WINNIPEG – Lirim Hajrullahu knows how important it’ll be to take advantage of every scoring opportunity when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday.
The rookie kicker has done his part in that department this season, connecting on 22 of his 24 field-goal attempts and having both misses hit the uprights.
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His rhythm, though, could be affected in Sunday’s 11th Banjo Bowl as the Bombers (6-4) have a number of injuries forcing roster changes, including the long-snapper who’ll send the ball back to Hajrullahu.
Linebacker Ian Wild, who does the long-snapping duties, was injured in Saskatchewan’s 35-30 Labour Day Classic victory over Winnipeg last weekend and will sit out Sunday’s sold-out game at Investors Group Field.
Hajrullahu said fullbacks Carl Fitzgerald and Michel-Pierre Pontbriand have been zinging the balls back to him close to 100 times in practice this week and he’s confident either one can do the job.
“Halfway through the season, to have a new snapper is something different, but these guys are professional and I expect them to be just as good on the field,” the Western University product said after Friday’s practice.
And if a few snaps aren’t perfect, he’ll deal with them.
“If some snaps are different, we always prepare with the drills that if it is a bad snap, what do you do and stuff like that,” said Hajrullahu, who’s had to do all the kicking the past six games after a hamstring injury to punter Mike Renaud.
“I can’t have any doubt in my kicks so I’m just going to prepare like it’s any other game.”
The defending Grey Cup champion Riders (7-2) have won six in a row and are aiming to sweep the season series with the Bombers. The teams have each won five Banjo Bowl games.
Winnipeg committed six turnovers that gave the Riders 20 points in their 23-17 victory in Winnipeg on Aug. 7, and then saw the Riders score the winning touchdown last Sunday with 28 seconds left in the game.
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea isn’t satisfied that his team has played Saskatchewan close in this year’s two clashes.
“I want to get these guys. Our players do, too,” O’Shea said.
“And we recognize from our film that we can’t make the mistakes we made.”
O’Shea wouldn’t reveal who’ll be doing the long-snapping, but it’s expected Fitzgerald will get the nod as he went into the game last week and had experience at the position for the Saint Mary’s Huskies. Backup quarterback Brian Brohm remains the holder.
“I got thrown in last week and I had to do all the field-goal snaps and I was a little nervous on the first one, but once you do it it’s just like riding a bike — you just get back on it and it’s all right,” Fitzgerald said.
Winnipeg quarterback Drew Willy injured an ankle in last week’s loss, but he continued playing and has been practising all week and is good to go.
The same can’t be said for Winnipeg receiver Nick Moore, who injured an ankle and will be replaced by Romby Bryant. Defensive end Kashawn Fraser hurt a knee against the Riders and Jason Vega will take his spot.
Saskatchewan is also dealing with injuries in its kicking unit.
Punter Josh Bartel (hamstring) and long-snapper Levi Steinhauer (shoulder) will miss Sunday’s game after injuries in last weekend’s match.
Placekicker Chris Milo will do the field-goal kicking and punting and linebacker Brian Peters is expected to be the long-snapper. Former Bombers placekicker Justin Palardy may come off the practice roster to do kickoffs.
Saskatchewan slotback Chris Getzlaf didn’t practise Friday because of an undisclosed injury and head coach Corey Chamblin told reporters afterward that he may not suit up, but should be good in the next week or so.
“He didn’t go today and he was very limited yesterday so there’s a good chance he may not play and we have to be prepared for that.”
Rookie receiver Alex Pierzchalski will fill in and “he has to step up” with his opportunity, Chamblin said.
Although the Riders were victorious in their first two games against their arch-rivals, Chamblin said making it three straight isn’t easy.
“It’s always tough. It’s tough to beat ’em one,” he said. “But to beat ’em three, you’ve just got to know that you’re not doing it all at one time, but it’s one game at a time.”
Bryant is looking to make good on his next opportunity with the Bombers. He’s played five games this season and has 11 catches for 94 yards and no touchdowns.
Bryant watched the game on TV last week and thinks he and his teammates can pick up some tips on how to handle Saskatchewan’s “solid” defence.
“Playing them back-to-back, they probably don’t have much time to change stuff up,” Bryant said.
“You can see tips. It gives everybody tips, even the people that did play last week. It’s giving them tips on how they play us and what coverages they do and certain schemes that they got going.”
Hajrullahu is just hoping the re-jigged kicking unit won’t miss a beat.
“Every point is going to count,” Hajrullahu said. “They’ve beaten us twice and this team really hates losing and we hope to come out on top on Sunday and we’ve been preparing like we will.”