It’s a tale of two teams at opposite ends of the football spectrum.
On one side, there are the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a club sporting a CFL-leading 7-1 record and riding a five-game winning streak.
And at the other is a 1-7 Saskatchewan Roughriders squad that will be playing its first game since firing head coach Greg Marshall and offensive co-ordinator Doug Berry.
But despite the teams’ vastly different fortunes, the Bombers are wary of the Labour Day meeting with their wounded rival.
Winnipeg head coach Paul LaPolice and his players believe the Riders have three reasons to fight hard under the guidance of Ken Miller, who’s taken over the duties of Marshall and Berry.
Those reasons are jobs, hope and a deep fondness for the returning coach.
“Historically, players respond and react to those kind of changes because they understand that they’re next in line when it comes to the chopping block,” Bombers defensive tackle Doug Brown said this week.
“It’s a high percentage of teams that win their next game after a major incident like the firing of a coach.”
Miller, 69, was Saskatchewan’s head coach from 2008 to 2010 before stepping down to become the team’s vice-president of football operations.
Under his guidance, the Riders went to the Grey Cup the past two seasons, losing both title games to Montreal.
Bomber offensive lineman Glenn January played in Saskatchewan in 2008 and said Miller’s return to the sidelines will give the Riders a boost.
“I know what he brings to the table as a leader,” the fifth-year veteran said. “He’s a guy that no one wants to let down. A lot of people kind of equate him to a grandfather figure.
“He’s not like an in-your-face kind of coach, he’s more like, ‘This is what I would like for you to get done and let’s work hard to accomplish this goal.’ He has the ability to motivate his players very well.”
Before becoming Winnipeg’s head coach last season, LaPolice spent three years in Saskatchewan. He was the receivers coach in 2007 and offensive co-ordinator the following two seasons.
He predicts players will respond well to Miller’s return.
“I know coach Miller is a very good coach and he’ll have them ready to play and they’re going to play very hard,” LaPolice said.
“He’s going to give them hope and our job is to fight through that and make enough plays to win the game.”
Brown was close to Marshall when he was Winnipeg’s defensive co-ordinator and was surprised about his firing.
“In the most simplest of terms, it just confused me why you. If you only believed in someone to give them credit for eight games or give them enough leeway to try and put their mark on a team for eight games, then maybe you shouldn’t have hired that person in the first place,” Brown said.
“That’s what baffled me about the situation.”
Winnipeg has only won three of the past 10 Labour Day games, with the last victory coming in 2004.
Last season when the Bombers were 2-6 and the were Riders 5-3, Winnipeg lost 27-23.
It was also the game that sent Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce to the sidelines for the rest of the season with a dislocated elbow on his throwing arm.
Although a healthy Pierce and his teammates are a confident bunch this time around, Brown and January said neither team has an automatic edge.
“I don’t think that (Saskatchewan’s) record is indicative of the talent they have on their roster,” January said.
“Obviously, the ball hasn’t bounced their way every time this year, but they’re definitely a team not to be taken lightly.”
Brown will be playing in his 11th holiday-weekend game.
“When it comes to this game, you can really just throw the records out the window for all the respect either team gives them going into it,” Brown said.
“This is more of a grudge match, really, than a clash of two teams at different ends of the record spectrum.”