It will be a tale of two clubs headed in opposite directions when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts hit IG Field for their Week 5 matchup Friday.
The Bombers (3-0) remain the only unbeaten team among the CFL’s nine outfits, with the chance to improve to 4-0 for just the seventh time in franchise history dating back to 1939. The Argonauts (0-3) are the only team still in search of a win, and will look to prevent falling to 0-4 for the first time since 1993 — a year they finished last in the CFL at 3-15.
"I’ve been in this league long enough that the records sometimes can be skewed or misleading and when you turn on the film they’re a team that plays hard, runs around and plays all over the whistle," Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols said following Thursday’s walk-through.
"You see it too often where teams can go into games overconfident. This is professional football, these guys have a lot of pride, they’re very talented football players and just because it hasn’t worked out the way they’ve wanted for the first couple of games doesn’t mean they’re not out their working extremely hard to come in and try to win this week."
With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on during Friday’s game.
It’s been nine straight quarters, including two consecutive games, since the Bombers defence has given up an offensive touchdown.
The last time an opposing offence hit pay dirt was in Week 1, when B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly connected with Lemar Durant on a 15-yard score in the third quarter of a 33-23 Bombers win. Since then, Winnipeg’s defence has surrendered 27 points in wins over the Edmonton Eskimos and Ottawa Redblacks, all of which have come on field goals.
"We talk a lot about standing on the foundation of our mistakes and not making the same ones twice and continuing to grow from those," said Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill, who was sidelined last week with a hamstring injury and remains a game-time decision this week. "Not only that but standing our successes as well because there’s great things we’ve done and we want to keep doing. We’ve been improving and defensively, fulfilling what we want to do as far as taking the ball away and not giving up touchdowns."
If the Bombers can prevent the Argonauts offence from finding the end zone, it would bring them to within two games of the CFL record of five games set by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1963. It would also match Winnipeg’s current club record of 13 straight quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown, which was set over a four-game stretch in 1966.
Nichols looked no worse for wear this week despite leaving in the third quarter of last week’s game against Ottawa following an awkward hit to the head. The Bombers' starting pivot was back for the first day of practice, working with an offence that is averaging 30 points a game — the second-highest total in the CFL.
While backup Chris Streveler showed well playing in relief of Nichols, even if the offence committed two turnovers with him behind centre, this is clearly Nichols’ group. The Bombers defence has stolen the spotlight for much of the season — and rightfully so — but the offence has quietly improved from week to week.
The offence is averaging a league-high four touchdowns per game, while the team's eight passing touchdowns is tied with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the most in the CFL, though the Bombers have played one fewer game than the Ticats. It’s an impressive stat when you consider Winnipeg has attempted the fewest passes in the league, with 82.
"There will be times where I might throw 20 times and there might be some times in the season where you’ve got to throw it 45 times to win," Nichols said. "So far we’ve been able to have a balanced attack and that’s something we like to do."
The same can’t be said for Chris Matthews. The wide receiver injured his left hand early into last week’s game and was ruled out this week by head coach Mike O’Shea almost immediately following Monday’s workout. That’s left an opening for Kenny Lawler to make a return to the lineup for the first time since Week 1, when he played in relief of Matthews after the veteran receiver pulled up lame early in training camp.
It’s been a season filled with highlight-reel plays through the air for the Bombers. Most recently, it was Nic Demski’s 82-yard touchdown just two plays into the Bombers' first series in the nation’s capital. Before that, it was Lucky Whitehead and his pair of standout scores versus Edmonton. Drew Wolitarsky finished with two touchdowns against the Lions, getting stopped just short of the goal-line for what would have been his third.
But as much as the air assault is getting some much-deserved attention, it’s the consistent play of running back Andrew Harris — minus a couple of fumbles, of course — that’s allowed the offence to flourish. Without an established run game, it’s near impossible to find success through the air — and, most importantly, on the scoreboard.
Just look at the Lions, whose inability to establish a run game against the Bombers left them one-dimensional in Week 1, costing them that game and it’s a big reason why B.C. is 1-3 through the first month. With Harris, teams need to constantly account for his presence, the threat of breaking for a big run always there.
"He’s always going to try and put the team on his back and he’s going to try and do it when they need it most," O’Shea said.
Harris is off to his best start since joining the Bombers in 2016. He has 262 rushing yards and 94 receiving yards through three games, for an average of 119 yards per night. That’s even a better start than his career-year in 2017, when Harris finished with a league-leading 1,035 rushing yards and 857 receiving yards — the most among CFL running backs.
It’s certainly true that any team can win on any given night. Look no further than last week, when the then winless Montreal Alouettes defeated the then unbeaten Tiger-Cats to claim their first victory of the season.
The Argonauts have struggled mightily this year, their inconsistency showing all over the stats page, where they’re at or near the bottom of every category in all three phases of the game. They have averaged 12.7 points, 308 yards of net offence and have put up a total of just four touchdowns through three games. Meanwhile, they’ve allowed the most points (38) and surrendered the second-most yards (512) per game, and have made the most turnovers (9).
Where was I? Oh yeah, the Argonauts are closer than they appear when it comes to earning that first win. In fact, they almost earned one last week but lost by just one point to the Lions, 18-17, on a missed field goal with time expired that reached through the back of the end zone, resulting in a single point.
While the lack of results come as no surprise for anyone that’s watched Toronto this year, it is a bit perplexing when you consider the number of weapons they have, particularly on offence. Led by a relatively inexperienced quarterback in McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who will make his first start against Winnipeg, they have arguably the best crew of receivers in the league.
The group is led by Derel Walker, who signed a one-year, $285,000 deal over the winter to make him the highest-paid receiver in the league. Walker was added to a receiving corps that already possessed the sure hands of S.J. Green and Armanti Edwards, while running back James Wilder Jr., like Harris, is a dual threat on the ground and through the air.
"We're really close," Bethel-Thompson said. "We're closer than people think we are."
It’s not often Bombers kicker Justin Medlock has an off night. It's about as rare as suggesting he’s due for a bounce-back game. But that’s exactly where we are after from Medlock, known around these parts as Money Medlock for his consistent foot, but who struggled against the Redblacks last week.
He missed both his field-goal attempts, connecting with the left upright on a 51-yard try before sailing a boot wide right from 43 yards out. It was the first time Medlock had missed two field goals in a single game since Oct. 21, 2017, when he went 2-for-4 in a 29-28 loss to Toronto. After that game, Medlock finished the year a perfect 13-for-13 over three games.
Medlock was able to salvage last week’s performance by recovering his own punt in the fourth quarter, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in the game. He downplayed it after the game, still feeling miserable about his missed field goals, and didn’t take much solace in it Thursday either.
"It’s kind of funny how people look at it that way. Your job is to make kicks and if you don’t make kicks I don’t know what you’re supposed to be happy about," he said. "My job is to make kicks. I have a lot of expectations to do well, and I feel I’m the best in the league — I know I’m the best in the league — so just go out there and do that."
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.