(With files from Bluebombers.com and Postmedia)
WINNIPEG -- The Als and Bombers meet for the second time this season, as Winnipeg looks for a second straight home win at Canad Inns Stadium on Friday night.
Alex Brink gets the call for the Blue and Gold for the third straight week, after a breakout performance last week led to the Bombers to a thrilling win against a stingy Edmonton Eskimos defence.
The third-year pivot had 294 yards through the air on an efficient 26-38 passing and one touchdown, while rushing for 57 yards on six carries in the win, leading a fourth-quarter comeback in a rematch with the Esks.
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While it’ll take a similar performance against Montreal if the Bombers want a chance to win their second straight game, Brink said he enters this one with a little bit more confidence after last week’s positive result.
“From a confidence level it’s always good as a player, as a quarterback to get that first win under your belt,” Brink told Bluebombers.com. “But at the same time, my mentality’s the same, I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself, so I’m just excited for another opportunity on Friday.
Bombers Head Coach Paul LaPolice said he believes it’s not Brink’s confidence that improved after last week’s win, but instead, the confidence of his teammates.
“I don’t think his confidence has changed that much. I think the confidence of the people around him has changed,” LaPolice told the Bombers’ official website. “And I think that’s what the quarterback’s job is. A quarterback is supposed to get everybody to believe he’s going to take you to the promise land – Alex is a very confident individual, since he’s gotten here he’s prepared like a starter, he’s as intelligent as I’ve been around.”
Friday’s duel with the Als will be the Bombers’ second of a four-game home stand, after opening the first four games of the season on the road. The return to Canad Inns does bode well for the Bombers though, with home teams winning at a 75 per cent clip so far this season.
That percentage was even higher before last weekend, when three of four games were won by the visitor. Heading into Week 5, 14 of the first 16 games in 2012 were won by the host.
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The Bombers are certainly a different-looking team since the the last time these two teams met. With Brink joined under centre by rookie running back Chad Simpson, along with returning receiver Cory Watson, who made plenty of noise in his 2012 debut last weekend with seven catches for 66 yards.
Watson joins breakout rookie Chris Matthews, who sits third in the league in receiving yards with 418, and veteran Terrence Edwards to give Brink some highly-explosive weapons at his disposal.
Simpson also gives the Bombers quite a threat from the running back position, as the speedy back has 164 yards and an average of 5.7 yards per carry in his first two starts.
One thing Brink and LaPolice agree on is that if the Bombers are going to continue heading in the right direction offensively, they’ll need to find more success in the red zone, where they left points on the board in last weekend’s win.
“That’s something we need to improve on, on finishing drives with touchdowns,” said Brink. “We’re putting ourselves in a tough position at the end of games, having to rely on our defence to hold teams off because we’re not scoring seven. I think all our games so far, if we score some touchdowns instead of kicking field goals, we’re a lot better than 1-4 that’s for sure.”
But when they did have to rely on their defence last weekend, it came through in a big way. The Bombers gave up just eight points in the second half, including only one in the fourth quarter.
Most impressively, with the Esks moving quickly into field goal range, it was a timely turnover that stopped Esks quarterback Steven Jyles in his tracks and preserved the win for the Bombers. Rookie defensive lineman Jake Thomas made a great play to knock the ball out of the hands of Jyles on a running play, and the Bombers recovered to hold off the late Edmonton comeback attempt.
Winnipeg became known for its strength defensively a year ago, when pass-rusher Odell Willis led one of the fiercest front sevens in the league, earning the moniker of Swaggerville. This past off-season, Willis was traded to the Riders, and the Bombers vaunted D struggled out of the gate.
But they appear to be returning to last year’s form, after looking very strong against the Esks just one week after shutting down Argos pivot Ricky Ray for most of the second half in a close 25-22 loss to the Argos.
This week will be a true test for that defence though, as the league’s leading passer through five weeks invades the Peg looking to get his team back in the win column. Anthony Calvillo doesn’t appear to be affected by his age, as he continues to dominate, leading the league with 1,633 passing yards.
317 of those came in last week’s 23-20 loss to the Argos, in which he moved the ball with consistency against the league’s top pass defence going into the game. But in the end, the Als offence couldn’t strike when given the chance as the final few minutes ticked off the clock, leading to Montreal’s first home loss of the season.
This week, Calvillo and the Als will get a chance to bounce back against a familiar opponent, after putting up big offensive numbers in a Week 2 win over the Bombers.
Travel issues on their way to Winnipeg this week won’t make things any easier, after the team was dealt a 10-hour layover at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport on Thursday. The flight was originally scheduled for 8 A.M., but didn’t actually arrive in Winnipeg until 9:30 P.M. – 15 hours after some players had originally arrived at the airport.
“It has gone smoothly and the guys have handled it well,” Head Coach Marc Trestman told The Montreal Gazette by telephone Thursday afternoon. “I’m not concerned, and there’s nothing we can do. The guys have to refocus — and I’m sure they will. I don’t deal in a world of worry or hypothetical situations.”
It’s just another challenge among many the Als have dealt with this week, testing the team’s character.
“We’ve already had two power outages and two bus rides (to practice) this week,” he added. “They’ve always handled these things well. We’re not a team that has made excuses when other things have happened. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we don’t.”
Travel problems aside, the Als head into Friday’s game with no shortage of confidence, which is something that comes with a veteran group like Montreal’s, led by the most experienced quarterback in the league.
“You’ve got to be in the locker (room) to understand the feeling,” Calvillo, a 19-year CFL veteran, told the Gazette on Monday following team meetings and film review. “I felt we did improve and are headed in the right direction. That’s a huge, huge sign.”
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The Als scored often in a 41-30 win over Winnipeg in their home opener. Anthony Calvillo threw for 443 yards and three touchdowns, while Brandon Whitaker was equally impressive, amassing 235 yards and three touchdowns on 27 touches. Buck Pierce was an efficient 18-26 passing for 255 yards, but was forced to leave the game with an injury, sending current starter Alex Brink into action. Chris Matthews stood out for the Bombers, with 131 receiving yards on eight catches.
We feel all phases are improving,” added the 39-year-old. “We know what we’re capable of doing. There’s a belief we can get this done. There are no more question marks of ‘can we?’ I have a sense. It’s hard to explain. You have to be in the locker to see how we responded to the loss.”
One promising aspect in the Als’ loss to Toronto last weekend was the play of the defence in the second half. After giving up a pair of Chad Owens touchdowns in the first half, the Montreal defence settled in nicely in the second half, shutting down Ray, Chad Owens, and the league’s leading rusher Cory Boyd to hold the Boatmen to just three points in the entire second half.
For the first time this season, it was the offence that didn't take advantage of the defences victories but Trestman, like Calvillo, said brighter days are ahead.
“I’m bitterly disappointed we didn’t have the quality of offence we’re capable of,” Trestman said. “I see signs of better things to come. I see signs of us being a good team. I like the strength of our locker. The players are focused. They’re trying and listening. I feel we can remedy the situation.”
Kickoff is at 8:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN’s Friday Night Football, or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca.