November 21, 2018

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Record: 10–8–0

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Blue Bomber Report (10–8–0)

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Preparing for the unexpected

No telling what Riders' D will throw at Bombers

THE CANADIAN PRESS / Mark Taylor</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky is tackled by Saskatchewan Roughriders defenders. The Bombers offence is trying to prepare for any wrinkle the Roughriders can throw at them.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS / Mark Taylor

Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky is tackled by Saskatchewan Roughriders defenders. The Bombers offence is trying to prepare for any wrinkle the Roughriders can throw at them.

Three times the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders have done battle this season, with all three games played within the last nine weeks. Add in the already built-in familiarity of being prairie rivals, in the two hottest markets in the Canadian Football League, and you would think by now the Bombers should have a pretty good grasp of their opponent.

But as Winnipeg prepares for the West Division semifinal against Saskatchewan at Mosaic Stadium Sunday afternoon, there are just as many questions as answers. Saskatchewan might just be the toughest team to crack when it comes to game planning.

“I feel like every game has been completely different. I look at the first time we played them and we had success on offence and in the run game but we just had too many turnovers. The second game they were stout on defence and it was one-sided, and then you look at the last time we played against them, holding them to zero points. Every game has had its own little flavour and different kind of a feel to it,” said Bombers running back Andrew Harris.

“You don’t know how this one is going to play out because there’s been no consistency throughout those three games. For us, we just got to come and attack and play with a certain kind of energy and certain confidence.”

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Three times the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders have done battle this season, with all three games played within the last nine weeks. Add in the already built-in familiarity of being prairie rivals, in the two hottest markets in the Canadian Football League, and you would think by now the Bombers should have a pretty good grasp of their opponent.

But as Winnipeg prepares for the West Division semifinal against Saskatchewan at Mosaic Stadium Sunday afternoon, there are just as many questions as answers. Saskatchewan might just be the toughest team to crack when it comes to game planning.

"I feel like every game has been completely different. I look at the first time we played them and we had success on offence and in the run game but we just had too many turnovers. The second game they were stout on defence and it was one-sided, and then you look at the last time we played against them, holding them to zero points. Every game has had its own little flavour and different kind of a feel to it," said Bombers running back Andrew Harris.

"You don’t know how this one is going to play out because there’s been no consistency throughout those three games. For us, we just got to come and attack and play with a certain kind of energy and certain confidence."

There has been no need for the Bombers to manufacture any more confidence in their preparation this week. They’re more sure of themselves now than at any other point in the season. Winnipeg enters the post-season having won five of their final six games, with the lone loss coming in a meaningless regular-season finale in Edmonton.

But prior to their impressive run, which included a 31-0 shellacking of the Roughriders in Week 18, Winnipeg lost twice to Saskatchewan in back-to-back weeks. In the annual Labour Day game in Week 12, the Bombers fell 31-23, falling apart in the second half, outscored 17-6 in the final two quarters.

The following week, Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols had arguably the worst game of his career, completing 50 per cent of his passes and throwing for three interceptions — two returned for touchdowns — before he was pulled to start the second half. Winnipeg went on to lose a close affair, 32-27, in a game where Saskatchewan’s offence, led by quarterback Zach Collaros, was unable to put up a single touchdown.

Indeed, the play of the Roughriders’ stellar defence is the main reason they finished second in the West, at 12-6. It’s that defence that will be pose the biggest challenge for the Bombers on Sunday, both for how physical the unit is and how unpredictable they are with the schemes they employ.

Roughriders head coach Chris Jones, who also leads the defence along with his positional coaches, has built some of the most impressive defences over his 17-year career in the CFL and what he’s done with the Roughriders this season is no exception.

"They’re very effective, very opportunistic. Obviously they’ve scored 11 defensive touchdowns this year, I think three probably against us. They’re very good, they’re built well," said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea, following Thursday’s workout at Investors Group Field. "He finds the guys that are going to be able to do what he asks them to do. A lot of very athletic guys, long, as scouts would say, real long guys that cover a lot of ground and take up a lot of space and are generally tough and play hard. He certainly has that defence playing the way he wants them to play."

O’Shea added: "He’s taken receivers and tight ends and made them pass rushers. He’s taken quarterbacks and made them corners. He’s done very well with all that."

Tasked to combat the Roughriders’ defence is Paul LaPolice, the Bombers’ offensive co-ordinator. LaPolice is regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the game, and this year he has the Bombers averaging the most points of any offence in the league, averaging 28.2 points per game.

LaPolice said the fact Winnipeg and Saskatchewan have played all of their games against each other in recent months has made it easier to organize his thoughts and dissect film. But he also knows only some of the plays he’s seen on tape will show up again, mixed in with new plays that are meant to disguise and fool the Bombers’ offence.

"They certainly have a diverse package of different things they can do, so you got to be prepared for a number of things," said LaPolice.

"And especially when you do play a team three times it can be like ‘oh, what about this they did? What about that they did?’, so you got a lot of things to prepare for when you play someone multiple times."

If that wasn’t enough, Winnipeg will also have to compete with what will likely be a packed house at Mosaic Stadium — 33,350-strong with most of the fans focused on messing up the Bombers’ timing on offence. To combat that, the Bombers have pumped in artificial crowd noise through the stadium’s speakers. The cold weather this week has also been a blessing, mimicking the kind of conditions expected this weekend, with temperatures expected to drop to -10 C by kickoff.

Damned, it appears, if the Bombers leave anything to chance.

"I think we’re trying to practise our best with it and make sure the balls are cold and making sure they’re out in the elements and making sure they’re ready to go," said LaPolice. "The elements we can’t control, but how they get ready and how they practise in it is what we’re trying our best to do."

Even the Roughriders’ offence has the potential for surprise. While Collaros worked with the No. 1 offence on Wednesday (Saskatchewan closed practice Thursday), there’s still no telling what he will feel like just two weeks removed from suffering a concussion in a Week 20 win over the B.C. Lions.

Collaros, despite being 10-4 as a starter this season, has struggled to put up points. Saskatchewan averages just 19.6 points per game from its offence, and Collaros ended the regular season with only nine touchdowns — two fewer than Bombers backup quarterback Chris Streveler. If Collaros can’t go, the ball will be handed to Brandon Bridge, who has just one touchdown compared to three interceptions this season.

Either option should bode well for Winnipeg, whose most impressive part of its recent run has been the play of its defence. The Bombers were tied with the Calgary Stampeders for most turnovers forced, with 49 apiece, and their 19 interceptions were one shy of the league lead.

"If we go out there and we play good defence, we have an opportunity to win every football game and that’s our goal," said Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall. "And find ways to win. Sometimes we get into shootouts… sometimes we’re dominant and sometimes it’s a game going back and forth. But how can we keep them to one less point than we score? That’s our objective."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @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.

Read full biography

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