunch of weeks, does that mean they’re short-changing us?" pondered O’Shea. "There’s always room for improvement and if our guys had the ability to focus more this week, then great. Then hopefully they have the ability to focus more the next week too. They’re not valuing one contest more than the next."
The Bombers have been steady in their one-game-at-a-time, one-week-at-a-time approach but you have to wonder what another loss will mean for the team's psyche — one that has been tested in recent weeks. For what it’s worth: Winnipeg has won eight of the 14 previous Banjo Bowls and is undefeated in the last three.
O’Shea was quick to defend quarterback Matt Nichols following last week’s loss, ensuring reporters and fans that No. 15 remains atop the depth chart.
But how many more chances will Nichols have before a move to backup Chris Streveler is made?
"I think you’ve seen me display loyalty to the football team," O’Shea said, when asked about his allegiance to quarterbacks. "If I think Matt Nichols gives us the best chance to win a football game then my loyalty lies with the team and how we get that done."
Nichols, despite being 25-13 as a starter for Winnipeg, enters Saturday riding his longest losing streak in his eight seasons in the CFL. He has never lost four straight games, but that will do little to ease the minds of fans that have started to go sour on him.
Nichols hasn’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt, either, especially with football being widely considered a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. What Nichols hasn’t done is throw for 300 yards in any of his eight games this year, and his 11 touchdowns are only three more than the rookie Streveler, who has started five fewer games.
The last time Nichols played at IGF, he was booed when returning to the game late in the fourth quarter after an elbow injury. While there remains a bit confusion as to whether those jeers were aimed at Nichols or O’Shea for making a switch from Streveler, there will be no confusion this time if Nichols can’t get things going.
It’s been arguably the most consistent unit for the Bombers over the past two seasons, mainly because of continuity. Indeed, since the 2016 season Winnipeg’s offensive line has emerged as one of the more formidable fronts in the CFL, protecting Nichols in the pocket and creating holes for Andrew Harris, all while causing fits for opposing defensive linemen.
But the starting five will be blown up against the Roughriders, with a number of new faces expected. With Jermarcus Hardrick (knee) set to miss his third consecutive game and Manase Foketi (upper-body) added this week to the six-game injury list, an inevitable shuffle will take place.
Patrick Neufeld will move from left guard to take over the right tackle duties from Hardrick, while Michael Couture will replace Neufeld. Two other Canadians – Qadr Spooner and Cody Speller – are also expected to dress, with both seeing their first game action in 2018.
"The guys that are coming in now, some have been around for years and we know they’re capable of playing," said Hardrick, who claimed he was ready to play but would leave that decision to the coaching staff. "We haven’t had a lot of injuries to the group so we’ve only really seen them in practice but it’s exciting just to see them go out there and perform. Any five guys that go in there know what the standard is."
Just how much these changes will affect the offence remains to be seen. But with a defensive end tandem of Willie Jefferson and Charleston Hughes, who leads the CFL with 13 sacks, what was already going to be a tough pass-rush by Saskatchewan is likely only be even harder to stop.
A slow start against the Redblacks in Week 10 had the Bombers trailing 22-7 by halftime, with Ottawa eventually coasting to a 44-21 victory. In Winnipeg’s last two losses, however, the Bombers led for much of the game only to fall short down the stretch.
Against Calgary in Week 11, the Bombers held the lead until the Stampeders took over with minutes remaining in the third, scoring 20 points in the final quarter to earn a convincing win. Last week, the Roughriders took back the lead just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, and Winnipeg replied with one field goal in the fourth to lose 31-23.
Therefore, the focus this week, for both the offence and defence, has been on finishing games.
"If you watch the film of our second half compared to our first half, lately, we just haven’t been all in it," Bombers receiver Nic Demski said. "What I mean by that is executing plays, keeping the little mistakes like penalties or turnovers out of there. These last couple games we haven’t been living up to our own standard."
"The key is to make your plays throughout the entire game and make sure as a coaching staff we’re putting players in good positions throughout the entire game and not waiting until the fourth quarter and seeing what happens then," added O’Shea. "Every single game, win or lose, you’ll see plays throughout the game that could be made, that weren’t made."
Perhaps a the best finish comes from a strong start. The team that has scored first has won 10 of the 14 Banjo Bowls, for a success rate of 71 per cent.
While a loss would leave the Bombers spiralling and once again in search of answers, a win would put them right back in the mix in the West, with control of their own destiny.
Of the seven remaining games on the schedule, five are against teams in the West, including two games against Saskatchewan (6-4) and Edmonton (6-5) and one game against Calgary (9-1). The other two games are against Montreal (3-8) and the East-leading Redblacks (6-4).
That might seem like a tall task, given the Bombers have yet to beat a team with a winning record this year, but the feeling in the locker room continues to be one of solidarity, even if frustration has started to take shape outside the locker room.
"I feel like from a fan perspective, what comes first is,whose fault is it? It’s not one person’s fault, it’s not one side of the ball – it’s a group effort," said Harris. "There have been letdowns from different groups as we’ve gone along. It’s just the consistency of being on point with your details. When everyone is like that for all three groups you’re going to win games."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.