Grey Cup holds special place in Bombers head coach O’Shea’s heart
Published December 11, 2021 at 2:33 pm
HAMILTON — The Grey Cup game is always special to Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.
The 51-year-old North Bay, Ont., native will appear in his sixth CFL title contest Sunday when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Tim Hortons Field. The Grey Cup returns to the Canadian sports landscape after the league didn’t play in 2020 due the COVID-19 pandemic, the first time since 1919 the hallowed trophy wasn’t presented.
“To me, it’s the biggest, single-day sporting event in Canada every single year,” O’Shea said Saturday. “It’s celebrated across the country, it’s important to the people from one coast to the other.
“I love that part. It’s awesome.”
O’Shea won three Grey Cups as a linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts (1996-97, ’04) and another as their special-teams co-ordinator (2012). He earned his first championship as a head coach in ’19 when Winnipeg downed Hamilton 33-12.
Winnipeg comes in as the 3 1/2-point favourite. The Bombers posted a CFL-best 11-3 record and dominated the league’s awards banquet Friday night with O’Shea (top coach), quarterback Zach Collaros (outstanding player), linebacker Adam Bighill (defensive player) and tackle Stanley Bryant (lineman) all being honoured.
Winnipeg held its final walk-through Saturday. O’Shea said with so much time before the Grey Cup kickoff, it’s important he and his players utilize it properly.
“On a personal level, I’ve caught myself just wanting the game to show up, wanting it to be here and you still have a lot of time,” O’Shea said. “If you let that time go by without doing a few of the things you should do, you’re missing out on opportunities.
“Whether that’s clearing your head, talking to family, getting a good bite to eat, watching more film, talking to your teammates. All the things you need to do in that time frame you need to do. It’s part of the process, right? Just sitting around waiting for the game to start, that wouldn’t be the right choice.”
Even as a head coach, O’Shea still feels a sense of anticipation leading up to the big game.
“The way I feel on the inside is your body is getting ready to get going,” he said. “At this point I’m old enough to understand what my body is doing, it’s getting ready to fight.
“That’s quite an enjoyable sensation, to have that feeling you’re ready to go. The trick is to not let that happen too soon and (expend) too much energy.”
Hamilton will certainly have home-field advantage as it attempts to secure its first CFL title since 1999. That year, the Ticats defeated Calgary 32-21 in Vancouver after losing 26-24 to the Stampeders in Winnipeg the year before.
A Tim Hortons Field sellout of about 24,000 spectators – the smallest Grey Cup crowd since 20,087 watched Montreal defeat Calgary 28-15 at Varsity Stadium in 1949 – should have great weather to deal with. Sunday’s forecast calls for a high of 5 C with sunshine and just a 10 per cent chance of precipitation.
However, projected wind gusts of 48 km/h could wreak havoc with the passing and kicking games.
Juno Award-winning Arkells headline the Grey Cup halftime show. It’s a homecoming of sorts for the band, which was formed here.
The Lumineers will also perform at halftime.
In 2019, Winnipeg native Andrew Harris earned Grey Cup MVP and top Canadian honours after rushing for 134 yards and a TD while adding five catches for 35 yards and a touchdown.
Harris could again be a prominent figure for Winnipeg.
The veteran running back ran for 136 yards and a TD in Winnipeg’s 21-17 West Division final win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. It was his first game since Oct. 15 due to a knee injury.
Harris was limited to nine games this season but was still Winnipeg’s top rusher (623 yards, 5.4-yard average, three touchdowns). Brady Oliveira (94 carries, 429 yards, two TDs) and Johnny Augustine (40 carries, 285 yards) both contributed to the Bombers’ second-ranked ground game (119.7 yards, 5.3-yard average) that also scored a league-high 14 rushing TDs.
Hamilton counters with the CFL’s top run defence, allowing just 79.6 yards per game. But the unit will be minus all-star tackle Ted Laurent, who required surgery for appendicitis.
The six-foot-one 299-pound Laurent is a two-time CFL all-star, five-time divisional selection and a fixture on the interior of Hamilton’s defensive front. He’s also one of the CFL’s toughest defensive linemen against the run.
The difficult task of replacing Laurent goes to American Lee Autry II. While bigger than Laurent (six foot two 305 pounds), he has made just two starts in four career CFL games.
Laurent’s absence also forces Hamilton to shift safety Tunde Adeleke to halfback and move backup Stavros Katsantonis to Adeleke’s spot. The Ticats made the same move for the East Division semifinal when veteran American halfback Ciante Evans couldn’t play.
Katsantonis had two tackles and an interception in Hamilton’s 23-12 semifinal win over the Montreal Alouettes.
Collaros posted league highs in TD passes (20) and efficiency rating (111). He leads a potent Winnipeg side that led the CFL in offensive points scored (322), offensive TDs (35), average gain per pass (8.4 yards) and passing efficiency (101.5).
And since being dealt to Winnipeg late in 2019, Collaros is 16-2 overall as the starter.
But the key is Winnipeg’s offensive line, anchored by towering tackles Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick. The Bombers ran more than any other team on first down (52 per cent of the time) and averaged 5.54 yards per attempt.
When Laurent is in Hamilton’s lineup, he often requires a double-team. His absence could make it even more enticing for Winnipeg to try to establish an inside run game, which would not only control the clock but also keep the ball away from Hamilton’s offence, which will be guided by quarterback Dane Evans.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Pressinsauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising