November 14, 2018

Winnipeg
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Record: 10–8–0

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Blue Bomber Report (10–8–0)

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Bombers looking to break out of funk

Banjo Bowl a chance for Winnipeg to regain some much-needed momentum

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Blue Bombers’ Corey Washington catches during practice at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg on Wednesday. He stumbled on a key play in his recent CFL debut, but says the whole squad is hungry for a win.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Blue Bombers’ Corey Washington catches during practice at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg on Wednesday. He stumbled on a key play in his recent CFL debut, but says the whole squad is hungry for a win.

Nothing much was out of the ordinary Wednesday at Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice, staged beneath a cloudless blue sky that showed no signs of falling to the turf at Investors Group Field.

Indeed, it was business as usual for the CFL club, now mired in a three-game losing streak for the first time since the tail end of the 2015 season.

Running back Andrew Harris, the unequivocal bright spot Sunday in Winnipeg’s 31-23 loss at the hands of the host Saskatchewan Roughriders in the annual Labour Day Classic in Regina, skipped the workout with the blessing of his head coach, Mike O’Shea, to rest up for the rematch Saturday at IGF.

Also missing were receiver Weston Dressler and offensive lineman Manase Foketi. Dressler has missed the past three games but could return Saturday for the Banjo Bowl, while Foketi was added to the six-game injured list late Wednesday. Right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick has been removed from the six-game list, meaning he could return after missing the past two games.

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Nothing much was out of the ordinary Wednesday at Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice, staged beneath a cloudless blue sky that showed no signs of falling to the turf at Investors Group Field.

Indeed, it was business as usual for the CFL club, now mired in a three-game losing streak for the first time since the tail end of the 2015 season.

Running back Andrew Harris, the unequivocal bright spot Sunday in Winnipeg’s 31-23 loss at the hands of the host Saskatchewan Roughriders in the annual Labour Day Classic in Regina, skipped the workout with the blessing of his head coach, Mike O’Shea, to rest up for the rematch Saturday at IGF.

Also missing were receiver Weston Dressler and offensive lineman Manase Foketi. Dressler has missed the past three games but could return Saturday for the Banjo Bowl, while Foketi was added to the six-game injured list late Wednesday. Right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick has been removed from the six-game list, meaning he could return after missing the past two games.

Quarterback Matt Nichols took first-team reps and will for the rest of the week as the Bombers, now 5-6 and fourth in the West Division, try to rebound from a demoralizing defeat that featured colossal breakdowns from the offence as well as the defence.

It’s Nichols’ team, O’Shea and the rest of the club’s leadership group repeated following the nearly two-hour session. So, fans wishing for a change under centre might as well unclench their hands now and try to relax.

It just isn’t happening.

Backup QB Chris Streveler will hold his usual place on the sidelines until he’s called on during short-yardage situations and the occasional quick play on the ensuing first down.

"No, no. Matt’s our starter," O’Shea said. "We evaluate everybody after every game, win or lose, and the numbers still show that Matt is processing extremely well, running the offence extremely well, the ball’s going where it should go. He’s getting the ball out of his hands. He’s making plays for us."

Nichols made good on just 54 per cent of his throws (14-for-26) for 166 yards, one touchdown and a pair or costly interceptions against Saskatchewan.

The first pick came on the game’s opening drive when Saskatchewan defensive back Matt Elam picked him off and returned the ball to Winnipeg’s one-yard line, setting up a TD. Nichols also had a pass intercepted by Ed Gainey with about a minute left, extinguishing any chance of a late game-tying drive.

The Bombers’ offence registered 358 net yards, with Harris gaining 158 yards on 15 carries. Nichols managed only 67 passing yards through the second half as the Riders outscored the visitors 17-6.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Blue Bombers’ Corey Washington catches a ball at practice at the University of Manitoba on Wednesday.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Blue Bombers’ Corey Washington catches a ball at practice at the University of Manitoba on Wednesday.

O’Shea said he’s identified no defects in Nichols’ game and he has just as much confidence in the 31-year-old Californian during the skid as he did when the Blue and Gold strung together three straight triumphs during a span from July 21 to Aug. 10.

"He processes the play very fast, he gets rid of the ball very quickly, he delivers accurate footballs, he’ll move out of the pocket if he has to," O’Shea said. "He looks good. To me, he’s still grading out very, very well."

Nichols has been picked off five times during the stretch of losses to the Ottawa Redblacks, Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan, while connecting on four TD strikes.

Offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice said the spotlight is always on the quarterback, rightly or wrongly, and launching balls into defenders’ hands hurts a team’s chances to win. But critical blunders were made in the game by many others.

"He’ll make a mistake, just like everybody else," LaPolice said. "And certainly, there’s plays he’d like to have back. I know the quarterback gets all (of the heat), but it’s our offence that’s got to play better for us to win the football game the other night (in Regina)."

Replacing Nichols with Streveler as the starter isn’t the answer, he said.

"I have help on that call, but no, not at this point," LaPolice said. "We have to make our decisions not based on what the fans say. The fans are going to boo our offence if we don’t move the ball. That’s on all of us."

During his post-game comments Sunday, Nichols was quick to shoulder blame for the offensive struggles. After two days of reflection, his opinion hadn’t changed much. But he’s now solely focused on the second half of the home-and-home with Saskatchewan.

"I don’t care about what people have to say. We have a talented group here, a group that’s been together for awhile, a group that’s won a lot of football games," Nichols said. "There’s no panic around here. For myself, I’m working harder and harder every day, making sure that my performance this week is better than last week."

Nichols’ receivers haven’t done him any favours lately. Corey Washington, making his CFL debut, had a ball sail through his hands and into Elam’s arms, and Kenbrell Thompkins had a drop at a key time.

Washington said he’s seen a resolve from his teammates to make amends.

"Better details, more focus. These guys are flying around this week," he said. "We’re just ready to go out, line the ball up and attack. We’ve got some great ballers on this roster. Hopefully, we come back this Saturday and get a ‘W,’ get our groove back and get on a run."

The 15th annual Banjo Bowl is a sellout, with 33,134 fans expected at IGF Saturday.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

 

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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