It doesn’t matter if it is a game, practice or schoolyard scrimmage with his buddies: TJ Lee is always jacked up to play football. Put a former Eastern Washington teammate and friend on the other side, and that exuberance gets amplified even more.
Friday’s trip to Winnipeg marks the latest instalment of Lee’s friendly rivalry with Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols.
“It’s another challenge. We get bragging rights and occasionally I go over to Spokane where he trains, and I am sure we will be able to argue that and basically talk about who got the better of the two,” explained the Lions smooth-talking defensive back.
“I’m pretty sure we won the last time we played him, but he did get a couple double move touchdowns on me. I am mentally ready for the next challenge.”
Lee was a redshirt prop while Nichols was capping off an incredible run at the Cheney campus, which included 14 school records and six Big Sky Conference marks. For the wide-eyed Lee, it was both a challenging and rewarding test in how to dissect a quarterback.
“I have definitely been watching his game for a long time and outside of the CFL I am a fan,” laughed Lee.
“I know he’s a great quarterback that takes what the defence gives him and he is ready for the challenge too.”
Nichols will be good to go after suffering an injury to his throwing hand in the first half of last Friday’s loss to Hamilton. He has practiced all week with a glove to protect his ring finger.
It appears to be just a minor bump in the road for Nichols and a Blue Bombers offence that has been quite the turnaround story since he took over as the full time starter on July 28th of last season. Since taking the reigns Drew Willy, Nichols has led the Bombers to a 20-7 regular season record. As you may recall, they also came within a whisker of upsetting the Lions in last November’s Western Semi-Final.
“They are a good football team, they’ve got a lot of weapons and you’ve got to give Nichols a lot of credit, “ said GM/head coach Wally Buono.
“He’s doing a good job of getting the ball to their playmakers. Their defence has a knack of getting turnovers. We know that about them, but the last couple of times we’ve played them, we’ve beaten them and obviously it’s going to be a different game. We’re due to play a complete game.”
A complete effort could result in moving to within two points of Saskatchewan for 4th place in the West Division, after the Riders stunning 33-32 loss to Ottawa on Friday night. The 7-7 Eskimos play host to Toronto in the late game on Saturday. On the other side, Winnipeg can lock up their spot and a first home playoff game since 2011. Lee is adamant his squad wants to get results, no matter what the scenarios indicate.
“You still have to play for your family, yourself, your job and your future,” stated Lee.
“We still need to take care of our business and control what we can control. We need to just keep empowering each other and pushing each other to play that complete game.”
The secondary wore the brunt of last week’s blown opportunity against Ottawa where Trevor Harris passed for 380 yards and three second half touchdowns. The result has forced Buono to make one significant tweak, starting Buddy Jackson at field corner in place of Anthony Gaitor. Facing Nichols provides just as big of a challenge and the always-hostile Investors Group Field Crowd adds even more to the equation.
“That brings out the best in me and hopefully it brings out the best in our defence,” said Lee.
“There is nothing like playing in an environment where there is a whole bunch of fans. It is either going to break your confidence or make your confidence. We’re excited.”
BC Lions (6-8-0) at Winnipeg Blue Bombers (10-4-0)
Saturday, October 14th
Investors Group Field
TSN 1040/TSN 1/ESPN 3
Game day forecast: a mix of sun and cloud with a high of nine degrees and low of four degrees Celsius
Most recent meeting: a 45-42 Lions win at BC Place on July 21st
Vegas Line: The Lions are point 7.5 underdogs
Former Lion On Verge Of 1K-1K History
One of those playmakers Buono mentioned was none other than former Lion Andrew Harris. Along with trying to help his hometown Bombers snap a 27-year championship drought, the 2011 Grey Cup Most Outstanding Canadian is chasing history: no CFL player has ever had 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. With four games to play, Harris has 819 yards on the ground and 783 through the air.
Solomon Elimimian isn’t surprised to see his old buddy still doing it at such a high level.
“My first year was 2010 and that was his first or second year. I didn’t know who was our starting running back, but certainly Andrew was someone who stood out to me,” recalled Elimimian.
“Just going against him as a rookie and not knowing who he was, I thought he was a really good running back and when he got his opportunity he made (it into) what we see now. He is one of the better running backs in the league and one of the most versatile players in the CFL with what he can do out of the backfield.”
Buono did everything he could to keep Harris in the fold after 2015, offering the tailback an extension that would have made him the highest-paid Canadian in the league. In the end, playing at home was too good an opportunity to pass up. A family man like Buono can certainly appreciate that mindset and isn’t surprised to see Harris dominating.
“Andrew was a great contributor when he was here, and sometimes a change of scenery is good for everybody,” said Buono.
“Paul LaPolice has done a great job of integrating him into the offence. Andrew is one of the best backs ever in this league, as far as being a pass receiver. I think he’s running harder, he’s running more physical and that’s the confidence he’s built.”
Harris has always put team accomplishments first so it isn’t surprising to hear him say he isn’t thinking about the possible feat while trying to help his Bombers get to where they want to be. In discussion with Ed Tait from bluebombers.com, Harris went into detail just how much he thinks about making history.
