Saskatchewan Roughriders slip past Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Labour Day Classic

REGINA — Marcus Thigpen‘s 25-yard touchdown grab a minute into the fourth quarter wound up being the difference, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders held on for a 31-23 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday afternoon at new Mosaic Stadium.

The victory was the Riders’ 13th in the last 14 tries in the annual Labour Day Classic against Winnipeg, as the arch-rivals switched leads four different times in a thrilling back-and-forth affair in front of 33,350 fans in Regina.

Versatile defensive back Nick Marshall scored twice on quarterback sneaks, including the insurance marker with 1:06 remaining, as the Riders’ offence overcame a sluggish first half in which they compiled just 97 net yards and eight first downs.

Zach Collaros finished the game with 250 yards on 18-of-30 passing with a touchdown and an interception, with Thigpen adding 55 yards on the ground and another 37 through the air. Rookie receiver/returner Kyran Moore also scored on a 65-yard punt return touchdown.

Bombers running back and league-leading rusher Andrew Harris ran for a game-high 158 yards, including 103 in the first half alone, while Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler each threw a touchdown pass in a losing effort. Nichols also threw two interceptions, finishing the game 14-of-26 for 166 yards.

The win was the third straight for the Green and White, who move to 6-4 on the season and take sole possession of third in the West.

With Riders fans already turning up the decibel level after opening kickoff, Nichols couldn’t quiet the raucous home crowd when his pass into tight coverage was deflected and intercepted by Riders defensive back Matt Elam. The former NFL first round pick was finally pushed out of bounds at the one-yard-line, setting up the easy touchdown plunge for Marshall, the converted defensive back, to give the Riders a 7-0 lead just 2:54 into the game.

After knocking down a 50-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 7-3, Bombers kicker Justin Medlock had his second attempt of the afternoon blocked when the ball’s forward motion was impeded by the outstretched hand of defensive tackle Zack Evans.

However, the Bombers continued to respond favourably following the early hiccough, with Harris providing the spark on a 15-yard catch on second-and-12, followed by another first down run of 11 yards. Harris’ presence no doubt had an effect on the Rider defence because on the very next play, Nichols went play action before spotting a wide open Kenbrell Thompkins and hitting him in stride.

Thompkins’ 31-yard score marked the first of his career in the three-down game, putting the Bombers ahead 10-7 and, for the first time all afternoon, quieting the home faithful.

For the Riders, the defence and special teams shouldered the load in the first half of Sunday’s Labour Day Classic. Though the offence would go 2-for-9 on second-down conversions through the first 30 minutes, it was rookie return man Moore making up for it, fielding Medlock’s punt at the Rider 45, finding a crease and sprinting untouched for a 65-yard punt return touchdown, putting the Riders back in front 14-10.

Once again it was Harris answering the bell. The Bombers running back strutted his way through an arm tackle on the way to a 25-yard run, followed by first downs from nationals Nic Demski and Kienan LaFrance.

A couple of plays later, after a sneak to pick up a first down by Chris Streveler, the Bombers’ short-yardage pivot stayed on the field and found a tip-toeing Darvin Adams for a 10-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone, restoring the visitors’ lead going into the half.

Through 30 minutes the Riders struggled to maintain possessions, accumulating under 100 yards of offence and just eight first downs. The Bombers, meanwhile, got to a usually-stout Rider run defence, led by Harris’ 105 yards on the ground. Saskatchewan went into the game allowing 78.3 rushing yards per game, good for second in the CFL.

In the second half the Riders showed marked improvement in both of those aspects. The offence perked up right away, sustaining a couple of long drives and exchanging field goals with Winnipeg, making it 20-17 for the road team going into the fourth.

Already settling into a second-half rhythm, Collaros stayed hot in the fourth quarter. The Riders’ pivot converted three consecutive first downs to Moore, Naaman Roosevelt and Shaq Evans, then, on a second-and-six, found the speedy Thigpen behind defenders for a 25-yard touchdown.

Thigpen’s grab marked the fourth lead change of the game, giving Saskatchewan a 24-20 lead early in the game’s final frame.

Medlock’s third field goal of the day cut the Riders’ deficit to a single point with 7:37 left in the game, and the two teams continued exchanging punts after that.

The Riders’ biggest drive of the game may have come when it was needed most. With a narrow one-point cushion, Collaros connected with rookie standout Jordan Williams-Lambert on the deep ball, eventually setting up Marshall’s second touchdown of the game on another one-yard plunge.

The Bombers had one more chance to reply, but Nichols’ pass was intercepted by a leaping Ed Gainey, the second pick thrown by the veteran pivot, to clinch the Riders’ sixth victory of the season.

Roosevelt had a game-high seven catches for 86 yards for the Riders, including a 27-yard pickup on the late scoring drive. Tre Mason was mostly held in check but did find some space late, finishing with 35 yards on eight carries.

Charleston Hughes padded his gaping lead over the rest of the field in the sack race, securing his 13th of the season. Makana Henry and Willie Jefferson also had sacks for the Riders.

Bombers newcomer Gerald Rivers had a sack — the only sack of the game on Zach Collaros — in his first game wearing Blue and Gold. Rivers joined the team this week after being released by the Eskimos earlier.

The Riders could have done more damage late in the game, with the ball inside the Bombers’ 10-yard-line inside the last half minute, but opted to take a knee instead. The clubs will meet two more times this year, therefore head to head points aren’t likely to come into play should they tie in the standings.

With the win, the Riders pull a full two points clear of the Bombers for third in the highly-competitive CFL West Division with a game in hand. The two teams will do it again on Saturday in the annual Banjo Bowl on Sept. 8 in Winnipeg

Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.