Winnipeg – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will not have running back Andrew Harris available for the second game in a row. Leading Tackler Ian Wild will also miss his second straight game. Calgary has lost Canadian defensive tackle Junior Turner and one of their top receivers, Bakari Grant to injury. None of that takes away from Saturday’s Winnipeg-Calgary matchup, the first of its kind in CFL history. Never before have teams with a combined winning streak of 16 games met head on. Bombers have won 7 in a row since a disturbing 1-4 start while the Stampeders have reeled off 9 consecutive victories after starting the season with a loss and a tie.
What this boils down to is the upstart(my word not theirs) Bombers bringing their 8-4 record to McMahon stadium to challenge the 10-1-1 Stampeders for CFL bragging rights. At least for the time being. Regardless of the outcome, Calgary will still hold down first place in the West and will be the only team to have clinched a playoff spot. But a Winnipeg win would suggest that there is a legitimate challenger to the Stamps western throne, keeping in mind that no division title or Grey Cup has ever been won in September.
Receiver Ryan Smith returns to the Blue Bomber lineup hoping to erase the memory of an injury-plagued first year in Blue and Gold. Smith has only played 3 full games and parts of 2 others so his numbers, 21 catches for 200 yards, aren’t what the Bombers had in mind when they signed him as a free agent. Not that the Bombers are about offensive numbers. They have won 7 games in a row with a lethal combination of stingy defence, solid offence, good special teams and a propensity to win the turnover battle game after game after game. Winnipeg’s plus 25 rating in the takeaway-giveaway category is easily the best in the CFL. And in their 7-game winning run, they have forced 29 turnovers and committed only 5, a stunning differential that almost defies believability. Bombers have the most interceptions in the league with 22 and have recovered the most fumbles, 14. Their 18 giveaways is the second lowest number in the CFL. Guess who’s first?? Of course. Calgary. Stampeders have committed just 13 turnovers in 12 games and that is one of the primary reasons why they keep rolling up the wins.
Another reason for Calgary’s success is quarterback Bo levi Mitchell. The 26-year old Eastern Washington product has completed 68% of his passes for 3936 yards, 22 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. He has had 10 300-yard passing games this year, including the last 5 in a row. And all he does is win. His career mark is a sensational 38-7-1. Winnipeg quarterback Matt Nichols doesn’t have the same eye-popping numbers, but there is one stat that Nichols is especially proud of. In addition to completing 71% of his passes for 1927 yards and 8 touchdowns in 7 starts, Nichols has only thrown 1 interception. That’s one pick in 241 pass attempts. There is a certain “wow” factor to that.
Stampeders have been the CFL’s model of excellence since John Hufnagel took over as their head coach in 2008. They have made the playoffs nine years in a row, including this year with Dave Dickenson as their first year head coach and Hufnagel in the GM’s chair. They have had a winning record all 9 of those seasons–their worst record during that period was 10-7-1. And they have been to three Grey Cups, winning two of them. Plus, they rarely lose at home, having emerged victorious in 26 of their last 30 starts at McMahon Stadium.
But don’t tell Blue Bomber head coach Mike O’Shea that Calgary’s dominant home record and the fact Winnipeg is 1-13 in its last 14 visits to Calgary or 3-22 in the last 25 has any bearing on what will happen on Saturday. O’Shea doesn’t believe in history having any relevance to what might happen in the present. O’Shea argues, and rightly so, that most of the players on the Blue Bombers haven’t been around for more than 2 or 3 years, and they don’t recognize any “mystique” that McMahon stadium might hold. He does concede that Calgary has been the model CFL franchise for the past decade and that anybody who is going to beat them will have to be at the top of their game.
Bombers get a chance to knock the Stamps off their perch on Saturday afternoon. And we will have it on 680-cjob starting with a 2-hour pre-game show at 1pm.