“You just go with the game, right? Some games the ball comes to you a lot more, you see the game and the game slows down and you’re able to accumulate yardage and make plays,” said Harris.
“Hopefully I can help the team, create yardage and get to that point. But again, it’s about getting wins now and this is a big game for us. To eliminate a team, that’s big for us, and possibly securing second place is huge for us, too. That’s the ultimate goal right now.”
Given his competitive nature, you know he may take just a little extra pride in putting that final nail in the Lions’ coffin- even if he is taking the politically correct approach in answering.
“Any time you get to the end of the season and there’s playoff implications it definitely makes the game more exciting. There’s more on the line and there’s a playoff atmosphere now,” added the former Vancouver Island Raider.
“So, if you have the potential to knock a team out, that’s huge. It’s the start of the playoff elimination process so hopefully we can get the win and knock them out.”
And you can bet number 33 will be a huge part of what the Bombers do on offence in this game.
“What we did with him here out of the backfield is what they’re doing with him over there, but they’re doing it times ten,” explained number 56.
“Screens, draws, whatever, he is their go to weapon and he’s shown why he is capable of being the number one target for that team. He’s done a good job.”
Harris’ production really is remarkable, especially when you consider he leads the Bombers with 88 receptions, 13 more than Darvin Adams.
Big Battle To Watch
The Lions receivers will get a good test against a Bombers secondary that boasts some of the more athletic defenders in all of the CFL. Chris Randle and TJ Heath have combined for nine interceptions and rank 2nd and 3rd in the league respectively, behind Saskatchewan’s Ed Gainey.
Former UBC Thunderbirds standout and 2015 Vanier Cup champion Taylor Loffler leads the Bombers in tackles and has proven to be a solid fit at the safety position.
“I remember Loffler coming in because I was a rookie with him, just from the combine. He’s a physical safety who comes out and plays and hits,” said Shaq Johnson.
“Randle is definitely a veteran corner. I’ve seen him play. I’m just looking forward to going up against him and putting my skills to the test.”
Simply put: this battle could be the difference in this game.
“I believe in our guys. I’m really excited about us hitting the field and playing a good Winnipeg team. We just have to do our thing. We have to make sure that we go out there and put points on the board. The way we do that is executing each and every play We’re always excited to play in front of a crowd like Winnipeg’s.”- Jonathon Jennings on the mindset after a good week of practice.
“I know that a Wally Buono coached team is going to come out and play a very physical style of game. He will demand it and I am sure they will give it. And they have in the past. First and foremost our guys need to make sure that they are ready to play a heavy, physical game. When you get into these situations, everybody has got to have their eyes open and expect everything, right?”- Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea not expecting the Lions roll over.
Three Keys To Victory
Limit the deep ball– the secondary’s inability to prevent long plays ultimately did them in last week. They need a bounce back game big time.
Keep Harris in check- Ottawa’s William Powell was held to 92 yards last week. Harris is an entirely different beast. Taking away the Bombers’ best option on offence forces offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice to tweak on the fly.
Pound the rock- with two trips to Winnipeg in the next three weeks; weather will eventually be a factor. It is time to unleash Jeremiah and Chris Rainey. Taking pressure off of the receivers against the opportunistic Bombers’ defence can be beneficial.
Stats Zone: Chris Rainey remains first in the CFL with 2,202 combined yards. 435 of those are from scrimmage. The Lions have 17 rushing touchdowns this season, just one shy of CFL-leading Calgary.
Bryan Burnham hauled in a career high 208 receiving yards in a 37-35 loss in Winnipeg last October. The Lions trailed 21-3 early before making a game of it. Their last win in the Manitoba capital came on September 13th, 2014. Kevin Glenn passed for 261 yards and hit both Harris and Emmanuel Arceneaux for touchdowns.
Including last November’s Western Semi-Final, the last five meetings between these two clubs have been decided by three points or less.
Mike Benson and Jordan Herdman are expected to have large, orange-clad cheering sections. During the offseason, Benson runs a fitness centre in his native Winnipeg. Herdman’s father James Reed was a Blue Bombers linebacker from 1979-81 and stayed in the Manitoba capital after starting his family. Reed currently works for Maple Leaf Construction.
Diamond and Diamond Injury Report: Adrian Clarke (groin) is indeed out after leaving the first half of last week’s loss. Calgary Dinos product Alex Ogbongbemiga will take his spot on special teams. Defensive lineman Bryant Turner Jr. is back on the roster in place of receiver Nick Moore.
For the Bombers, receiver Westin Dressler is on the six-game injured list, while running back Timothy Flanders did not practice all week. Defensive lineman Jamaal Westerman is out for the season with an arm injury. Leading receiver Adams will suit up despite missing Thursday’s practice.
TSN 1040 has you covered, beginning with the pregame show at 11:00AM. Bob Marjanovich and Giulio Caravatta have the call at 1:00 PM. Viewers can watch on TSN 1 and Lions fans south of the border can tune in on ESPN 3.
Download the roster and depth chart HERE!