My what a difference a week can make. Things suddenly got very quiet among our neighours to the East. The jokes and insults about the state of the Riders suddenly aren’t as funny when they can be countered with “yeah but you lost them. So what does that say about you?”. Things have also gotten quite loud here in Saskatchewan. For the most part its just happiness about finally winning and optimism. There is however a pocket of fans who have suddenly got very cocky and started beaking a fair bit. Look, be happy all you want that we won, feel free to liberally insult the Bombers (and their looks, intelligence and tendency to date within their own family tree/livestock herds) but always keep in mind that fans of teams with only 1 win should show at least a shred of humility especially when it took facing Brian Brohm for that win to actually become a reality. I actually find this whole thing kind of funny. The mood around the team this week is amazingly upbeat. There have been previous years where fans were more down on and more critical of the Riders despite far better records.
Matt Nichols gets the start for the Bombers…. The 8th straight different starting QB in a Banjo Bowl. Nichols is legitimately an upgrade at QB for the Bombers but this is more a reflection on the sad state of the Willy-less Bombers than it is of the abilities of Nichols. Bear in mind that a few weeks back this same Rider defense made Matt Nichols look like an all-star allowing him to pass for 300 yards and 2 TDs. That said in Edmonton, Nichols was blessed with a competent OC and a rock solid defense… he will have neither is his corner on Saturday.
Defensive game plan remains the same. Priority 1 is shutting down Marshall. Our odds of victory greatly improve the more the Bombers are forced to rely on Nichols’ arm. We also need to dial up the pressure in the trenches and make life miserable for Nichols in the pocket (as if being forced to move to Winnipeg isn’t miserable enough). I expect the Bombers to move the ball better this week but even at that I give the edge to our defense (likely the last time this season I will be able to write that).
Offensively the tried and true method of “feed the ball to Messam” needs to continue… minus the whole embarrassingly botched direct snap in our own end play (that one can go away). Chris Randle (one of Winnipeg’s top cover guys) is out long-term so that should make life easier on our slotbacks. Run lots, lean on Dressler for second down conversions over the middle, use Smith’s legs where possible. Long methodical drives will be our friend. Given the state of Winnipeg’s offense we are unlikely to need to get into a shootout so we need to focus on maintaining possession and chewing up yards.
That said, I think we need to be riskier early. Fact is that in 6 of our 10 games, we have failed to score a solitary point in the first quarter (you may have heard me preach on this once or twice before). In the other four we have a combined 14 points. This week we won’t have the benefit of the home crowd and can’t count on a kick return to jump start us. A slow start will allow the Winnipeg crowd (who will be likely drunker than normal) to crank up the volume on us. I would push to get an early lead and quiet the crowd... or at least get them to focus their attention on making a beer snake.
With Mike O’Shea taking over special teams (and getting more desperate to find ways to get a victory) I am expecting one or 2 of the trick plays that made him famous in Toronto. Fake kick, on-side kick, throwback across the field on a return, something. They are desperate for a spark and O’Shea knows how to pull it off. Players need to be on the lookout for it.
The Riders have won 5 of the past 7 Banjo Bowls and I think that will continue. The Bombers will play us a lot harder than last week and I expect I much closer game. But provided we can limit big mistakes (turnovers, big special teams play, penalties) we should be able to emerge with another victory... and further plunge the Bombers into to misery.
Riders by a Paul McCallum FG