By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
CALGARY — Andrew Harris is fine with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers being considered Grey Cup underdogs.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats head into Sunday’s CFL title game against Winnipeg at McMahon Stadium as four-point favourites. That’s not really a surprise considering the Ticats posted a league-best 15-3 regular-season record and swept the season series versus the Bombers 2-0.
But Winnipeg (11-7, third place in West Division) advanced to the Grey Cup with solid road wins over the defending-champion Calgary Stampeders (12-6) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (13-5). What’s more, the Bombers didn’t commit a turnover in either contest.
“I don’t think we think about it too much,” said Harris, who ran for 1,380 yards for a third straight CFL rushing title. “At the end of the day we’re a group of guys that have come together and work hard.
“Whether we’re underdogs or not, we’re not really thinking about that, we’re just thinking about what we need to do as a group to go out and win. Whoever is counting us in or counting us out is totally up to them.”
And should the Bombers need inspiration, they need look no further than defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall, who has routinely beaten the odds on and off the field.
The amiable 59-yard-old native of San Antonio, Texas, was a walk-on at Colorado State as a five-foot-six, 160-pound defensive back. Hall went on to play nine years in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders (1983-87) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (1988-91).
He won the first of three Grey Cups in ’89 with a Saskatchewan squad that finished the regular season in third in the West Division with a 9-9 record. After dispatching Calgary 33-26 in the conference semifinal, the upstart Riders captured the division crown with a 32-21 upset of the Edmonton Eskimos, who’d finished atop the standings with a CFL-record 16-2 record.
The Riders capped their season edging the East Division-champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats (12-6) with a thrilling 43-40 Grey Cup win in Toronto.
As a child, Hall survived a horrific car accident that saw him catapulted through the windshield.
He earned his other two Grey Cups as a coach with Saskatchewan (2007, ’13).
Winnipeg is the first third-place team to reach the Grey Cup since Edmonton in 2005. The Eskimos went on to beat the Montreal Alouettes 38-35 in Vancouver.
The Bombers are chasing their first Grey Cup title since 1990. Then again, Hamilton hasn’t won a CFL championship since ’99.
And in the two games versus Winnipeg, Hamilton has led for a combined 99 minutes, 58 seconds. Winnipeg has been ahead for just three minutes, 58 seconds.
The Ticats have been a loose bunch this week but head coach Orlondo Steinuaer — named the CFL’s coach of the year Thursday — said that’s not a sign of over-confidence.
“It’s who we are, it’s how we got here,” he said. “I know from the outside it may look loose or overconfident or whatever adjective you want to put on it.
“I’d encourage you to come watch us Day 1 at McMaster in training camp and see how we practice and see if there’s any difference.”
Both teams held their final practices Saturday, giving players and coaches plenty of down time before Sunday’s kickoff. For Harris and Bombers’ starter Zach Collaros, it’s an opportunity to spend time with family and teammates before returning to the team hotel early in the evening.
“I’ll be back in the room early enough to go through the playsheet and different situations in your mind,” Collaros said. “In the morning I try not to even think about it, find something on TV that has nothing.
“Just try to get my mind off it, at the same time get in the proper mental space to be ready to go.”
And Collaros is hopeful he’ll sleep well Saturday night, even if that’s not usually the norm.
“I’m a bad sleeper,” he said. “It’s usually once I wake up, whether it’s 5 a.m., 6 a.m., that I’m not falling back asleep and the scenarios start playing in your head.
“That’s why I like these earlier games, you don’t have to sit around all day and think about, ‘If they do this, what should I do?’ That’s why I try to find something on TV that can occupy my time (so) I don’t think about that kind of stuff.”
Harris, who was the top Canadian in B.C.’s 2011 Grey Cup win, said he’ll have no problem getting proper shuteye.
“I’m a great sleeper, I’m hoping to get a good 10 hours,” he said. “This whole week has been a lot of hype, a lot of bouncing around but it’s just another game.
“You can make it bigger than it is but at the end of the day you have to execute and get dialed in for that.”
A fact not lost upon Steinauer, who was a defensive back on Hamilton’s last Grey Cup-winning team.
“When I first was going through this (as player) I felt all the emotions — nervous, anxious, excited,” he said. “I’ll still have all those emotions run through and I think that’s healthy.
“It’s kind of the anthem in the flyover that locked me in as a player and locks me in as a coach. Once the ball’s kicked off, it’s football.”