In the midst of a challenging year for all kinds of reasons, there could be light at the end of the tunnel for what many feel is the CFL’s flagship franchise.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders have played below expectations and lacked discipline this year, taking an unimpressive 6-7 record into Friday’s home game against the Edmonton Elks.
But while this certainly wasn’t the drawn-up plan for a year in which they host the Grey Cup, the Roughriders’ situation is really not all that bad if they can find the form they displayed in starting the season 4-1.
A win against the lowly Elks on Friday will eliminate Edmonton from playoff contention and put Saskatchewan in firm control to nail down the league’s final post-season spot – most likely a crossover berth for finishing ahead of the third-place team in the East.
That would send the Roughriders to the East playoffs – most likely with sudden death games in Montreal and Toronto.
While no crossover team (all from the West) has ever advanced to the Grey Cup in 12 tries since 1997, the East teams have been significantly weaker than the West all season. Saskatchewan’s chances to play in the Grey Cup on its own field surely are better going out East than if it had to survive games in Winnipeg, Calgary or B.C.
“It’s still been fun. The guys in the locker room still enjoy coming to work. We’ve got good camaraderie,” Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson told reporters this week. “We’ve got a ping-pong table in there, you can’t them to leave after practice. They want to hang out and be together. Even though it hasn’t gone our way in a lot of ways this season, it’s still been an enjoyable year and still been fun working with them. They come to work every day and work hard. That’s all you can ask so I’m very proud of them.”
The latest bit of adversity came last week when a nasty stomach bug rolled through the Roughriders locker room prior to the Banjo Bowl in Winnipeg.
Dickenson said 15 players got sick, along with seven or eight coaches – including himself. Several players not expected to dress drove in with team president Craig Reynolds from Regina. The offensive line was a mess, with several of the big men hooked up to IVs prior to the game.
Not surprisingly, the Blue Bombers thumped the Roughriders 54-20, sweeping the annual Labour Day home-and-home series.
“The message I had for the team today honestly was that was as proud as I’ve been of a team in a long time. They gutted it out,” Dickenson said after the game in Winnipeg. “Win lose or draw, not one of them stopped playing hard, not one of them complained. They were getting hooked up to IVs and dropping like flies but they just kept showing up. I was super proud of them.”
Already this year, the Roughriders dealt with a CFL record four-game suspension to defensive lineman Garrett Marino for a dirty hit and awful words to Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Marino delivered another bad hit to Winnipeg quarterback Zach Collaros upon his return, resulting in his release.
Marino hasn’t been the only player to misbehave. Star receiver Duke Williams drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to the Labour Day game for his actions on the sidelines when he wasn’t even dressed for the game.
Health, too, has been an issue for much of the season. Williams is out with an ankle injury and quarterback Cody Fajardo has been wearing a brace on his left knee most of the year. Fajardo, who was benched in one game earlier this season but seems to have improved the past few weeks, is hopeful he can ditch it after next week’s bye week.
“It’s getting down to the nitty-gritty,” Fajardo said. “We’re going to have to win some football games here to put ourselves in position just to punch our ticket to the playoffs. Whatever that situation may be in the West or in the East, we just want to give ourselves a chance because we know we’ve got a really good locker room and a really good team. All we’ve got to do is give ourselves a chance and it’s three games after that.”
There was good news this week as Fajardo rushed out of practice upon getting news that his wife, Laura, was close to delivering the couple’s first child. Son Luca was born early Wednesday morning.
“Laura was a complete rock star through it all,” Fajardo said. “She’s tough as nails. Lot of inspiration, lot of drive for me just watching her go through that and being a part of that.”
What we liked in Week 14
• The play of Collaros (we’ve said that a few times this year). He’s on his way to winning the CFL’s most outstanding player award for the second year in a row.
• Argos receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr.’s homecoming. The Ottawa native had eight catches for 161 yards and one touchdown in a 24-19 win over the Redblacks.
What we didn’t like in Week 14
• The Elks’ play at home. They’ve tied the 1988 Ottawa Rough Riders for the longest home losing streak in CFL history after they dropped their 14th in a row at Commonwealth Stadium – 56-28 against Calgary.
• The Redblacks’ play at home, which actually might be worse than Edmonton’s. The Redblacks have lost 20 of their past 21 at TD Place following their setback against the Argos. So much for the momentum of a two-game win streak on the road.
Week 15 picks
Edmonton Elks at Saskatchewan Roughriders (-7), Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. PT
The Roughriders have lost four in a row at home. That trend has to stop if they want to be considered a real playoff contender. PICK: Saskatchewan
Winnipeg Blue Bombers (-7.5) at Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT
Ticats quarterback Dane Evans (shoulder) returns after missing the past two games. Winnipeg beat the Ticats in overtime in last year’s Grey Cup in Hamilton. Since then, it’s been all downhill for the Tiger-Cats. PICK: Winnipeg
B.C. Lions at Calgary Stampeders (-6), Saturday, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT
Vernon Adams Jr. makes his first start for the Lions, B.C.’s fourth starting quarterback in as many weeks with star Nathan Rourke hurt. This is a battle for second in the West. PICK: Calgary
2022 record: 30-25
(Odds from FanDuel as of Thursday night)
1. Winnipeg Blue Bombers (11-1, Last week: 1): Destined for home-field advantage in the West playoffs as they eye a three-peat.
2. Calgary Stampeders (8-4, Last week: 2): In the driver’s seat to get second in the West with the Lions slipping because of quarterback issues.
3. Toronto Argonauts (7-5, Last week: 4): Toronto is in good position to finish first in the East for the second year in a row.
4. B.C. Lions (8-3, Last week: 3): The Lions really need Adams Jr. to play well after Antonio Pipkin couldn’t get it done last week in Montreal.
5. Saskatchewan Roughriders (6-7, Last week: 5): A win against Edmonton would help get the Roughriders back on track after a tough stretch.
6. Montreal Alouettes (5-7, Last week: 7): Big win over the Lions at home has the Alouettes feeling good in a bye week. Still can make a run for first in the East.
7. Ottawa Redblacks (3-9, Last week: 6): Comeback bid fell short against the Argos – a big blow to Ottawa’s playoff hopes.
8. Hamilton Tiger-Cats (3-9, Last week: 8): The league’s most disappointing team this season needs to pull off an upset against Winnipeg to get back in the playoff race.
9. Edmonton Elks (3-10, Last week: 9): The Elks are in a massive rebuilding project. We’ll see if a year of having a revolving-door roster pays off next season for GM/coach Chris Jones.