WINNIPEG — Past division rivals meet for the second and final time this season on Friday night, as the Montreal Alouettes visit Investors Group Field to kick off Week 9 action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
For the Bombers, it’s a welcome chance to return home after a much-needed breather, 10 days after a 38-21 loss at the hands of the Toronto Argonauts that marked a second straight defeat in games played over a short five-day span the Bombers get back tro the comforts of home.
Well-rested and in need of a win to keep pace with the rest of the highly-competitive West Division, the Bombers aren’t about to overlook an Alouettes team that despite its record will provide a definite challenge.
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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will debut their Signature Uniforms, featuring digitized camo, for Friday Night Football against the Montreal Alouettes.
“They’re not far off from winning games so we need to take them very seriously, and that’s what we have been doing,” Bombers quarterback Drew Willy told The Canadian Press in Thursday’s pre-game press conference.
“We saw even last week, they played Saskatchewan very tough, to the wire there,” Willy added, referring to last weekend’s 16-11 Rider win last weekend, in a game that the Alouettes kept within a score from start to finish.
It also wasn’t long ago that Willy and the Bombers needed every last possession to beat the Alouettes, when the young quarterback’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Julian Feoli-Gudino was just enough to propel Winnipeg to a 34-33 on an early July night in Montreal, sending Winnipeg to a 3-0 start.
Things have changed since then and while the Alouettes continue to try and find their form, the Bombers have lost three of five games as they themselves hope to figure out what exactly has gone wrong in recent weeks.
“We had this long week to focus on technique, basically getting the things we’ve done wrong over the last few games back to the right way,” defensive tackle Bryant Turner said.
Winnipeg took the league by storm out of the gate, first trampling an early-season favourite, the Argos, in their home-opener before consecutive wins over the Alouettes and REDBLACKS. In a battle of undefeated teams, they fell to the Eskimos the following week, but responded with a convincing win on the road in BC followed by yet another thrilling last-second win in Hamilton over the Ticats.
Of late though, the Bombers have gotten away from what made them so successful to start the season, leading to back-to-back losses to Saskatchewan and Toronto by a combined score of 61-38. After averaging 397 yards of offence in the first two weeks, they’ve eclipsed the 300-yard mark just once in the last six games.
Meanwhile they continue to struggle in the turnover department, committing eight over their previous two losses and remaining the only team in the league with at least two turnovers in every game so far in 2014 – something they’ve done in 12 straight games and 22 of the last 23.
As they look to get those issues mopped up, they can also expect the Alouettes to attack another prevailing weakness for the Bombers of late, their run defence – especially with an athlete like former Blue Bomber Alex Brink under centre.
“With a young quarterback who’s maybe not been handed the job, he’s going to try and make plays, not only with his arm, but with his feet,” Head Coach Mike O’Shea said. “So you have to look at the fact that he’s probably going to try to pull the ball and run if he has to.”
Gary Etcheverry’s defence has been heralded for its ability to confuse quarterbacks and pile up sacks, but it’s also surrendered a league-worst 929 rushing yards and 55 first downs on the ground. Teams are starting to catch on, as even the Argos – predominantly a passing team – got 158 rushing yards out of their two backs.
“If you look at what our defence has given up in the last couple games, then obviously part of their game plan will be to run the ball on us,” O’Shea said of what the Alouettes are likely planning ahead of Friday’s game.
“That’s not rocket science.”
Alouettes running back Brandon Whitaker meanwhile is the third-leading rusher in the CFL with 406 yards on 87 carries, giving him a 4.7 average and the second-most carries out of anyone in the league. This season he’s averaging 58 rushing yards per game.
“Whitaker is a good back and I think they’re going to use him, especially with a new quarterback in there,” middle linebacker Ian Wild said.
While the Bombers look to regain their early-season form, the Alouettes hope to continue trending upwards after last weekend’s loss to the Roughriders. The 16-11 loss wasn’t a shootout by any means, but going toe to toe with the defending Grey Cup Champs on the road is no small feat.
