Banjo Bowl win over rival Riders would mean so much for Bombers
While Mike O’Shea will never admit any one regular-season game is more important than another, Saturday’s Banjo Bowl should be an exception.
Yes, we know the head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers doesn’t think or talk that way with his players. He keeps them focused on the game itself and not big picture things like the standings or the season series with another team.
But, man, would a win on Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders ever be meaningful for the West Division-leading Bombers.
The 8-3 Bombers will host the 7-3 Roughriders, who are in second place with a game in hand, and will have a chance to either open up a four-point lead atop the standings or find themselves tied with their arch-rivals.
A win will give the Bombers a chance to win the season series on Oct. 5 when the teams meet again in Regina, but a loss will give the Riders the season series and essentially put them two points ahead in the standings.
“Yes, this week is very big now,” offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick said Wednesday when the Bombers returned to practice for the first time since losing 19-17 in Regina on Sunday.
“To have a chance to win the season series and be up by four, man, that would put us in a good spot going forward.”
With the CFL West bunched up near the top as usual — the Calgary Stampeders are 6-4, the Edmonton Eskimos 6-5 and they play one another this week — the Bombers need to hold on to their edge with a win on their home field, where they are 5-0 this season.
They played reasonably well in last week’s Labour Day Classic, despite being without No. 1 quarterback Matt Nichols and star running back Andrew Harris, but still lost for the 14th time in the last 15 years.
Winnipeg led the game late in the fourth-quarter but lost on a final-play field goal.
With a big Winnipeg crowd behind them Saturday, the Bombers are convinced they can turn the tables on the Riders.
“Man, we were so close, two points away, but you don’t get any points for being close,” Hardrick said. “Definitely nothing to hang your head about. We’re still 8-3 and I don’t want anybody to get down. We’re 8-3, we’ve got a shot at first place. I think we lost one game by two points (against Saskatchewan), another game by one point (against Toronto) and one by eight (against Hamilton). We’re not a bad team.”
The Bombers have a tough schedule over their last seven games of the season, perhaps the toughest of any team in the West. They play the Riders twice, the Montreal Alouettes (5-4) twice, the Stampeders twice and Hamilton (9-2) once.
The Stampeders just got star quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the CFL’s most outstanding player last year, back in the lineup and he looked very good in a Labour Day win over the Eskimos.
If the Bombers don’t put a firm grasp on first place, someone’s going to come and rip it out of their hands.
“Every game is important from here on out, especially in the West,” quarterback Chris Streveler said. “Obviously we know Saskatchewan is a great team, we played them last week. We know what the standings look like, but we’re not worried about that. We have to take it one week at a time and let things shake out the way they may.”
Streveler almost led the Bombers to victory in Regina. After a very slow start, he wound up passing for 161 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 65 yards and a major. He had two costly interceptions but also led a 58-yard drive late in the game to give the Bombers a 17-16 lead.
The defence, despite having the Riders pinned at their own five-yard line with 3:18 left in the fourth quarter, couldn’t hold the lead, and that puts more pressure on the Bombers to execute this week in a crucial game.
“I don’t know if it’s frustrating, it’s just more disappointment because we weren’t able to finish off,” Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall said. “The whole situation, three minutes left in the game, from their five-yard line and the way we’d been playing all day, I would have put my house money on that. We didn’t make the plays, I didn’t make the calls and we came up on the short end.”
Before that last drive, the defence held the Riders to 39 yards of offence and two first downs in the second half. Those numbers were very encouraging, but not meaningful in the end.
“I just think we were waiting for other people to make the plays instead of stepping up and making the play ourselves,” Hall said. “Instead of playing the way we had been playing the majority of the game, it seemed like we were waiting on somebody else. Therefore, we were not as aggressive, we didn’t have that ‘it’ factor and we didn’t do what we needed to do to win the football game. It was very disappointing.”
You get the sense the Bombers players want this one badly. On top of the implications on the standings this season, it’s a rivalry game that is important to the fans.
Just don’t try to convince O’Shea of that.
“I won’t talk about that,” he said. “We’re fairly diligent at sticking to our method of preparation and the way we do things. The guys approach every game wanting to win and expecting to win and putting in the amount of prep that it’s going to take to win. Overemphasizing one and not emphasizing another would certainly be confusing.”
DOWN THE STRETCH
A look at the remaining games for Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Calgary and Edmonton
BOMBERS (7) — Vs. Saskatchewan, at Montreal, vs. Hamilton, at Saskatchewan, vs. Montreal, at Calgary, vs. Calgary.
RIDERS (8) — At Winnipeg, vs. Montreal, at Toronto, vs. Winnipeg, at Calgary, at B.C., at Edmonton, vs. Edmonton
STAMPEDERS (8) — At Edmonton, vs. Hamilton, at Toronto, at Montreal, vs. Saskatchewan, vs. Winnipeg, at Winnipeg, at B.C.
EDMONTON (7) — Vs. Calgary, vs. Hamilton, at Ottawa, at Hamilton, vs. B.C., vs. Saskatchewan, at Saskatchewan.