WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have one thing on their minds as they get set to host the Edmonton Elks on Saturday night: the Western Final.
A win and the Blue Bombers obtain the pivotal bye, ensuring the path to the 110th Grey Cup goes through IG Field.
Edmonton is aiming to finish out its season strong and surpass the total wins the club put up in 2022 with five.
Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros is made for these types of moments and won’t be shying away from what’s at stake. With 4,127 passing yards and a league-leading 32 touchdowns, the Elks’ secondary will have its hands full.
However, Collaros will be without top receiver Dalton Schoen for at least this week as he’s sidelined with an ankle injury. Luckily for the Bombers, Nic Demski and Kenny Lawler are both in the top-15 in receiving yards and the pair have combined to catch 12 of Collaros’ 32 touchdowns. Add in Drew Wolitarsky’s ability to find the end zone and there are still plenty of options at Collaros’ disposal.
The Elks’ secondary is eager to close out a season that’s seen them be a highlight of the team. Defensive back Marcus Lewis and his team-leading four interceptions are sidelined but linebacker Loucheiz Purifoy has three. With plenty of targets to cover, Darius Bratton and Ed Gainey need to be on their game in support.
It doesn’t get any easier for their front as running back Brady Oliveira leads the league in rushing yards. If he can get 74 more on Saturday, he’ll crack the 1,500-yard mark for the first time in his career.
To say defending the run has been an issue for the Elks would be a bit of an understatement. After coughing up 133 yards in their loss to Montreal in Week 19, they’re now surrendering an average of 135.5 per game. Defensive linemen Jake Ceresna and A.C. Leonard, who have a combined 22 sacks, are tasked with shutting down Oliveira and sending the front into the off-season on a positive.
Saturday’s game represents one more chance for Tre Ford to show how far he’s come in 2023. It’s a fitting finale considering Ford took over under centre back in Week 10 against the Bombers. Coming off a game in which he threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns, his overall skillset is shining through.
He’s been helped along by a group of receivers that have progressed well over the course of the season. It’s a unit led by Eugene Lewis, Kyran Moore, Gavin Cobb and veteran Emmanuel Arceneaux. Moore was Ford’s top target the last time these two teams met, pulling down five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown.
Ford is looking at this week’s game a building block for next season.
They’ll be up against a Bombers’ pass defence allowing the fewest yards per game of any team in the league with 232.6. Interceptions leader Demerio Houston remains out but Brandon Alexander, Evan Holm and Jamal Parker have stepped up in his absence in head coach Mike O’Shea’s secondary.
On the ground for the Elks, Kevin Brown has put together a standout sophomore season with 1,032 rushing yards. Ending it with a good performance against a strong defensive front would put a bow on his campaign.
Last time out, the Bombers held the Lions to 48 rushing yards and sacked Vernon Adams Jr. six times. Ford and Brown need to be aware of the ability of defensive linemen Jackson Jeffcoat, Willie Jefferson, Cameron Lawson, Ricky Walker and linebacker Adam Bighill when making decisions.
A win and Winnipeg is into the Western Final.
The Elks are on the outside looking in on the playoff picture but a win over the Bombers to wrap up the season would be a major positive for them.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. EDT. Fans in Canada can catch the game on TSN, while American and international audiences can tune in on CFL+.