September 26, 2018

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Bombers need to silence partisan Riders crowd

REGINA – It’s often said in the Canadian Football League that the “real” season doesn’t get underway until after Labour Day weekend. If anyone could use a clean slate right now, it’s the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“Everything just means that much more now,” Bombers running back Andrew Harris said following Friday’s practice. “I’ve been 1-6 in a season and then turned it on in the second half. You can take off and end up in first place.”

If the Bombers (5-5) are indeed destined for a run, they’ll need to get out of their current funk first. Winnipeg has dropped their last two games, losing in blowout-fashion to the Ottawa Redblacks and Calgary Stampeders. This week’s task doesn’t get any easier, with Winnipeg hitting the road to Regina to battle the Prairie rival Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday’s annual Labour Day Classic at Mosaic Stadium.

The Roughriders (5-4) are trending in the opposite direction, earning wins against Calgary and the B.C. Lions in recent weeks. A victory over the Bombers would put them in sole possession of third place in the West Division, with a chance to double-down in next week’s Banjo Bowl rematch at Investors Group Field.

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REGINA – It’s often said in the Canadian Football League that the "real" season doesn’t get underway until after Labour Day weekend. If anyone could use a clean slate right now, it’s the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"Everything just means that much more now," Bombers running back Andrew Harris said following Friday’s practice. "I’ve been 1-6 in a season and then turned it on in the second half. You can take off and end up in first place."

If the Bombers (5-5) are indeed destined for a run, they’ll need to get out of their current funk first. Winnipeg has dropped their last two games, losing in blowout-fashion to the Ottawa Redblacks and Calgary Stampeders. This week’s task doesn’t get any easier, with Winnipeg hitting the road to Regina to battle the Prairie rival Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday’s annual Labour Day Classic at Mosaic Stadium.

The Roughriders (5-4) are trending in the opposite direction, earning wins against Calgary and the B.C. Lions in recent weeks. A victory over the Bombers would put them in sole possession of third place in the West Division, with a chance to double-down in next week’s Banjo Bowl rematch at Investors Group Field.

With that, here are five storylines heading into Sunday’s game.

LABOUR PAINS

If history has suggested anything, it’s the Bombers might be in for a long day.

Winnipeg was able to edge out a 28-25 win with a last-second field goal in 2016, but that victory snapped an 11-game losing streak for the Blue and Gold in Labour Day games in the Queen City. The Bombers were dominated in last year’s game, falling behind 24-3 after the first quarter in what ended with a 38-24 Roughriders win. That makes just one win Labour Day for Winnipeg since the 2004 season.

"It’s pretty obvious if you have any knowledge of the CFL how rambunctious their crowd is. There is a reason why it’s called home-field advantage," said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols. "Smart fans understanding when to be loud and when to be quiet and they make it difficult on the opponent coming in."

Nichols said there will be an added emphasis on strong communication to help combat the crowd noise. All week the Bombers have pumped in artificial cheers over the stadium speakers, and that practice will surely be tested.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols throws the ball during second half CFL football action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Calgary, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols throws the ball during second half CFL football action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Calgary, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Though the Bombers have struggled to earn wins in Regina over Labour Day weekend, they have had success against the Roughriders in recent years, winning five of the last six meetings between the teams.

TALK IS CHEAP

Nichols has been the subject of some heavy criticism over the past two weeks — both for what he’s done on the field and what he’s said off it.

While his post-game comments can and have been defended, there’s no mixing words when saying the Bombers' starting quarterback needs to be better for the Bombers to win. Nichols has posted modest numbers since returning from a knee injury in Week 4, with his average of 228 passing yards per game among the lowest of his peers.

Unfairly or not, Nichols will be under the microscope Sunday and likely only a win will help fix his image outside the locker room. If you ever wanted to get Bomber fans back on your side, there’s no quicker way than a win over the Roughriders. That’s the beauty of the Labour Day Classic game: because it’s against a hated rival, a victory this week has the power to completely flip the script.

"It seems like every Labour Day game I’ve ever played in, every Banjo Bowl game I’ve ever played in. it’s kind of been the same feeling where no matter what our record has been you kind of just forget everything that’s happened," Nichols said. "This is really a game where you walk around town and everyone lets you know how important it is to them. You know that this is a big one that’s important for a lot of different reasons."

