WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats will write the next chapter in their growing rivalry on Friday night at IG Field to open their respective seasons.
The new campaign couldn’t come soon enough for the Blue Bombers as the 2022 season got off to a flying start and ended with a thud, at least by their own standards, with a loss in the Grey Cup to the Toronto Argonauts.
The Bombers will begin their trek back to the top against the team they beat to win the Grey Cup in 2019 and 2021.
Quarterback Zach Collaros is back for his fourth season in Winnipeg and is coming off career highs in completions (305), passing yards (4,183) and touchdowns (37). All of it led to him being named the league’s Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row.
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His obvious targets will be 2022 Most Outstanding Rookie Dalton Schoen, along with Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey and Drew Wolitarsky. Schoen led the league in receiving yards with 1,441 and touchdowns with 16.
The offence doesn’t stop there as Brady Oliveira emerged as one of the league’s best running backs after posting 1,001 yards on the ground.
Finding holes and exposing the Ticats front won’t come easy if 2022 is any indication, as the Tabbies held opponents to a league-low 82.9 rushing yards per game and have added significantly to their defensive front.
Oliveira isn’t lacking confidence despite the stingy Ticats defence he’ll see on Friday night.
“Confidence and knowing that I belong in this league and knowing that I played a full 18-game season plus playoffs and then the Grey Cup,” Oliveira told bluebombers.com when speaking about what’s different from last year to this season.
“It’s knowing that I belong in this league and I’m a top running back in this league and I know I can do it. My biggest thing is how can I help this team win football games and get to our ultimate goal.”
The Bombers defended the pass extremely well last season, as quarterbacks and receivers connected for an average of 253.6 yards against them. Forcing turnovers in the air largely came by committee as 11 players had an interception and no one had more than three.
New Ticats quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who threw six picks and completed 61.3 per cent of his passes as his playing time diminished in Calgary, will need to be cognizant of the whereabouts of defensive backs Deatrick Nichols and Demerio Houston but he won’t have to worry about Winston Rose, who’s sidelined for Friday’s matchup.
It was an off-season makeover in the Steel City as the Ticats brought in a significant number of new faces.
Mitchell’s departure from Calgary and arrival in Hamilton stole the headlines for much of the off-season.
Now he’s tasked with leading the offence and will be tested right off the hop against a stout Bombers defence that he became accustomed to facing during his time with the Stampeders.
When Mitchell drops back, he’ll look for receivers Tim White, Terry Godwin and newly-acquired Chris Osei-Kusi. White led all Ticats receivers last season with 1,265 receiving yards.
The Bombers will also need to be ready for the ball to be handed to James Butler. Butler finished just 28 yards behind rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey last season as a member of the BC Lions. Butler has plenty of experience rushing against the likes of Bighill, Jeffcoat and the rest of the Bombers front, which should be useful Friday night.
The additions of defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis, Casey Sayles and linebacker Jameer Thurman, along with the return of fan favourite Simoni Lawrence will look to shut down the potent Bombers offence.
Already equipped with a strong game plan against the run that had considerable success in 2022, Davis, Sayles and Thurman’s ability to get to Collaros and keep the ball out of the hands of his talented receivers will be crucial to the outcome turning in the Ticats favour. The trio combined for 14 sacks last season.
In the secondary, Tunde Adeleke will try to get off to a strong start after a season in which he played 18 games for the first time in his career.
Davis, who returns to the Black and Gold after spending 2019 and 2021 in Hamilton, is excited to open the season against a familiar foe.
“You know what you’re getting every time you play Winnipeg,” Davis told members of the media. “They’ve been setting the precedent for the past three or four years of what it’s like to be on top. They’re a veteran team, a poised team and know what it takes.”
The Bombers and Ticats will both look to get off to a good start in their respective divisions as they renew their rivalry in Winnipeg.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET. The game can be seen on TSN and CFL+ (International and U.S.).
-Wwith files from bluebombers.com and ticats.ca