By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Brady Oliveira is ready to be in the playoff spotlight.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers third-year running back will make his first post-season start at that position when the team hosts the B.C. Lions in Sunday’s CFL West Division final at IG Field.
The opportunity to do that in his hometown in front of family, friends and fans is something he relishes.
“This is meaningful football and this is when you want to play,” Oliveira said Friday after Winnipeg’s closed practice.
“I’ve worked extremely hard. Us as a team, we’ve worked extremely hard to earn our right to play in the West final and to keep extending our season and to ultimately play for another championship.
“The fact that my role this year is a lot larger than it was in the past is a blessing.”
Oliveira was injured in June 2019 and needed ankle surgery that halted his season. The Bombers went on to win the 2019 Grey Cup, ending the club’s 28-season championship drought. The 2020 season was cancelled because of the pandemic.
Last year, it was veteran Andrew Harris carrying the ball in the West final and a second Grey Cup the Bombers claimed. Harris signed with the Toronto Argonauts in the off-season.
Oliveira was given the chance to show his stuff and help the team in its quest for a three-peat. He did that in a big way.
The 25-year-old played all 18 games, rushing for a career-high 1,001 yards off 202 carries with four touchdowns.
Oliveira finished third in league rushing yardage, behind B.C.’s James Butler (1,060). Calgary’s Ka’Deem Carey was tops with 1,088.
Those ground games are just one example of Sunday’s marquee matchups on both sides of the ball.
Winnipeg’s defence was ranked No. 1 in the league for allowing the fewest offensive points per game (19.2) and fewest offensive TDs (27). B.C.’s defence was second in offensive points per game (20.7) and third in offensive TDs (36).
Lions head coach Rick Campbell described both teams’ defences are “opportunistic.”
“I think it’s going to be one of those games where if either defence can force turnovers or anything like that, it’ll make a big difference,” Campbell said after a practice earlier this week.
On the flipside, the Lions topped the league with 28.3 offensive points per game. Winnipeg was second with 28.2. The Bombers had a league-high 58 offensive TDs while B.C. was second with 56.
The game pits a savvy veteran quarterback versus a young gun with a Canadian birth certificate who wowed fans during the first half of the season.
Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros had the best regular season in his 10-year career and helped the team win a franchise-best 15 games (15-3) and finish first in the division.
He threw for a career-high 4,183 yards and career-best 37 touchdowns. He’s the West Division’s nominee for the league’s most outstanding player, an award he captured last season.
Lions second-year quarterback Nathan Rourke missed eight games because of an August foot injury that required surgery, but the Victoria native still churned out some notable numbers.
He finished the regular season throwing for 3,349 yards in 10 games. His 78.3 per cent completion rate (255-of-324) was the highest in CFL history and his 123.6 passer rating was the all-time second highest.
He also ran 39 times for 304 yards, but wasn’t his usual mobile self in last weekend’s West Division 30-16 semifinal win over the Calgary Stampeders, running only once for five yards.
Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson noticed Rourke didn’t move around as much.
“We just want to get to him,” Jefferson said. “We want to make it hard for him, make it hard for him to see his reads as quick as he wants them. … As long as we can get back there and make him move around, get that ankle a little bothered and things like that, we’ll be good.”
The Bombers took the season series 2-1 against the Lions (12-6). Winnipeg won 43-22 in B.C. in July when Rourke was playing, lost in mid-October when Collaros was rested for the road game, and won the teams’ regular-season finale in Winnipeg Oct. 28.
Collaros played the first quarter in the finale and Rourke made his return from injury and saw just over a quarter of action.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet, and especially not against Winnipeg,” Rourke said this week.
“When we played them in the summer, I don’t think I played my best game. Turning the ball over too much against a team like that, you’re not going to win any games.”
He doesn’t want a repeat this weekend.
“I think that we’ve got to play our best football, and so I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like on Sunday, hopefully,” Rourke said.
B.C. LIONS (12-6) AT WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS (15-3)
West Division final, Sunday
HOME RUNS: The Bombers were 8-1 at IG Field this season. Going back to 2019, they’re 24-2, including last year’s 21-17 West Division final victory over Saskatchewan.
CLOSE CALLS: The last four West Division finals weren’t decided until the game’s final three minutes. None were won by more than eight points.