REGINA – If you listen really closely, you can still hear the collective sigh of a sold out crowd at Mosaic Stadium following a pass from Cody Fajardo that ricocheted off the uprights, ultimately ending the game.
The throw from the Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback represented the final play of the 2019 West Final here in Regina – a game the Winnipeg Blue Bombers would leave victorious, and then one week later capture their first Grey Cup title in 29 years. As for the Roughriders, a promising 13-5 regular season proved to be all for none.
No one would know it at the time, but that nail-biting affair – the Bombers won by a single touchdown, 20-13 – would be the last time these two prairie rivals would meet for some time. Fast-forward to Sunday, more than 21 months later and following a cancelled 2020 CFL season owing to COVID-19, and it's that very game that provides an intriguing backdrop to an already significant matchup for this year's annual Labour Day clash.
"I'm sure they do have a bad taste in their mouth. You just don’t forget playoff losses at home, especially when you're the first-round seed," Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill said following Friday's practice. "So, I would expect a little fire, for sure."
In case there was any doubt of any lingering hurt from that fateful night, consider what Roughriders defensive back Ed Gainey told reporters earlier this week when asked about it...
"I always think about 2019, 2018 – they put us out a few years in a row. I still got a bad taste in my mouth and when it comes to Winnipeg, all I want to do is win. So, if we're not doing that then we're doing something wrong and the last few times we've played they've got the best of us."
Welcome to the 2021 Labour Day Classic. Here are five storylines to keep in mind leading up to a 5 p.m. kickoff Sunday.
LABOUR DAY CURSE
If you're a Bombers fan, even a casual one, you require little explanation for what's been dubbed the Labour Day Curse. While the Bombers have spoiled their share of special moments at the new Mosaic stadium, including winning the first preseason, regular-season and both playoff games there, finding a victory over the Labour Day weekend has been a near impossible feat.
In 55 previous Labour Day matchups between Winnipeg and Saskatchewan, the Bombers have won just 17 games compared to the Roughriders' 38 victories. They've been particularly lopsided in recent history, too, with Winnipeg losing 14 out of the last 15, the lone win coming in 2016 following a walk-off field goal by Justin Medlock.
But I'm not here to add to the doom and gloom. In fact, I think the Bombers win this year – and it's not just so you'll keep reading. With running back Andrew Harris back in the mix and the Roughriders rusty coming off a bye, I see Winnipeg staying in this one early, gutting out a win with a strong fourth quarter and adding to their list of triumphs at one of the most hostile stadiums in the CFL.
SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE
I wrote earlier this week about the significant drop in scoring this season, with the average points per game falling nearly 20 points from 2019 (from 56 to 38). That's when Bombers defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat spoke up to inform me that hasn't exactly been an issue with the Roughriders.
Indeed, it hasn't. In fact, Saskatchewan leads the entire CFL with an average of 28.7 points scored per game. That's more than a touchdown better than the B.C. Lions in second place, with an average of 21 points per game.
Here's where things get interesting, though. Come over to the defensive side of things and it's Winnipeg currently pacing the CFL when it comes to averaging the fewest points per game, at 14.8. I should note here that Saskatchewan is in a close second, allowing just 15.7 points to their opponents.
The most prolific offence against the stingiest defence...clearly, something's got to give.
Not often can you point to the same area of each team and say that's going to be the difference, but this week feels like the exception. While the battle in the trenches, otherwise known as the line of scrimmage, is always an important part of any game, if the Bombers are going to win, they're going to need to get their defensive line going, while also putting a stop to the Roughriders dominating front-four.
Let's start with the Roughriders D-line, a group that leads the CFL with an eye-popping 14 sacks in three games. Jonathan Woodward and Garrett Marino, both of whom are CFL rookies, have combined for eight of those, including a league-leading five from Woodward. A.C. Leonard, a six-year CFL veteran, also has three sacks. Add into the mix arguably the league's best inside tackle in Micah Johnson, as well as the fact Saskatchewan allows a league-best 47 rushing yards against per game, and there's no question the Bombers will have their hands full.
Winnipeg also isn't short on talent when it comes to the D-line, not with Willie Jefferson and Jeffcoat creating fits off the edge. But the D-line as a whole hasn't lived up to high expectations so far this year and will need their best to get to Fajardo, who has quick feet and can run if needs be. Plugging the run game has also been a struggle, with the Bombers allowing 102 yards per game.
No time like the present for an improvement in this area. Do it against the Roughriders and suddenly the script has flipped.
BACK AT IT
The Bombers got a big boost with the return of Harris last week, and they'll get another one this weekend with the return of receiver Nic Demski.
Demski was playing at a high level, registering 13 catches for 138 yards – an average of 10.6 yards per reception – and one touchdown when he went down with a hip injury in Week 2. He's missed the last two games but was back at it at practice this week and looks no worse for wear.
He's a key piece on a young but talented receiver crew and should bring some added confidence to quarterback Zach Collaros and the offence. Demski is also a running threat, meaning the playbook could open a bit with him in the lineup. Either way, his presence alone should free up other receivers from double coverage. Look for Kenny Lawler to potentially have a big day.
On another note, the Bombers signed veteran receiver Naaman Roosevelt this week and will be looking for an excuse to insert him into the lineup. Could the added pressure lead to fewer dropped passes? We'll see.
TOUGHEST TEST YET
After an up-and-down start to the season, kicker Marc Liegghio found his footing last week, finishing the game four-for-four on field goals. His final kick from 45c yards out in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter proved to be the winner in an 18-16 victory over the Calgary Stampeders.
But while it was an impressive showing, kicking at home pales in comparison to kicking on the road, especially in a packed Mosaic Stadium. The 24-year-old rookie will face his toughest test this weekend, in a game where the Bombers can't afford to leave points off the board.
Winnipeg inked an American kicker Ali Mourtada after Tyler Crapigna pulled up lame with a hamstring injury, but he remains on the suspended list as he completes his travel requirements. If things don't go well Sunday for Liegghio – who, by the way, has been a formidable punter – the Bombers won't be afraid to test out their new foot.
But a strong showing in Regina could go a long way in moving back to the original plan of having Liegghio handle all kicking duties.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.