In Alex Brink’s first start as an Alouette, the team had every opportunity to win and kept the game within a score, in the end falling just short. Yet while the results can’t be seen in the standings, there’s been clear week-to-week improvement.
“We thought that was one of our better outings of the football season,” Head Coach Tom Higgins told The Canadian Press. “We very much intend to hopefully pick up where we left off.”
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With consecutive games on the schedule out West, the Als made this week a road trip, remaining in the province of Saskatchewan for most of the week rather than returning to Montreal.
“It can’t hurt the team spirit to have stayed out here,” Higgins said in an interview with MontrealAlouettes.com. “The guys got a chance to hang out with other players that they normally wouldn’t have.”
“On Sunday, the players visited the tunnels of Moose Jaw together. It has been a great week and they enjoyed themselves.”
Their next stop will be a venue that, much like Mosaic Stadium in Regina, isn’t so receptive to visitors. Investors Group field is arguably the loudest stadium in the CFL.
“They have educated fans out here in the Prairies,” Higgins continued. “They know when to make noise.”
“We handled the environment pretty well and we’re looking to be even better,” he added following Wednesday’s practice at Leibel Field in Regina, the team’s final rehearsal before Friday’s showdown in Manitoba.
The battle of the starting pivots may be the most intriguing one, as Brink is set to make his second start since joining the Alouettes and his first against his former team. The 29-year-old spent three seasons in Blue and Gold, throwing 13 touchdown passes in seven starts and compiling a 3-4 record.
But for Brink, who completed 19 of 31 passes for 187 yards and an interception in last weekend’s loss, said his mission on Friday night won’t be anything personal.
“Outside of a handful of players, there’s not a lot of folks left in this organization that I’ve dealt with,” Brink said. “So there’s no animosity or anything like that.”
“It’s not a revenge game or anything,” he added. “I’m excited to go out and play and we desperately need a win and so that’s really all that matters to me.”
Brink won’t be preoccupied with the Bombers or with Willy, the quarterback that eventually replaced him in Winnipeg, as he looks to take a stranglehold on the Alouettes’ vacant quarterback position. The Als’ defence though will have to be more cognizant of the first-year, full-time starting quarterback.
“Drew Willy is everything the Blue Bombers wanted him to be and he’s had a great start to his season,” admitted Higgins. “Our goal every game is to protect our quarterback and put pressure on the opposing one.”
“Our defence has done a good job of that and we need them to continue on Friday.”
In their previous meeting back on July 11, Willy threw for 256 yards and the eventual game-winning touchdown on 24-38 passing, while Brink didn’t play as Troy Smith took the reins.
- Clarence Denmark has registered a catch of 30-plus yards in four of his last five games. He’s also recorded at least one catch to convert a second down in all eight games this season, and nine in a row overall.
- Last week’s loss to the Argos’ marked Winnipeg’s first two-game losing streak since the end of 2012, while also putting the Bombers in a fourth-place tie in the West with BC – their lowest standing in 2014.
- Against the Boatmen last week, Drew Willy completed 10-of-11 first-half passes, including two touchdown passes. On second down he was 11-of-15 for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
- Nic Grigsby had a solid game despite rushing only seven times, compiling 66 yards and averaging 9.4 yards per carry. The previous week he was held to just seven yards on 10 carries.
- Despite a slow start this season, the Als remain the strongest team in the CFL since re-entering the league in ’96. Their record since then is 206-124-1, putting them 15 wins ahead of second-place BC.
- The Alouettes have averaged only eight points per game on the road this season, while last week’s 11-point output was their highest road total this season.
- Brandon Whitaker is on pace to be one of just three 1,000-yard rushers this season, as he’s on pace to rush for 1,044 yards.
- Duron Carter has 17 catches for 181 yards over his last two games, including 94 yards after the catch. He has 20 catches in three games since returning from injury.
- Last weekend the Alouettes did not allow the Riders to reach the end zone, as Saskatchewan didn’t run any plays inside the Montreal 23 (although the Riders did score from the 30 on a touchdown pass for the game’s only major).
Kickoff is at 8:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL Gamecast.
– With files from The Canadian Press and MontrealAlouettes.com