REGINA -- The Saskatchewan Roughriders and BC Lions will endure frigid temperatures on Sunday afternoon, as they put their season on the line in the Western Semi-Final at Mosaic Stadium.
For the Riders it marks the true beginning of their quest to become the third straight team to play host in the Grey Cup, as one of the most anticipated seasons for Rider fans has just about reached its utmost peak.
That means forget about all that happened during the 18-game regular season, because now is when the results matter most.
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“It basically was a build-up to what we’re doing now,” the league's second-leading rusher Kory Sheets told Riderville.com. Sheets likened the next step for the Riders to the process of getting that dream job.
“You’re setting your resumé up during the season and now it’s the job interview,” he explained. “We’ve got to go out there and we’ve got to win and try to get to that Grey Cup, they don’t just let anybody in there.”
If the regular season was indeed their resumé, there’s little doubt the Riders have the qualifications for the job. Now like Sheets said there’s just the matter of putting everything together in time for the interview, which is where things tend to get a little more complicated.
“You get into the playoffs it’s a whole new ball game,” said Weston Dressler, the shifty slotback who’s reached at least 1,000 receiving yards in five of his six seasons in the CFL. “Everything you did through the regular season is pretty much all wiped away, you get a fresh start and teams just need to go win three games in a row and you get a Grey Cup.”
That’s especially true against a savvy veteran team like the BC Lions, who will do whatever it takes to throw a team off-balance.
“Right now we’re focused on BC and what they’re capable of, I feel like we’re putting together a good game plan,” Dressler continued. “We’re excited about this game and having the opportunity to play here at home.”
If the Riders want to return home in two weeks, they’ll have to capture what it was that made them so successful in the first nine weeks of the season, when they jetted out to a strong start and sat number one in the league at the halfway point of the season.
They won just three games in the second half of the season, including a four-game losing streak that could have easily put their year off the rails beyond the point of no return.
But thanks to a pair of late-season wins over the Lions they managed not only to secure second-place in the West and a home playoff game, but more importantly the same confidence that saw them take the league by storm in the first two months of the season.
Add to the fact that the Green and White will get offensive lineman Chris Best back in the lineup and the same five-man unit that led to so much success at the start of the season, and suddenly the Riders are in that same dominant mindset as back in August.
“I’m ecstatic, I’m like a kid in a candy store,” said Sheets when asked about the return of Best, who had been out since the summer. “I’m happy to be back out there with those guys and they’re going to help me play well.”
Quarterback Darian Durant agreed, adding that while the improvement up front may be subtle with Best back in the fold, there’s still a difference.
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“It’s the little things that you miss, it’s not so much the things that you can always point a finger at or anyone can point out, it’s always the little things,” said Durant.
“It’s the chemistry, it’s those guys being able to take up for one another, things of that nature so I think those guys are comfortable with each other,” he continued. “I’m comfortable behind them and it’ll be good.”
While the Riders hope their offensive line can open up the holes for Sheets so they can run the ball all day, that’s the area of the game the Lions will be focused on too, particularly as teams tend to run the ball more in inclement weather.
The Lions boasted the league’s second-ranked defence through the regular season, and against the run allowed the second-fewest rushing yards at a clip of 94.4 per game. But if you look back to their meetings with Saskatchewan, of which they lost two of three, the one running back they couldn’t contain this season was Sheets.
In two losses to the Riders by a combined score of 66-31 Sheets rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns, while the only time the Lions beat Saskatchewan was when the dynamic running back didn’t suit up.
“When you’re playing in inclement weather you need to stop the run,” said defensive end Keron Williams in an interview with BCLions.com. “Our focus hasn’t been really to overly pursue Darian because he can shoot up the middle, but more so to stop Sheets and then everything will feed off that.”
Not pursuing Durant too aggressively will indeed be important for the Lions, given that the 31-year-old has the ability to escape pressure and take off for a big gain at any given moment, particularly against an aggressive pass rush like BC’s.
Durant rushed for 369 yards and a touchdown this season, and is approaching the 2,500 mark for his career.
“You just have to coral him in the pocket,” said Williams, who has 56 sacks in eight CFL seasons. “He’s a short quarterback, if he can’t see his target he’s more than likely not gonna throw there, he’s not a spot thrower like Ricky Ray or one of those quarterbacks.”
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The CFL.ca writers have made their prediction on both the Eastern and Western Semi-Finals.
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“He wants to see his target and he can deliver the ball accurately,” he continued. “It’s not going to be one of those games where I’m just going to speed rush off the end, more so just collectively compress that pocket to make it hard for him, get our hands up we should have a chance.”
On offence, the Lions announced Saturday that Travis Lulay will make his return behind centre, after he missed six games with a shoulder injury.
Even if it was Buck Pierce who was named starter in Lulay's place, the game plan likely would have stayed the same as the team looks to build on its recent success running the ball. That’s been enhanced by the addition of Stefan Logan, who’s re-joined the team to form a dangerous tandem with non-import back Andrew Harris.
Logan has 236 yards in just three games since arriving in BC, and over that three-game span the Lions averaged 164 yards per game, a far cry from the previous 10 games, during which they averaged 72 yards per game.
“The one-two punch between me and Stefan has been great,” Harris told the team’s official website. “We definitely feed off each other and when you have that competition with someone else taking reps and getting in there, and you see them doing well it definitely gets you going to make some plays.”
While the Riders dominated the previous two meetings between these teams, they could be about to get their first glimpse of the Lions with Lulay under centre and Logan in the backfield. Take from that what you will, but just as the Riders are a different team entering the playoffs, so are the Lions.
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