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PRINT EDITION
Bombers' D will be key against Edmonton
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And Winnipeg defensive end Okpalaugo has an extra reason to come up with a big performance for coach O'Shea on Sunday
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By JUDY OWEN
The Canadian Press
  
  

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Saturday, November 11, 2017 – Page S15

WINNIPEG -- Tristan Okpalaugo wasn't yet playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when head coach Mike O'Shea made a lasting impression on him. After all, it's not every day someone saves your mother from being hit by a car.

The first-year Bombers defensive end recounted a three-year-old tale of O'Shea's quick thinking after the team's Friday practice in preparation for Sunday's CFL West Division semifinal against the Edmonton Eskimos.

Okpalaugo played for the Toronto Argonauts back in 2014. He was the East Division's nominee for most outstanding rookie and was in Vancouver for the awards event during Grey Cup week.

His mother, MaryAnn, came up from California and they went out for dinner. O'Shea was at the same restaurant with other people and they happened to leave at the same time. "It was dark and we were walking out and my mom didn't see that the sidewalk was ending so she walked onto the street and there was a car driving by with no regard for pedestrians," Okpalaugo said.

"Coach O'Shea ended up just grabbing her and pulling her back onto the sidewalk."

Okpalaugo played one more season with the Argonauts before trying to stick with an NFL club last year.

That didn't pan out and he inked a deal with Winnipeg in February.

While he hasn't forgotten the close call, he said it wasn't a big factor in his decision to sign with the Bombers. His mother, on the other hand, is glad he chose to play for O'Shea.

"She's been to two games so far and every time she's like, 'How's your coach doing? Tell him I say hi,' " Okpalaugo, 28, said. "She brought him some chocolate last time."

O'Shea, a Hall of Fame linebacker, said his actions were a reflex. "I was aware of the situation; it was instinctive," O'Shea said. "The average person does that. There's somebody doing that every single day." But the coach did appreciate the chocolates.

"She's a very kind lady, very nice."

Okpalaugo's mom can't make it to Winnipeg for Sunday's game, the Bombers' first playoff match at home since 2011 and first since Investors Group Field opened in 2013.

Her son and his defensive counterparts will play a key role in the game, especially as the status of injured Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols remains a question mark.

Nichols (calf) didn't practise on Friday, but it was because he was with his wife, Ali, for the birth of their second daughter, Parker. He showed up on the field toward the end of practice and got congratulatory hugs and handshakes from his teammates.

Dan LeFevour led the first-team offence and O'Shea said Nichols's status remains the same. He'll play, but the coach is not saying who will start. Receiver/running back Timothy Flanders was hurt at the end of practice, and O'Shea had no update.

Winnipeg (12-6) won both regularseason games against the Eskimos (12-6), the first a 33-26 victory in August that snapped the injury-riddled Edmonton squad's seven-game win streak. The second was on Sept.

30, a 28-19 win that was Edmonton's sixth loss in a row.

But times have changed. The healthy Eskimos have won their past five games while the Bombers have only two victories in their past five.

Bombers cornerback Chris Randle had a memorable outing in that second victory. He took a late interception off Mike Reilly in for a touchdown, his only pick-six of the season.

He finished the 2017 campaign with five interceptions.

He described Reilly, the West nominee for most outstanding player, as "tough as nails" and confident in his receivers, who include Brandon Zylstra, the league leader with 1,687 yards on 100 catches, five for TDs.

"I believe if we can kind of corral him and contain him from running and creating more time [to throw], I think that gives us a better advantage defensively," Randle said.

The Eskimos know how to protect Reilly. They gave up a league-low 29 sacks while the Bombers and Hamilton were tied for fourth at 38 sacks.

Okpalaugo had three sacks in a 23-5 win over Calgary last week, plus six tackles and a fumble recovery he took 51 yards for his first CFL touchdown. He wants provide Reilly with a similar experience.

"I plan on being in his face and getting after him all game," Okpalaugo said. "That's my game plan - rushing the passer, get some hits, sacks. Be as disruptive as I can be and make it easy for my DBs and linebackers."

Associated Graphic

Winnipeg head coach Mike O'Shea plays down the fact that he saved the mother of defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo.

JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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