REGINA — For the first time in the Chris Jones era, it feels like the Saskatchewan Roughriders are entering a matchup against the first-place Calgary Stampeders on something resembling even footing.
As the Riders (6-5) prepare to entertain the Stamps (10-1-1) on Sunday Night Football — and with a surprise BC loss at home against Hamilton earlier in Week 14 — they appear to have the inside track on a playoff spot.
Jones’s football team has won four of its last five, and will be looking to break a historic nine-game losing streak against the Stamps in regular-season play.
Dave Dickenson’s Stamps visit Regina and the Riders’ new digs with the goal of maintaining their five-point lead over Winnipeg for first in the West Division.
Kick-off is slated for 4 p.m., and it should be quite the matchup as the red-hot Riders look to do more than just acquit themselves well against the league’s standard-bearers in Calgary.
The Calgary Stampeders head east across the prairie with the goal of maintaining their commanding lead atop the CFL’s West Division, but know it won’t be an easy task against a surging Saskatchewan team.
“They’ve got great talent and I do believe they are a force to be reckoned with – at home, especially,” Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson told Stampeders.com. “They really feed off their crowd, as we do here. It’s a great advantage. We’ll have to be at our best to beat them.”
One man that quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stamps offense will have to be aware of in the Saskatchewan secondary is Ed Gainey: The Appalachian State alum has twice as many interceptions (8) as any other player in the league, and has now cemented his status as an elite ball-hawk.
Mitchell considers Riders defense tops in the CFL
“He just does a great job predicting where the quarterback throws the ball and his ball skills are there,” explained Dickenson. “You have to be aware of him. But you also just run what you run and understand where the windows can be. If they go man-to-man, you find the matchups you want and attack that.”
Key to Calgary’s eight-game winning streak and sprint to the top of the CFL’s West Division has been consistent work and game-planning.
“It’s been all about consistency,” said Stamps fullback Rob Cote. “That’s what we preach about all the time. We want to be the same team we’ve always been and not hoping on the highs and dwelling on the lows; making sure to ride on the highs of momentum, and not fall off when that momentum fades.”
Calgary will have to be weary of momentum on Sunday in Riderville, where some of the nation’s most-notorious fans make things difficult on opposing offenses.
“It was always loud out there every game,” said veteran slot back Marquay McDaniel of Saskatchewan’s old Mosaic Stadium. “For this one, from seeing it on TV and hearing everything, I expect the same thing. Maybe even a little bit louder since it holds more people than the last one. I expect them to be hyped up.”
In Riders camp, confidence is significantly higher for Sunday’s matchup against the Stamps than any other in recent memory.
“We’re more confident now,” defensive lineman Ese Mrabure told Riderville.com. “We’re having fun while we’re playing. We’re all doing our own jobs and not trying to do too much. The cohesiveness of the team has formed and has been molded and solidified.”
That confidence has been most visible on Mrabure’s side of the ball, where the Saskatchewan defencs has transformed from a porous one early in the campaign to a steadfast unit in Week 14.
“Defensively, everybody’s flooding to the ball,” explained Mrabure. “We’re making plays, we’re excited for each other — and we’re winning. It’s definitely showing that we’re a different team from earlier in the season.”
The test for the Saskatchewan defence this week — the Calgary Stampeders — often comes out of the gate flying.
“They play out front a lot,” said Riders head coach Chris Jones of Calgary’s offence, which has outscored opponents 59-11 in the first quarter during its eight-game winning streak. “They’re usually 10 points up, so it’s a little bit easier for them to sit back and do some of those things that they do (on defence).”
Given Saskatchewan’s inability to compete with the Stamps regularly over the last few years, the chance to erase the memory of a 27-10 whitewash earlier this season is a big one for the Riders.
“It’s going to be a test whether we can sit there and make those same plays over and over and over (and) whether we can establish the run,” said Jones. “It’s going to be very interesting to see exactly where we stack up.”
On the offensive side of the ball, rookie running back Josh Harris will make his first start in the green-and-white; the Wake Forest product ran for 19 touchdowns as a member of the Demon Deacons.
Carleton alum and 2017 draft pick Emmanuel Adusei was also activated during the week and is expected to see his first action on the Riders’ offensive line come Sunday.
By The Numbers
.800 — Win percentage for the Riders in 2017 at the New Mosaic Stadium (record: 4-1), the third-best mark in the CFL.
15 — Wins for Calgary in the last 17 meetings between the two teams dating back to 2011 —pure dominance.
82.3 — QUAR rating for Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell, good for fourth in the league. Mitchell hasn’t been as dominant thus far in 2017 as in past seasons.
For the first time in forever, optimism seems to be the order of the day in Riderville; whether or not that optimism and Saskatchewan’s recent good form translate into a statement victory on Sunday against Calgary remains to be seen.
The Riders are indeed playing good football — but so are the Stamps, who haven’t dropped points since mid July.
The scariest thing about the Stamps is that they’ve managed to grind out defense-driven wins against divisional opponents despite some uncharacteristic struggles on offence.
Dave Dickenson’s team has repeated that they’re yet to fire on all cylinders — in spite of a 10-1-1 record — and it’s almost scary to imagine what that full-cylinder Stampeders team might look like.
Both teams are playing good football entering their Week-14 matchup, and Sunday night’s contest in Regina ought to be a treat.
AFI, Yare Media and the CFL
American Football International is collaborating with Yare Media and the Canadian Football League to present 2017 CFL games live. This is more than a livestream. This is a stream of the top flight TSN network television broadcast.
If you can’t watch it live, each game is available for viewing through the remainder of the season.