Harris likely a game-time decision for West Final but Bombers in good hands at running back anyway

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Star running back Andrew Harris may or may not play in Sunday’s CFL West Final between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders but no one on the home side seems overly concerned about which way it goes.

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Of course the Bombers would love to have Harris, a 10-year veteran of the CFL, a three-time rushing champion, a Grey Cup MVP, when they take on the Riders at IG Field (3 p.m. CT, TSN).

But if ever a team was equipped to deal with playing without a top running back, it’s this Bombers squad.

“We’re in a good spot,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said Friday after the Bombers practised at IG Field.

“We’ve talked about our depth before and we like our depth, especially in that position. It’s pretty damn good.”

Harris, who has been out since Oct. 15 with a knee injury, returned to practice earlier this week, creating some buzz that he might be able to play on Sunday.

However, he was limited during Thursday’s closed practice and he did not participate at all on Friday — he was on the field in street clothes during the session — just two days before the big playoff game.

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Tailbacks Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine, who both had 100-yard rushing games in 2021, were handling the tailback duties once again and the Bombers have no qualms about going with them if Harris can’t play.

It’s possible we won’t know until game-time on Sunday whether Harris will see a little playing time, a lot of playing time or any playing time at all.

“We’re all very capable and we’ve all showed that, so it’s super exciting just to know that we’ve got so much depth,” Oliveira said.

“It would be something pretty exciting if all three of us could somehow get touches. We’re all Canadian and that’s something special

“All three of us here have a little bit of a different running style. So, I think it definitely would throw off a defense and would benefit us.”

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While Harris led the Bombers in rushing with 623 yards in seven games this year, Oliveira had 429 yards, while taking handoffs in eight games, and Augustine had 285 yards in only five appearances at running back.

The Bombers were the second best rushing team in the CFL, at 119.7 yards per game, during the regular season, despite having to use multiple backs.

“They’re all here for a reason.” O’Shea said. “We believe we can win football games with those guys carrying the bulk of the load.”

It is no doubt good news to the Riders that the status of Harris is in question. No matter what Oliveira and Augustine bring, they are not at the level of the sure-fire Hall of Famer who has carried the rock for years in Winnipeg.

Harris is a powerful runner, reliable in taking care of the football, can catch out of the backfield, and is a stellar blocker.

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With the forecast calling for strong winds and periods of snow on Sunday, the running game will likely be more important than ever and Harris would be the best man for the job. Still, with both Oliveira and Augustine being Canadian, they are no strangers to carrying the football in bad weather.

“I’m confident in any running back we put back there — Johnny, Brady, Nic (Demski), Andrew, Zach (Collaros),” said all-star offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick. “Whoever runs the ball, my job is to make sure they’re clean and my job is to get in there and get nasty and get physical. I’m excited about anybody who gets to run the ball. Johnny, Andrew, Brady all bring something different but they all bring something, so whatever I’ve got to do to protect them, I’m excited to do it.”

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Oliveira, like Harris, grew up in Winnipeg and attended Oak Park High School.

He said he likes the cold, when he’s playing football and when he’s not.

Weather forecasts are calling for a high of -4 C to -6 C on Sunday, which isn’t too bad for this time of year, although the wind will be from the North at 30-50 km/h.

And there will likely be at least some snow flurries, if not some heavy precipitation.

Still love that, Mr. Oliveira?

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every running back should be excited when they see the flurries. You should because you should be expecting that it’s going to be a heavy run game with the snow.

“So, yeah, it’s always exciting to play in snow. Playing back in Winnipeg, with minor football, and even when I was at Oak Park, playing in snow games was always my favourite.”

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As of Friday, the Bombers are 8.5-point favourites to beat the rival Roughriders. Winnipeg finished the season with an 11-3 mark, although two of their losses came after they had already clinched first place in the West and were resting starters, while the Riders finished in second place at 9-5.

The Bombers beat the Riders twice this season and did not allow a single touchdown.

The general belief is the Bombers should win, if all things are equal on the field, but the weather can be a great equalizer.

Winnipeg’s superior running game, no matter who is carrying the ball, could be the deciding factor.

“The biggest thing is going in there and catching the defence off guard with your fresh legs,” Oliveira said of using a mutli-back system on Sunday.

“I mean, you go in there and you can really explode through the hole, block a little bit harder, just because you’re fresher.”

Twyman@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/Ted_Wyman

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