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This article was published 31/7/2019 (338 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TORONTO — The Argonauts have been a running joke at every road stop in the league this season.
The CFL's only winless team also doesn't get much respect at home, where it is routinely ignored by the local media and the corporate overlords at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment have reduced them to third-class citizens.
Most weeks, the Argos are not permitted to use BMO Field for their pre-game walk-through — except for the end zones — lest they unnecessarily damage the pitch they share with Toronto FC, the city's high-profile MLS team.
Things don't get much easier for the 0-6 Argonauts, who are coming off a three-game, 17-day tour of Western Canada. They will host the West Division-leading Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Thursday and the visitors, still stinging after a disappointing loss in Hamilton, will be eager to get back on the winning track.
Here are five storylines to ponder before the Bombers and Argos collide:
An injury to Darvin Adams has paved the way for a return to the lineup by Chris Matthews, whose contributions in 2019 have been miniscule: In two games, he's caught three receptions for 26 receiving yards.
The Blue Bombers need more from the big man and this could be the breakout game fans have been anticipating.
"I’m definitely ready to make an impact," said Matthews, who missed most of training camp and four games due to injury. "I feel like it’s long overdue. I was just talking to my receivers earlier today, saying I really have only played a game-and-a-half and you guys have played six already. I’m behind the curve, but I’m extremely excited to be back out there."
Quarterback Matt Nichols threw a season-high 48 passes in Friday's 23-15 defeat in Hamilton and the three interceptions he tossed up capped his worst performance of the season.
The eight-year veteran is determined to turn the page while returning his offence to the precision-passing attack and clock-eating ground game that pushed the Blue Bombers out to a 5-0 start. The loss in Hamilton was Nichols' first in 11 games, and Winnipeg's six turnovers against the Ticats were the club's most since coughing up seven against the B.C. Lions on Sept. 27, 2013.
"You just have to believe in your process," said Winnipeg offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice. "If you throw an interception when the ball comes out of your hands wrong, there’s not much you can do about it. But be fundamentally better next time, right? It’s something you’ve got to forgive yourself for. If you make a decision that was maybe not the best decision, then you’ve got to learn from it and not make that decision."
The Bombers drilled the Argos 48-21 in Week 5, the first of three consecutive losses on the road for the Boatmen. Toronto was outscored 100-37 over that span.
Nichols is not forecasting a blowout victory. A solid win would suffice.
"They've kinda found the lineup they like, it seems, and the things they like to do and they're getting better and better at it," said Nichols. It's becoming more difficult for teams to score points on them so for us, making sure you recognize these guys are flying around making plays and making it tough on people."
The Argos acquired veteran quarterback Zach Collaros from Saskatchewan for a fourth-round draft pick Wednesday but he won't be rushed into the lineup and Thursday's game will be McLeod Bethel-Thompson's to start. His leash is expected to be short with head coach Corey Chamblin hinting Dakota Prukop could also get some snaps.
"He’s taking increased reps this week," Chamblin said of Prukop. "The plan is we’re going to start Mac and I think Mac determines how he finishes the game… He understands he’s at a position now where if he wants to finish in the last couple of minutes of the game, it’s up to him."
Bethel-Thompson remains unfazed. He believes he can handle the slings and arrows after posting a dreadful nine-to-seven interception-to-touchdown ratio in his three starts. He's coming off an abysmal six-for-18 performance in a shutout loss to Edmonton where he finished with 90 yards passing and one interception.
"Whatever’s said about me, I’ve said worse things about myself so that’s easy," said Bethel-Thompson, who prefers to avoid overanalysis. "But you want to be in the fire. You want to be in the fire because I know I’m doing stuff right. If you look back at the games, I’ve played three games and threw for a lot of yards, right, in three games and there was a little issue with turnovers.
"So I go into Game 4 trying to fix the turnover ratio and when you focus on something that’s all you see. I felt stuck last game and that was really disappointing. That was a death of sorts in that game…
"I know at the drop of a hat I can throw for 400 yards. I did 300 (yards) three times in a row without much struggle and without much preparation. Just playing ball and getting back to the easy parts and stop listening to the voice in your head and just being the witness."
The Argos have gone 21 possessions without an offensive touchdown. Their output in that span includes eight turnovers and 12 punts.
Winnipeg's special teams superiority was a huge factor in the previous meeting between the teams but Week 7 in Hamilton was a flop for Paul Boudreau's crew. Lucky Whitehead fumbled a kickoff and rookie Kenny Walker lost the handle on a punt return — both plays were pivotal in giving up points and contributed to the field-position deficit.
Walker comes out of the lineup this week to be replaced by rookie Mike Jones, who will make his CFL debut.
The Argos, meanwhile, intend to avoid a fate similar to Week 5, when the Blue Bombers scorched them for a kickoff return touchdown and a total 248 return yards. Chamblin is promising an upgrade this time around.
"Sometimes we can overcomplicate things, we can overthink things," said Chamblin. "It’s just simple. You’ve got a man in front of you; you’ve gotta know how he’s setting and doing those things and make a play off of it. We had some inexperienced players playing in that first game and we’ve tried to move around but football still comes down to the fundamentals of eyes, hands, feet and tackling. Since then we’ve worked a lot more on it and put guys in better situations to where they can make those plays."
Winston Rose, who has snared five interceptions in his first six games as a member of the Blue Bombers, is a prime example of a man growing into the job.
He played four games for the Ottawa Redblacks in 2017 and all 18 regular-season outings for the B.C. Lions last season, starting 15 games at field cornerback, but he got his feet wet in the CFL in 2016 as a practice roster player with the Argonauts.
"We weren’t able to work him into the rotation at the time because he was still learning the Canadian game," said Winnipeg defensive backs coach Jordan Younger, who held the same post with Toronto from 2015-16. "But I knew then that he was talented. A lot of the game, coverage-wise, comes natural to him and he really needed an opportunity."
In the off-season, Younger recommended Rose as a potential target in free agency as a replacement for Chris Randle.
Younger believes Rose's year of seasoning in B.C. set the set the stage for his arrival in Winnipeg as the shutdown boundary corner he has become.
"Sometimes you get lucky when a quarterback makes a really bad throw or the quarterback and receiver are on the wrong page but what’s happened there is he’s been able to take in those small bits of information that help you choose your leverage or where you should be at with a receiver, which makes it hard for the quarterback to know where to put the ball at," said Younger.
"So he’s winning those position battles. He’s studying (spacing), he’s studying personnel and taking that information from the practice field and meeting room to the game."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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