WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers put their new-look product to the test on Thursday night at Investors Group Field, as they host the Toronto Argonauts in the opening game of the regular season.
It’s a chance for them to usher in a new era with a pretty big statement, as they hope to turn the tide against a former division foe. That is where the Blue and Gold are squarely focusing and not the much-talked about connections between rookie head coach Mike O’Shea, Argos’ defensive coordinator Tim Burke, and their former teams.
“We’re going out there to win and set a pace for the season,” O’Shea told BlueBombers.com.
The 43-year-old’s illustrious 16-year CFL playing career was spent with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Argos, but now after spending four seasons as a special teams coach with the Boatmen all of that is history.
“I’m sure there are gonna be people that don’t like me saying this, but I’m a Blue Bomber,” he said when asked what it means to be facing his former team to kick off his head coaching career.
What’s more important to O’Shea than whom the Bombers play on Thursday is just how they manage to set the tone. That started back on the very first day of training camp, when he wanted players to understand how penalties and turnovers got the team in trouble in previous years.
For all of June they were reminded of that and coached on how to change such a culture, and on Thursday they’ll look to take it a step further.
“We’d like to come out there and be as physical as we can and set a standard for us, set up a minimum standard for ourselves and keep building from there,” O’Shea said.
While O’Shea gives the Bombers a fresh look on the sideline, the face of so many off-season changes may just be former Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Drew Willy, who was traded to Winnipeg to become a full-time starting quarterback for the first time in his career.
He’s set to become the team’s sixth starting quarterback in its last 23 games following the likes of Buck Pierce and Max Hall, as fans hope he’ll be the answer to the quarterback carousel in Winnipeg.
“I feel good,” said Willy ahead of his fifth career start and first with the Bombers. “We’ve been preparing for this since the opening day of training camp so I’m putting everything I can into film work, making sure my reads are correct.”
He’s shown in the few chances he’s had that he possesses the skill-set required in the CFL, while putting up a career 99.1 passer rating on 147 attempts. He’s thrown nine touchdowns and five interceptions, and last year filled in admirably for an injured Darian Durant with four touchdowns and just one interception.
Now though the situation is a little bit different for the University of Buffalo alum. Willy isn’t just filling in – he’s the full-time starter, and his first task is to beat an admittedly formidable opponent in Ricky Ray.
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“I’m not sure how many points it’s going to take, but I obviously have a great respect for Ricky Ray,” said Willy when asked about having to outduel one of the league’s finest. “It’s very impressive to throw over 75 per cent completion percentage last year, that’s big-time football right there.”
Willy won’t be on the field trying to stop Ray himself, but he realizes there’s plenty he can do to slow the future Hall of Famer’s roll.
“We definitely need to be efficient, we need to make sure our drives take some time and keep him off the field, and make sure we’re getting touchdowns instead of field goals,” said Willy. “Not sure exactly how many points it’s going to take but all we need is one more than they have.”
Ray’s completion percentage last season was 77.2 to be exact, which along with a quarterback rating of 126.4 shattered many CFL records. As O’Shea points out, it’s pretty redundant to say stopping him – whatever it may take – is the key to winning.
“They’ve seen enough film,” he said of his defence in preparation for Ray. “They don’t need me to remind them. They know he’s good.”
While the Argos have also seen many changes on both sides of the ball, Ray remains the constant, providing them a pretty good chance to repeat as East Division Champions. Both Ray and Head Coach Scott Milanovich return for their third season in Toronto, and expectations are that an already-prolific offence will continue to grow.
Last season the Boatmen led the CFL in passing with 300.3 yards per game, helping them earn their first division title since 2007. Despite some changes on the offensive line, the retirement of former Grey Cup MVP running back Chad Kackert, and some wrinkles in the receiving corps, the offence has the potential to find that next gear.
With the offence seemingly set in Toronto the questions entering Thursday’s contest start with the defence, which ranked at the bottom of the league in 2013 in total yards and is now without defensive coordinator Chris Jones, who departed to Edmonton for a head coaching gig.
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The team hired former Blue Bombers head coach Tim Burke over the off-season, whom the Argos trust can get them headed in the right direction after that unit struggled a year ago.
“What I’d like to see is our defensive line get after the passer with a four-man rush and our cover guys in man coverage,” Milanovich told Argonauts.ca. He added that he’s not entirely sure how things will look on Thursday night, but hopes for a repeat performance of a nine-sack effort in the pre-season finale against Hamilton.
“We’ve built our foundation defensively on rushing the passer with four and being able to cover in man-to-man,” he continued. “Certainly we’ll have other wrinkles if that’s not going the way we hope it will but ideally that’s what we’d like to see.”
Burke meanwhile faces no shortage of pressure heading into 2014, as he coaches a defence comprised mostly of young starters compared to an offence that should be firing on all cylinders. He said what the team may lack in talent he’ll have to make up for in scheming.
“Scheme-wise probably you have more in case your talent level isn’t as good as you hope it would be, you maybe have a few more bullets in your gun in case things don’t go right – you have something else to fall back on.”
“Sooner or later you have to have the talent to get it done and I’m hoping here in Toronto the talent level is going to be such that you aren’t going to be a burden on the offence, because certainly we have a very good offence.”
The season-opener is the the first of two meetings between these teams in 2014, and the first since the Bombers moved to the West Division.
– The Argos have claimed five of the past six meetings between these teams, dating back to 2012.
– In the previous meeting, a 36-21 Argo win, Ricky Ray broke club records with a career-high 505 passing yards on 39-45 passing with three touchdowns (and completed 21 straight passes in the process).
– Ray recently topped TSN’s list of top 50 CFL players heading into 2014.
– Tim Burke along with Argos’ Linebackers Coach Casey Creehan and Defensive Line Coach Will Plemons face their former team for the first time, while Mike O’Shea faces his former club.
– Only 20 of 46 active players this week for the Bombers were active for the team’s final game of last season, representing a 57 per cent roster turnover from 2013.
– Former Argo Ejiro Kuale, Chris Rangle, Nick Moore, Nic Grigsby, and Matthias Goossen are among those also making their Bomber debuts on Thursday, while linebacker Shea Emry will debut for the Argos.
Kickoff is at 8:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN or followed on CFL.ca with Gamecast.
– With files from BlueBombers.com/Argonauts.ca