By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – A 25th anniversary is usually a time for joyous celebration.
That won’t be the case for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers if they don’t hoist the Grey Cup in their own backyard on Nov. 29.
The Bombers are riding the CFL’s longest Grey Cup drought of 24 seasons as they head into the 2015 campaign.
Hosting this year’s championship game adds some urgency to a team that finished with a 7-11 record last year and missed the playoffs for a third straight season and fifth time in the past six years.
Head coach Mike O’Shea hadn’t even started his 16-year CFL career the last time the Bombers claimed the Cup in 1990.
“It doesn’t weigh on me,” O’Shea said of the drought following Wednesday’s practice.
“I’m certainly aware of it. I love the responsibility and the challenge, that’s for sure. I have a great respect for the fans … that just keep coming out and supporting us and I certainly let the team know how much these fans deserve a champion, so we want to be the ones that give it to them.”
Winnipeg begins its quest for the elusive championship title Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina, where they haven’t won a game since 2004.
The Bombers have 17 new faces on their 46-man roster after an off-season that sought upgrades in a number of areas.
One of those units was the offensive line, which gave up a league-high, franchise-record 71 sacks last year. Veteran left tackle Stanley Bryant and centre Dominic Picard were highly touted free-agent signings.
Bryant left the defending Grey Cup-champion Calgary Stampeders, where he was a CFL all-star the past two seasons.
“We’re a group of guys that’s willing to put it all together this year and get the job done,” Bryant said.
Winnipeg will field an offensive line that also includes right guard Sukh Chungh, the team’s top draft pick this year (second overall). Right tackle Jace Daniels played three games last year, while left guard Chris Greaves is in his sixth season with the club.
Receiver Nick Moore is back for a second year with the Bombers and fifth in the league. He called his first year with Winnipeg “a roller-coaster.”
The Bombers got off to a 5-1 start, but lost 10 of their next 12 games, including an eight-game losing skid. Moore was hit by injuries and played nine games, making 44 catches for 553 yards and no touchdowns.
“But it’s a new year and last year is last year,” Moore said, adding the offence is developing chemistry under quarterback Drew Willy.
Getting good field position may be an initial challenge for Winnipeg.
Sophomore kick returner Troy Stoudermire broke a bone in his hand during training camp and went on the six-game injured list. Promising rookie Carlos Anderson was injured in last week’s pre-season loss to Hamilton and then cut. Rookie receiver Justin Veltung, the University of Idaho’s all-time kickoff return leader, has stepped into the job.
The Bombers also need improvement on defence, particularly against the run. The team allowed a league-high average of 135.9 rushing yards per game last season.
Veteran defensive end Greg Peach said familiarity with tackles Bryant Turner and Zach Anderson will help and newcomer/former NFLer Jamaal Westerman is fitting in on the other end.
And while the pundits aren’t picking the Bombers to win the Grey Cup, Peach isn’t looking into the same crystal ball.
“This league, anything can happen,” Peach said. “We’ve had a lot of time to prepare this off-season. The management and coaches have been planning.
“We have an awesome chance of going and winning.”