Big Test For Bombers Against Ticats
The Bombers have a chance to kill two birds with one stone on Wednesday night.
If they don’t, and history suggests they won’t, the hand wringing will resume.
Winnipeg has an opportunity to record its first two game winning streak in more than two years, and it can also end a six game losing streak at Investors Group Field that dates back to last season. The Blue and Gold will have to do it against a Hamilton Tiger-Cats team that erased a 25 point, second half deficit against the Edmonton Eskimos 11 days ago.
“That would be good for the club,” left tackle Stanley Bryant said. “As a team we’re ready to take that next step. We have to be able to forget about last game. It’s just one game we won. We have to be able to build off last game and come out and do the same thing.”
The Bombers are coming off a 30-23 win over the Eskimos six days ago. Quarterback Matt Nichols, playing in place of the demoted Drew Willy, completed nearly 80% of his pass attempts and threw for more than 300 yards. Running back Andrew Harris ran roughshod behind a dominant Bombers offensive line, and the Winnipeg defence put the clamps on Mike Reilly and the Edmonton offence.
Now they just need to do that again against a much tougher opponent, especially on defence, or talk about head coach Mike O’Shea’s job security will fire up again and the Bombers will have lost seven in a row at home. The Tiger-Cats, by the way, have won four games at IGF since it opened. The Bombers have won seven.
Nichols will have the added challenge of being without his two most productive receivers in Weston Dressler and Darvin Adams, who both got hurt in last week’s win and were placed on the team’s six game injured list on Tuesday. If that weren’t enough, the Ticats are known for bringing the heat.
“There’s a lot of things you can talk about with them, a lot of different, kind of crazy looks,” Nichols said. “They’ve got some guys that can rush the passer, but also drop into coverage and give you some problems there. Show you an all out blitz, and then at the snap drop out of it.
“So you have to be able to adjust to it on the fly. You’ve just got to handle those things and make sure you stick to your reads and take care of the football. It’s a team that really thrives off of getting you into bad situations and turn the ball over.”
Nichols knows that all too well, as the Ticats ate him up last August when he was starting for the Eskimos. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 138 yards and an interception before getting the hook late in the second quarter of a 49-20 home loss.
“I made some decent plays against them, and they made one or two early,” Nichols said. “If I remember right Zach (Collaros) might have thrown for three or four touchdowns in the first half, so it was a full team landslide last year. I have a ton more experience since then and look forward to the challenge.”
Collaros is still recovering from his ACL tear last September, so Jeremiah Masoli will make his sixth straight start for the Tabbies. Hamilton turned the ball over six times when Winnipeg won 28-24 at Tim Hortons Field on July 7, and Masoli was responsible for five of them directly. He’s coming off a much better personal performance, as he completed a league record 23 straight completions in the second half of Hamilton’s comeback win over Edmonton.
“Even with the bye week a lot of guys are still feeling confident, feeling the momentum from that game, and we’ll be able to capitalize on that,” Masoli said.
Bombers (2-4, 4th in West) vs. Ticats (3-2, 3rd in East)
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Investors Group Field, TSN, ESPN 3, CJOB
Five Key Matchups
1. DE John Chick (Ham) vs. LT Stanley Bryant (Wpg)
The Bombers allowed only two sacks when these teams met on July 7, although quarterback Drew Willy did get rid of the ball quickly that night at Tim Hortons Field. The expectation is the Ticats will bring the house, so Bryant may have to deal with Chick, who is tied for second in the league with four sacks, as well as a linebacker or two.
2. C Matthias Goossen (Wpg) vs. DT Ted Laurent (Ham)
They don’t come much meaner in the middle than Laurent, so young Goossen will likely get some help from guards Travis Bond and Sukh Chungh in keeping the Canadian tackle away from quarterback Matt Nichols. The Bombers have also been susceptible this season to the stunt where the defensive end loops around and rushes the passer up the middle. So that’s even more for Goossen to think about on Wednesday night.
3. LB Larry Dean (Ham) vs. RB Andrew Harris (Wpg)
Harris finally broke free last week, rushing 22 times for 127 yards and a touchdown against the Eskimos. He will face a tough test in Dean and the rest of the Ticats front seven, which is allowing only 3.8 rush yards per attempt. That’s the second best mark in the league. Harris, however, averaged 4.8 yards on 13 carries in Winnipeg’s win over Hamilton on July 7 and finished with 63 yards along the ground. He also had six receptions for 41 yards, which are basically the same as runs, so Dean needs to be wary of that as well.
4. SB Luke Tasker (Ham) vs. DB Kevin Fogg (Wpg)
When the Bombers and Ticats met the first time, the since released Travis Hawkins started at the boundary halfback position but got benched before the end of the game. Rookie Kevin Fogg, who started at the field halfback spot that night at Tim Hortons Field, will be on the boundary side of the turf Wednesday night and will likely see plenty of Tasker as a result. Tasker has caught 90% of passes sent his way this season, which is the best mark of any CFL receiver who has been targeted more than 15 times.
5. KR Brandon Banks vs. Bombers cover teams
The Bombers let Speedy B, as he’s known, return a missed Justin Medlock field goal attempt 120 yards for a touchdown when they played four weeks ago. On the other hand, Banks let a kickoff bounce in front of him and it was knocked out of bounds by the Bombers. Winnipeg’s punt cover team is the best in the league; the longest return it has allowed this season is 18 yards.
