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This article was published 26/7/2018 (475 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Finding consistency is the key to any successful football team and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers believe they’re close in their quest to achieving it.
The Bombers improved to 3-3 with last week’s road win over the Toronto Argonauts, and with the two teams meeting Friday at Investors Group Field to wrap up the home-and-home series, the chance to put together consecutive wins and rise above .500 for the first time this season is staring them right in the face.
"It’s getting to a point where we’re running out of excuses and we got to start getting on a roll here," Bombers running back Andrew Harris said after Thursday’s walkthrough at IGF.
"Matt (Nichols) has been back now for three weeks, finding that groove and our O-line is playing great and our defence is playing lights out. It’s now about being able to put that together for 60 minutes, as we did last week, and we got to be consistently doing that week in and week out."
The Bombers embarrassed the Argonauts to the tune of 38-20 a week ago and through five games Toronto is a dismal 1-4. The Argos understand a bounce-back game is crucial to earning the chance to defend last year’s Grey Cup run.
"We’re not excited about our record right now but our record does not define who we are and it doesn’t define our locker room," said Toronto linebacker Marcus Ball.
"But that’s the thing about football, man, is you can’t win them all. You go through ups and downs or trying to find your way like we are right now."
With that, here are five storylines for Friday’s game:
At this point last season the Bombers were in the middle of a five-game winning streak that stretched from July 27, with a win over the Montreal Alouettes, until a loss to Saskatchewan on Labour Day weekend ended the run. With a win over the Argonauts last Saturday, Winnipeg believes they’re finally hitting their stride and are set to make another big splash.
While there are some similarities from 2017 to this year – including almost identical, monumental collapses against B.C. in Week 5 that sparked the respective runs – there is one stark difference:
The Bombers have a Week-7 bye, and with every looming vacation there is the risk of being preoccupied mentally. With the thoughts of returning to see family or heading off on a much-needed getaway for the break, Winnipeg could be at risk of thinking too far ahead.
"Try not to change the message too much week-to-week. When you’re dealing with a game before the bye week, you let them know that their plans should be made well ahead of time," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said.
"But we took care of that the day we broke training camp, (when) we talked about this bye week. The reminder I gave them was just a short reminder of the conversation we had however many weeks ago that was."
Over the last three seasons with mid-season byes, the Bombers are 3-2 in games before a bye week (Winnipeg had a Week 1 bye in 2017) and are 3-3 in games following a break.
Harris finished with 27 carries for 161 rushing yards — both single-game career highs — and caught two balls for 16 yards in the 38-20 win over Toronto. He also had two touchdowns, earning one each on the ground and through the air.
To put in perspective just how dominant he was on the night: Harris finished with 177 total yards of offence — six more than Toronto racked up as an entire team. Safe to say, Harris will be a prime target for the Argonauts defence, and that’s just fine with the 31-year-old tailback.
"You’ve got to understand that the more success you have — whether it’s week-to-week or back-to-back games, especially — they’re going to try and key on whatever was successful, in any phase of the game, they’re going to try and shut that down," Harris said.
"That’s how it always is: you can’t focus on what the other team is doing and let them dictate your game plan and your play. You just got to focus on what you’re trying to achieve."
The Bombers are averaging an eye-popping 173 rushing yards per game — far and away the most in the CFL — and though Harris is a large part of that, he’s not the only reason for Winnipeg’s success.
"They got all kind of players that they can mix in and throw around. They got (Kienan) LaFrance back there; Dressler can line-up in the backfield, and really anywhere; (Nic) Demski as well; sometimes they put Andrew (Harris) at quarterback," added Ball.
"They do everything. They definitely keep you on your toes and keep you up at night but when it comes down to it we got to find out who we are and do what we do well."
With three consecutive 100-yard rushing games, Harris just needs one more to move into sole possession of second place for most in franchise history. The current leader is Willard Reaves, who rushed for eight straight 100-yard games during the 1984 season.
The return of three key players on defence should help Toronto approach its goal of limiting Harris and the rest of the Bombers offence.
Back in the fold Saturday will be defensive linemen Frank Beltre and Dylan Wynn, as well as linebacker Cassius Vaughn. Beltre returns from an injury he suffered in Week 2 and Wynn missed last week to fulfill his one-game suspension for a hit on Edmonton running back CJ Gable. Vaughn, meanwhile, is also back after missing one game due to injury.
Argonauts head coach Marc Trestman is hopeful a healthy lineup will lead to better play from his defensive group, which before allowing 38 points to Winnipeg limited a high-powered Eskimos offence to fewer than 20 points in back-to-back games.
"We know how fine of a football team they are in all three phases and they proved that last week," Trestman said. "Our job is to show ourselves, more than anything, that we’re a better football team than who played last week."
Ball was succinct with his words when describing last week’s effort from the defence.
"Anytime we walk out of the stadium with an L, whether it’s defence or offence or special teams, it’s not good enough," he said. "Our number one objective is to stop the run. Making teams one-dimensional is probably every team’s goal but it’s a tough challenge."
Toronto has the weapons on offence that can hurt any defence in the CFL, even if that hasn’t exactly been the case this year.
James Franklin, the team’s rookie quarterback who many believe has a bright future in this league, has had mixed results in his first season as the No. 1 guy. James Wilder, last year’s rookie of the year, has also come out of the gate slowly, including last week, when he rushed just three times for a total of minus-two yards. The Bombers were also able to limit S.J. Green, one of the CFL’s best receivers, to just three catches for nine yards.
In fact, the win over Toronto was a third straight game the defence has seen a steady level of improvement. The challenge now, according to middle linebacker Adam Bighill, is that they continue moving in the right direction.
"We just need to continue executing our game plan the way we have and continue playing consistent football," Bighill said. "That’s really what’s going to make us a great defence and a great team. I’m curious as to how well we can execute this weekend and play another excellent game and really start to stack up our execution and our ability to continue to learn."
Wilder remains a game-time decision after injuring his leg at practice Wednesday. If he does play, which Trestman hinted was the likely scenario, Bighill said just his presence can be an obstacle for the defence.
"It’s the same thing for a great receiver commanding a double-team. It’s one of those things where it becomes a chess match of how are we going to eliminate him?" he said.
"And you’ve got to give and take. I think that’s why teams almost have to use those guys as decoys sometimes, where they know they’re getting doubled or committing more guys there so we got to go somewhere else. That’s the chess match for football but, hands-down, he’s a great back in this league and that makes him a big part of the game."
After the Bombers traded Adarius Bowman to the Montreal Alouettes earlier this week, Bombers veteran receiver Weston Dressler said it sent a ripple of emotions through the locker room.
"You kind of go through your process of the initial shock of it. You don’t know if you’re upset, or mad, or sad — you’re kind of a bit of all of it," he said.
"Then you move on and try to see how the room comes together at that point. It’s difficult, especially losing a guy like Adarius, who was a very popular guy in the room, someone who was very vocal and always sharing stories and keeping guys laughing. He’ll definitely be missed and hopefully he’ll have a good opportunity in Montreal."
Bowman’s departure certainly is good news for one player, however, as Kenbrell Thompkins will finally draw into his first game after spending the entire season on the practice roster.
"I like his physicality. He’s strong-handed. He goes up and contests throws, comes down with them a lot," said O’Shea. "He can block, he can run, he’s been in big games before so there’s a lot to like about him."
Winnipeg has liked what they’ve seen from the 29-year old native of Miami, Fla. Thompkins last played a game with the New York Jets during the 2015 NFL season. In 26 NFL games, split between the New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders and Jets, Thompkins has 53 receptions for 728 yards and four touchdowns.
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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.