REGINA -- The BC Lions travel to Regina’s Mosaic Stadium to take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday afternoon, as two West Division powerhouses meet for the first time in 2013.
Only two points separate the Lions and Roughriders through 11 games, and after a Calgary loss on Saturday night the West Division standings are about to become even tighter than they already were.
The only question is which team will take advantage. Can the Lions overcome an injury to Travis Lulay to move into a second-place tie with Saskatchewan?
Or will the Roughriders get back on track after a two-game set which they’ve faced a number of injuries as well as off-season distractions, to move into a first-place tie with the Stampeders and build their lead over Sunday’s opponent?
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For the Lions, Thomas DeMarco knows he’s ready to make his mark in what he admits will be a raucous crowd in Regina, after taking first-team reps in practice through the week and earning what is expected to be his first career CFL start.
“I feel good about it,” DeMarco told BCLions.com. “You come in wanting to do this your whole life.”
“Hate the way that it happens but you’ve got to step up and you’ve got a lot of guys that are looking to you next and I’m just glad I got the opportunity.”
The 24-year-old joins a long list of backup quarterbacks being forced to start football games this season, and has pretty big shoes to fill. He is, after all, replacing a former Most Outstanding Player in Lulay, who currently sits third in the league in passing yards and boasts a quarterback rating of 94.7.
But with the tall task of going into enemy territory and earning his team two all-important points, DeMarco said his strategy will be simple.
“The biggest thing is just get the first down, make plays when you can, be smart with the ball – you’re not gonna try and run guys over but at the end of the day if no one’s open, you’ve got to make sure you move the ball.”
The Lions improved to 6-0 at home last weekend with a 36-14 win over the Montreal Alouettes, during which DeMarco was able to shake off a little bit of rust with 47 passing yards and his first career touchdown pass in the fourth quarter after Lulay was injured.
Second-year head coach Mike Benevides said he was impressed with DeMarco’s showing at the end of that game – but as the young pivot faces the challenge of making his first career start, the Lions will do everything possible to make his life easier.
“There’s no doubt that he did an outstanding job at the end of the game there, and certainly I’m gonna prepare him and [recently-acquired Buck Pierce],” Benevides told the team’s official website. “I’m gonna prepare both to play, but Thomas understands what’s expected of him and he can’t do it by himself.
“But he has a tremendous amount of confidence in himself, and we need that from our quarterback and certainly the other night he proved himself in front of the big stage.”
One thing the Lions may look to do better to make things easier for Thomas is establishing a little bit more rhythm in the run game.
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Whereas non-import running back Andrew Harris played a key role in last week’s win with 93 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 17 touches, he was held to just 10 yards on five runs in a loss to Hamilton the previous week.
If the Lions can get Harris the ball early and often like last weekend, they could not only take the Riderville crowd out of the game, but also take some pressure off the shoulders of the quarterbacks.
“When you get touches you feel the game more, understand where guys are going to be a little bit more, and you see the game a lot easier,” said Harris, who hopes his number is called frequently. “So it’s definitely crucial as a running back to get the ball early and often and just to get in that rhythm.”
“Especially in an environment like this where it’s loud, and if you can get the advantage to quiet that crowd down and get under their skin as an offence on their defence it definitely makes a big difference, and we just have to keep rolling on from there.”
While the Lions have struggled on the road this season with just one win in five attempts, the Riders were undefeated at home until last week’s last-minute 31-29 loss to the Argos, during which they were outscored 19-6 in the fourth quarter.
Darian Durant marched the team all the way down the field with very little time left on the clock, scoring a potential game-tying touchdown in the final seconds. But needing a two-point conversion to take the game to overtime, Durant was sacked, dealing the Riders their second straight loss and just their third of the season.
Riderville is hardly in a state of emergency after back-to-back losses to the Bombers and Argos, yet after a 5-0 start to the season amid hopes of an eventual berth in the Grey Cup on home turf this season, urgency is in the air to get things headed back in the right direction.
“It’s one of those things where we’ve built this team this year and I thought we built a pretty good team,” Corey Chamblin, also in his second season as a head coach, told Riderville.com. “What I told the guys is we’re a good team, but we have to get back to being a winning team, and that’s the biggest thing.”
“We don’t want to hear ‘well, you’re 8-3’, and ‘you have room for losses’ – no, we don’t, we want to be a winning football team. That’s the mentality that the guys are carrying right now, we just have to go forward with that.”
The Riders have had plenty to overcome both on and off the field, with the latest escapade coming from an injury to superstar running back Kory Sheets, who was forced to leave last weekend’s loss to the Argos early in the game.
|The last time they met|
Friday, November 12, 2012
BC 17, Saskatchewan 6
Andrew Harris moved into first place in the CFL in yards from scrimmage this season, while five different quarterbacks took snaps in the game as the Lions won the final game of the regular season, 17-6 over the Roughriders at BC Place...Read more.
Suddenly rather than being clear-cut favourites, the Green and White are back in the mind-set of having to prove everyone wrong.
“Losing creates negativity around you,” said Durant, who’s dealing with a pinky injury on his throwing hand but will suit up and start in Sunday’s contest. “You want to go out and prove yourself, especially when people start doubting you and you start moving down in power rankings and things like that.”
“It’s a little bit of extra motivation for me and I think for us as well.”
Durant, who has cooled down in September after near-perfection through July and August, will have to do without Sheets in the lineup this week as he sits out with a knee injury.
Taking his place will be veteran running back Chris Garrett, who spent two seasons in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ backfield. Chamblin has faith that while the 26-year-old isn’t the same kind of runner as Sheets, the Rider offence won’t skip too much of a beat with Garrett taking the handoffs.
“He’s a hard-nosed runner and he’s a smart player,” said Chamblin. “He’s a different style runner from Kory, but he is a gifted back and you could see that from his time in Winnipeg. I’m looking forward to seeing him in there.”
Garrett, meanwhile, has a lot to prove himself as he finally gets another crack as a CFL starting running back.
“I won’t sit here and tell you I’m the same type of back as Kory because we present a different skill set,” said Garrett. “I’ve learned a lot of this offense and I can do a lot of things that Kory can.”
“Coach George Cortez has been drilling me with plays over the past few weeks in case this opportunity came around, and I aim to show him and everyone I can get the job done when called upon,” he continued. “It may be only be a one-game stint, but I’m ready to get back out there.”
Perhaps the biggest storyline among many this week is Geroy Simon’s first game against his former team, after the CFL’s all-time leading receiver was traded from the Lions to the Roughriders in the off-season.
Simon spent 12 seasons in a Lions uniform and already has an all-time best 16,128 receiving yards, but in returning to duel his old squad is also just six catches away from eclipsing Ben Cahoon’s leading mark of 1,017 receptions.
But despite all of that, the 15-year pro is treating Sunday’s affair like any other game, with two pivotal points up for grabs.
“Obviously I’m going to be playing against guys that I played with for a number of years and I’m really close to a lot of these guys, but I have to treat it like another game,” said Simon. “I can’t try to put any more pressure on this game than normal because then I’ll be out of my game.”
“I’ve got to focus in and just try to do my job.”
Kickoff is at 4:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from Riderville.com/BCLions.com