Much has been made about the fact Nichols has yet to throw for 300 yards in a game this season. That streak might be near an end, as Nichols has tossed for 341 and 364 yards, respectively, over the last two Labour Day games. He is also 9-3 as a Bomber in games following a loss.

FIRST AND GO

A big emphasis for the Bombers' offence this week will be to have better production on first down. After 10 games, the Bombers rank last in the CFL in first-down yardage, averaging six yards per play.

Part of that lack of production is because opposing teams have started to key in on Harris, who leads the CFL with 805 rushing yards, and the Bombers' running game, which currently averages a league-best 136.7 yards.

But that number has steadily declined over the last two weeks, with Harris’s production also taking a hit. Harris has a combined 85 rushing yards over the last two games, including just seven carries for 13 yards in last week’s loss.

"Even in the pass game you can tell when they’re pulling (defensive) ends or they got two linebackers on you… it just makes it tougher to get free and get space," said Harris. "For me, I’ve got to be able to overcome those matchups and make the most of it. For everyone else, too, we’ve got to step up because if there are two guys that are on me or they’re spying, that means that there is someone else who should be open."

Saskatchewan Roughriders' Nick Marshall (3) celebrates his touchdown against the B.C. Lions during the first half of a CFL football game in Vancouver on Saturday August 25, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Saskatchewan Roughriders' Nick Marshall (3) celebrates his touchdown against the B.C. Lions during the first half of a CFL football game in Vancouver on Saturday August 25, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Against Ottawa and Calgary, the Bombers were stymied early in drives and far too often left their defence out to dry, with little time to rest between series. Over the last two games, Winnipeg has had 17 drives that have ended with a punt, with 10 of those series being two-and-outs. There’s potential for much of the same this week, as Saskatchewan’s defence has forced the most two-and-outs in the CFL, 62.

"Certainly, first and foremost, it all falls on me as the offensive co-ordinator," said Paul LaPolice. "I’ve got to be better and we’ve all got to be better. It’s not just one guy but it all starts with me."

BACK TO BASICS

Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall preached this week the importance of his group focusing on the basics of football — the fundamentals that every good team needs to do well if they want to win.

"X’s and O’s, to me, are overrated. It still comes back to tackling, running, catching, blocking — it comes back to the fundamentals of football and if you do those things consistently well then you increase your chances," Hall said. "Whatever it’s scheme-wise, someone throws the ball, they still got to catch it and you still got to tackle. And when you look at guys running free, we didn’t tackle them and we weren’t where we needed to be in order to give ourselves the opportunity to make that play."

Hall had been lamenting his defence’s performance against the Stampeders, who torched the Bombers for 511 yards of net offence. Far too often, he said, Calgary was getting open, catching balls with no defenders around. It’s been the same story for much of the season, but the stats show a stark regression in recent weeks.

Winnipeg surrendered just 325 net yards per game through the first eight weeks, putting them in fourth place in the CFL. That average has ballooned to 502 yards over the last two games, which is the highest in the league since Week 9.

Roughriders quarterback Zach Collaros doesn’t provide the same threat as Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell or Ottawa’s Trevor Harris, but he has been playing his best football of late. In the last three games, Collaros is 2-1, with an average of 248 passing yards per game. He has just two touchdowns — and one interception — over that stretch but that’s in part because of a strong run game, led by Tre Mason.

"We need to do better. We understand that when we’re put in positions to make plays that we make them," said cornerback Chris Randle. "We’re never content with losing."

WASHINGTON GETS HIS SHOT

It will certainly be a special day for Bombers receiver Corey Washington, who is set to make not only his first CFL start on Sunday, but will also take part in his first professional game in more than five years.

"It’s going to be really emotional," said Washington, who went undrafted to the NFL but spent time with eight teams in the span of three years. "It’s going to be the first game playing without my grandmother after losing her last year. But I’m excited to get out there and play football again."

Washington, a big target at 6-4 and 208 pounds, draws into the lineup with veteran receiver Weston Dressler still a game-time decision after missing the last two weeks. Washington dazzled in training camp but was placed on the practice roster at the start of the regular season.

"I’m ready," he said. "I’m ready to buckle my straps up and go make these boys look bad."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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.

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