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Alouettes, Bombers brimming with confidence ahead of Grey Cup rematch

WINNIPEG — Brady Oliveira is ready to help prove Montreal Alouettes quarterback Cody Fajardo is wrong.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Brady Oliveira (20) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Montreal Alouettes during the first half of the 110th CFL Grey Cup in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, November 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

WINNIPEG — Brady Oliveira is ready to help prove Montreal Alouettes quarterback Cody Fajardo is wrong.

When Fajardo was preparing for Thursday’s Grey Cup rematch against the Blue Bombers, the reigning championship MVP was brimming with confidence about his team that upset Winnipeg 28-24 in last year’s title game.

"I think we have the best team in the CFL," Fajardo told Montreal reporters earlier this week. "And I’ll always say that because I believe what this team can do.

"I've watched this team work for three weeks (at training camp) and so I’m extremely excited to go out there and prove and try and earn that right of being the best team in the CFL."

Leaders such as Fajardo should feel that way about their teams, said Oliveira, who was the league’s top Canadian last season and runner-up for most outstanding player.

The running back believes the same about the Blue Bombers and plans to get off on the right foot in the clubs’ season opener at the newly renamed Princess Auto Stadium.

"We'll see who has the best roster," Oliveira said after Wednesday's walk-through practice.

"We're going to go out there and compete, execute this game plan that the coaches put together. We're really excited for it and, yeah, let’s see who comes out on top and who has the best roster as of Week 1. It’s a long season."

Oliveira, who rushed for 1,534 yards last season, missed training camp with an injury suffered during off-season training but is feeling back to normal.

"I feel really good, especially mentally going into this season," he said.

The Bombers were reeling after Fajardo engineered the winning touchdown drive in the dying seconds of the Grey Cup, a 19-yard catch in the end zone by receiver Tyson Philpot.

If Winnipeg earns a victory in Week 1 of the new season, it shouldn't feel sweeter just because it's against the Alouettes, said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.

"You just can’t keep living back there, right? You can't," he said. "I think that should be so far removed.

"I'm not saying that some players don't feel it that way, but you just can't keep moving forward if that's all you’re doing, is looking back with a vengeance. I don’t know. It'll work for some guys, but I think most guys have moved forward."

Winnipeg begins the season with nine new starters since that Grey Cup game, five on defence and four on offence.

One of those is eight-year linebacker Shayne Gauthier, who moves into the spot of middle linebacker Adam Bighill. The defensive captain was placed on the six-game injured list during training camp.

Gauthier filled in for Bighill last season and doesn’t think the defence's level of play will drop.

"We have a lot of guys that came in this year and we need to fill out those spots," Gauthier said. "We lost some good guys, so it's exciting to see what those guys can do.

"I think we’re still going to have a really good defence. First time for them (Thursday) to play at our standard."

Bombers star receiver Dalton Schoen is looking forward to the rematch – for personal and team reasons.

The league’s 2022 top rookie was a game-time decision at Grey Cup after injuring an ankle late last season. The slotback did play, but only recorded three catches for 36 yards.

"More than anything, it’s just an excitement factor on my end to be back out there and to get to approach this season 100 per cent healthy and, hopefully, just do what I can do and help our team be successful," Schoen said.

Montreal returned most of its championship squad, including re-signing Fajardo, Philpot and veteran linebackers Darnell Sankey and Tyrice Beverette. They did lose starting running back William Stanback to the B.C. Lions, but moved four-year tailback Walter Fletcher into the spot.

Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros predicts Montreal’s defence will again present challenges for Winnipeg’s offence, which includes new starting offensive linemen Liam Dobson and Eric Lofton.

"They’re a tough defence," Collaros said. "They're physical, they're fast, they’re relentless and it’s going to be a great test for us."


Thursday, Princess Auto Stadium

SEASON-OPENING SUCCESS: Winnipeg and Montreal have played each other six times in season-opening games since 1985, with the Alouettes winning every match.

BREAKING THE TIE: Thursday’s game marks the 105th game between the Bombers and Montreal. The series is tied at 51 wins apiece, plus two ties.

ON A ROLL: Bombers receiver Nic Demski has a 51-game reception streak heading into this season.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2024.

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press