INSIDE THE GAME
The Bombers are making five roster changes, including three to the starting receiving corps. In are pass catchers Clarence Denmark, Kris Adams and Thomas Mayo, as are Canadian backup receiver Addison Richards and linebacker Kyle Knox. Out are receivers Weston Dressler, Darvin Adams, Gerrard Sheppard and Quincy McDuffie, who is also the team’s returner, and defensive end James Tuck. Kevin Fogg will return kicks … The Ticats are making two roster changes. In are defensive back Jay Langa and defensive end Delano Johnson, while defensive back Johnny Sears and linebacker Ron Omara are out. Dominique Ellis will replace Sears at boundary halfback … The Bombers are 0-3 at home and Ticats are 3-0 on the road. “It probably speaks more to the parity in the league, which we don’t want as coaches,” Ticats head coach Kent Austin said … The Ticats are second last in time of possession (29:05), and the Bombers are dead last (27:17) … The Ticats are coming off a bye week. They were 0-2 last season in games played after their week long vacations … The injuries to Weston Dressler and Darvin Adams mean running back Andrew Harris is Winnipeg’s top receiver suiting up in Wednesday’s game … Ticats quarterback has fumbled a CFL most four times this season and lost three of them.
BET ON IT
The Ticats are 3-0 against the spread away from home this season. Given the Bombers’ injury woes, take the Tabbies minus the three points. The total is at 49 1/2 points, so take the under.
Points for 27.4 (5) 21.3 (8)
Points against 22.8 (2) 26.3 (7)
Rush Yds 55.4 (9) 73.2 (5)
Pass Yds 306.4 (7) 311.3 (5)
Total Yds 338.4 (8) 362.8 (5)
Yds Allowed 308.6 (1) 423.2 (9)
Five Key Story Lines
1. No Nudity Here
The Bombers haven’t gone streaking in more than two years now. The last time they won back-to-back games was July 31, 2014, when, coincidentally enough, they beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for a modest two game winning streak. Since then they have followed up seven victories with at least one loss … and usually several more after that. That is the most damning statistic for the Blue and Gold since their sizzling 5-1 start in 2014. Any team can win one game. The good ones make it a habit.
2. Home, Stinky Home
Winnipeg is 0-3 at home this year, it has lost six straight games at Investors Group Field, and it is a horrendous 7-23 since the facility opened in 2013. The Bombers are only marginally better on the road during that time, posting a 10-20 mark. Here’s the real ugly part: If the Bombers can’t beat the Tiger-Cats on Wednesday night, it means they will have to wait until Sept. 10 for the next chance to win in front of their fans. Their last win at home? It was on Sept. 12, 2015.
3. Out for Revenge
The Ticats turned the ball over six times when these teams met on July 7 at Tim Hortons Field, allowing the Bombers to escape with a 28-24 triumph. Tiquan Underwood dropped a sure touchdown in the end zone in the fourth quarter, and Hamilton was marching for the potential game winning TD when the since released Adrian Hubbard forced Ticats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to fumble. The Tabbies will want to avenge that defeat.
4. You Look Familiar
Wednesday’s match will mark the return of Bombers slotback Clarence Denmark, who was released in the off-season due to his big salary and declining play. Now he’s back due to injuries to the men who replaced him. Denmark finished third on the team last season with 718 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 58 receptions, but he went through a terrible dry spell over the middle nine games of the schedule, averaging just 32 yards per contest.
5. Catch It If You Can
The Bombers are making three changes to their starting receiving corps, including two who haven’t played this season, and their quarterback, Matt Nichols, will be making just his second start of the campaign. The Tiger-Cats are one of the CFL’s stingiest defences, and that includes through the air, where they are surrendering a CFL few 7.6 yards per pass attempt. It shouldn’t be this way when you consider the Ticats have three new starters in their secondary.
WR Weston Dressler, SB Darvin Adams (collarbone), CB Johnny Adams, KR Quincy McDuffie, DB Julian Posey, SB Ryan Smith, S Macho Harris, RT Paddy Neufeld (ankle), LB Teague Sherman, CB Chris Randle (knee), OL Jeff Keeping (knee)
QB Zach Collaros (knee), DB Johnny Sears, DB Demond Washington, S Craig Butler (knee), LT Jake Olson (knee), C Mike Filer (ankle), DT Evan Gill, RB Mercer Timmis
Running back Andrew Harris rumbled 22 times for 127 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win over the Eskimos. It was his first big game for his hometown team.
Slotback Clarence Denmark hasn’t played a regular season game since last November and got one and a half practices under his belt to prepare for his 2016 debut on Wednesday night.
Tiger-Cats slotback Andy Fantuz needs 46 receiving yards on Wednesday night to move past Bomber great Terrence Edwards and into 43rd spot on the CFL’s career list with 7,638.
Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer has established himself as one of the league’s best and brightest defensive co-ordinators, and his good friend, Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea, knows the Bombers will be challenged.
“The root of it all is he relates extremely well to his players, and he does so by getting to know them not only personally but what they can do professionally,” O’Shea said. “So he puts them in good spots. He’s not going to beat his head against the wall. He’s going to be multiple in everything he’s doing, and he’s very creative. And generally speaking, he understands offences.”
Bombers offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice had his 2016 breakout performance last Thursday in Edmonton with Matt Nichols at the controls, but it won’t be as easy against Steinauer’s aggressive attack.
It’s unlikely the Bombers are going to force six Ticats turnovers again, so it will be slow going in the early going. Ultimately, Jeremiah Masoli should be able to put more offence on the board with his more experienced receiving corps.
Tiger-Cats 24, Bombers 19.