It’s a weird vibe across the prairies this week. Some of that is probably due to the impending influx of our neighbours to the East. A group that comes with high stink levels, low tooth to mouth ratios and also leads to increase anxiety levels for barnyard animals. But more to the point of my story, the vibe is very upbeat… almost cocky. For a 1 and 8 team mired in a season with little to be happy about its fairly uncharacteristic. But hey, this is Labour Day.
The Riders win on Labour Day. Its as much a part of our Saskatchewan culture as Pilsner, Telemiracle and opposing daylight savings time. It’s been over a decade since the Riders last lost a Labour Day Classic. For most people this is a long time, however for Winnipeg fans who measure football achievements in decades as opposed to seasons, this doesn’t seem all that long at all. We just win. We win regardless of QB (having won with not only Joseph and Durant but also Butler, Crandell, Bishop and Smith). We win regardless our record (having won by a large margin in both 2011 and 2015 which were just dreadful years). We just win, the province parties, the only real uncertainty is whether I keep my pants on during the post-game celebrations.
That brings us to this year’s edition of the Classic…
On the surface the Bombers and their 4 game win streak vs the Riders and their… quite frankly I’ve stopped counting the losses… would seem to favour the visitors. But let’s dig a bit deeper on the Bombers and their recent run of success. The Bombers have 1 win against a team with a winning record and 3 of their 5 wins have come against teams fielding a back-up QB. I will admit that they are playing some good football and that they are an improved team over previous years but we should not be anointing them a rising force in the west. If we are being honest the Bombers feature a mediocre offense that is offset by a defense that creates an absurd number of turnovers (almost 5 per game over the past 4). They have a league high 33 takeaways (11 more than the next closest) including 18 INTs. Their game plan is simple: conservative on offense. Harris is the top rusher and they lean on him lots. They have the 2nd least passing yards but they routinely get shorts fields and don’t make mistakes. They have the 2nd highest completion % and the 2nd fewest INTs (Nichols has 1). It’s a recipe that is working well for them. I’m not convinced it’s a sustainable recipe but until someone proves otherwise, it’s the one they will follow.
Other than blindly assume that we will do everything awesome on Labour Day (a fair assumption some could argue) here’s how we go about getting that elusive second win.
Defensively stopping the run is priority #1. Unlike pretty much every other team, the Bombers are committed to using their running back. He is the focal point of that offense. That means our tackling needs to be sound and our D-line needs to keep the O-line from getting to the second level on their blocks. Nichols is having success with high % passes and a deep shot thrown in here and there. We need to take away those quick easy passes and force him to hold the ball longer and throw further downfield. Nichols has always struck me more as an adequate game manager but not the gunslinger who is going to win a shootout. Turn up the pressure on him and cracks will begin to show. I also would be in favour of somebody reenacting the famous Butler on Pierce hit from a few years ago... you know for nostalgia sake.
Offensively its pretty simple. Control the ball. The Bombers have 87 points off turnovers this season. That’s crazy… but simply controlling the ball takes away a key part of what makes Winnipeg successful. That is of course easier said than done. Though with the exception of that dreadful Hamilton debacle, Durant has not thrown a pick in his remaining games. It starts up front. It really helps Durant make good decisions and throws when he has more than .5 seconds to do so. Someone put cleats on Matt Vonk’s shoes instead of roller-skates. I also assume that Fulton will have a better outing now that the rust is off. Durant may also need to help himself. I don’t mean that he has to rush for 80 yards but even rollouts to buy time will help hide the inadequacies of our line. In true Richie Hall tradition the Bombers have a bend but don’t break defense. #2 in yards given up but also #2 in points allowed. Patience is paramount. Methodical drives even when we get close to the redzone are needed. Obviously Roosevelt is the money maker but if we key in on him too much then interceptions are a certainty. Holley, Demski, Bagg, Chambers, Collins, Lawrence find ways to get them the ball. We can’t get predictable (why not try running? no chance they game planned for that based on our game film). If we control the ball and limit turnovers then Winnipeg suddenly becomes a very beatable team.
Labour Day has brought us some great memories and some moments I’m pretty sure were awesome but the memories are clouded by whiskey. I will be in the stands jacked up for what might be the last legitimately exciting game of the season. The rest of the stands better be equally as jacked. Let’s make the final Classic at the old Stadium a thunderous party and let’s give our team the boost they need to pummel the figgin’ Bombers. On behalf of Rider fans everywhere: Please don't screw this up Chris Jones... its all we have.
Riders by 14
As a final note, it really wouldn’t be Labour Day without me devoting part of this post to insulting the residents of Winnipeg. Sometimes I feel like I should lay off them I mean it’s been 26 years since they won a Cup. Since then every team in the CFL that hasn’t folded and 1 that has folded have won the Cup. Most multiple times. They haven’t made the playoffs in 5 of the last 6 seasons, a near statistical impossibility in a 9 team league. Were it not for lax rules on interfamily marriages and extra disposable income based on not spending anything on personal hygiene they would have no joy in life whatsoever. So I will refrain from my usual jabs this time.. besides its not like they possess the 3rd grade education required to read this anyway