WINNIPEG — Willie Jefferson won’t be wearing boxing gloves in Saturday’s CFL West Division final, but he might feel like he’s in the ring.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end anticipates a slugfest against the B.C. Lions if their season series is any indicator.
The Lions visited Winnipeg on June 22 and handed the Blue Bombers their first loss of the season in a 30-6 knockdown. The Bombers hosted B.C. again on Aug. 3 and dropped the Lions 50-14. The rubber match on Oct. 6 in B.C. was a 34-26 overtime victory for Winnipeg.
“It’s been a heavyweight fight,” Jefferson said Friday after Winnipeg’s closed walk-through practice. “Just trying to throw punches, trying to land punches, trying to play some good defence.”
Winnipeg’s defence led the CFL in allowing the fewest points, net yards and passing yards. B.C. was fourth in fewest points allowed, second in net yards and tied for fourth in passing yards.
The Blue Bombers (14-4) have some history riding on Saturday’s game. A victory would earn the team a fourth consecutive trip to the Grey Cup, which would be a first for the franchise.
The players will have plenty of fans boosting their home-field advantage.
Saturday’s tilt is expected to be a fifth straight sellout of 32,343 at IG Field, where the Bombers are 8-1 this season and 31-3 since 2019, including division final wins over B.C. last year and Saskatchewan in 2021.
The Lions (12-6) practised with crowd noise inside B.C. Place this week to ready themselves for the roar.
“We really tried to simulate it in our practices, of where we cannot talk and not hear and that we had to operate on a silent count because that’s how it’s going to be,” Lions head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell said.
“We just don’t want to be surprised or fazed by the moment when you’ve got 30,000 people here yelling at us.”
One factor Campbell isn’t too worried about is the weather.
Environment Canada’s forecast for Winnipeg Saturday is mainly sunny with a high of minus-1 C and low of minus-3.
Cold weather usually spells more emphasis on the ground game, but that’s already a big feature of Winnipeg’s offence.
Bombers running back Brady Oliveira is the West Division nominee for the league’s most outstanding player and top Canadian. He churned out a league-best 1,524 rushing along with 13 touchdowns (nine rushing, four receiving) in 18 games.
He may be counted on more Saturday after Bombers leading receiver Dalton Schoen was officially ruled out of the game, and there are other question marks in the receiving corps.
Schoen injured an ankle in the Oct. 6 game against B.C. and hasn’t practised since. Brendan O’Leary-Orange will continue to take his place.
Nic Demski (ankle) and Rasheed Bailey (knee), who were limited in practice this week, are listed as game-time decisions, as well as running back/receiver Greg McCrae.
“We’ll see what happens (Saturday), but if we have to put the team on our backs with this offensive line and myself, we’re very capable of doing so,” Oliveira said.
Winnipeg led the league in rushing yards (2,503) this season while the Lions were ranked last (1,391). B.C. rookie tailback Taquan Mizzell ran for 773 yards in 14 games.
However, B.C. likes to strike through the air.
The Lions were tops in the league in passing yards (5,672) and the Bombers second (5,263).
B.C. quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. led the league in passing yards with 4,769, including 31 touchdowns and a league-high 18 interceptions. He also rushed 48 times for 324 yards and one TD.
Adams is coming off an impressive performance in the Lions’ 41-30 division semifinal win over the Calgary Stampeders, throwing for 413 yards and two touchdowns and running for 54 yards and three TDs.
Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill watched Adams scramble and extend plays.
“You’re saying, ‘Don’t let him do that.’ He’s pretty good at it,” Bighill said with a smile. “A key to winning a game against a quarterback that can move is you’ve got to limit that.”
Adams said the win against the Stampeders had an impact, but Winnipeg’s defence is a big challenge.
“That game last week gave us a lot of confidence going into this week, going into the practice week,” Adams said.
“It is a different defence, a different group, they do different things, but (I’m) just excited for the opportunity. We all have to live up to the moment and enjoy it, enjoy this process and have fun.”
Zach Collaros provides balance with Winnipeg’s run game.
Collaros was second in league passing with 4,252 yards, but topped all his counterparts with 33 TDs. He threw 15 interceptions.
He’ll be the target of B.C. defensive end Mathieu Betts, whose 18 quarterback sacks set a CFL single-season record for a Canadian.
The Lions will be without injured middle linebacker Ben Hladik, who led the team in tackles (101). He’s being replaced by Josh Woods.
B.C. LIONS (12-6) at WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS (14-4)
West Divison final
Saturday, IG Field
RECORD-SETTING OFFENCE: Winnipeg broke the all-time CFL record for highest team pass rating at 116.2, buoyed by 44 touchdown passes to only 15 interceptions. The competition percentage for its total 4,816 yards passing was 69.0.
GOOD ODDS: Collaros is 7-1 in starts against the Lions, including last season’s West final that Winnipeg won 28-20.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers hosted the B.C. Lions on Aug. 3. The game was not in Vancouver as previously stated.