Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

It was already the biggest game of the year — a home playoff game was likely on the line — but instead the door swung wide open for an even bigger opportunity for the Saskatchewan Roughriders against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers: first place in the West.

The Riders walked through that door and have put themselves in a spot where they haven’t been in a very long time.

Even when the Riders last won the Grey Cup in 2013, they finished second in the West. First in the West is rarefied air around these parts and it may be one of the more impressive runs by the team when you consider just how uncertain everything seemed 10 months ago.

The man who largely helped build the current roster and held a number of titles — Chris Jones — left for the NFL. A situation that would have been difficult at the best of times, but a new football operations cap made it even tougher. The jobs ended up being filled with people who are doing it for the first time.

After a 1-3 start — including an ugly loss to Calgary — only the greenest of green glasses could have seen this much success coming. Improvement? Sure. A playoff spot? Yes. A true legitimate shot at first in the West? Eh.

It seemed even less likely at the time given how the Bombers were seemingly poised to run away with the division.

We all know what’s happened since then. The Bombers have fallen apart and the Riders have lost just once. Few of them have been easy, including this one against Winnipeg, but they find ways to win.

While there’s still plenty of season left and nothing is a given at this point, I can admit that I was wrong about this year’s edition of the green and white. I predicted they’d crossover to the East, I wasn’t super confident given the uncertainty surrounding the club. Frankly, anything between second in the West and last place wouldn’t have surprised me.

I didn’t think there was a shot at first. Whether they actually finish atop the division or not is still up in the air, but there’s a chance and that’s all you can ask for.

Stuffed

The biggest key for the Riders in this game was making sure the Bomber ground attack didn’t get going. That meant stopping not only Andrew Harris but also Chris Streveler.

Achievement unlocked.

Harris is going to pick up some yards and he did. 63 of them to be exact, including a 21-yard rumble. Streveler wasn’t able to pick up the slack as he was held to just 48 yards.

The Riders did it by routinely crowing the box on first down. It led to a lot of short passes and the defence rallied to the football and made their tackles. Second and long is not Streveler’s friend and that’s when the heat came. The Riders often found themselves in the backfield on second down. Even though they only had three sacks, Streveler was never able to get comfortable. That pressure led to two interceptions, rushed passes and short runs.

They also did a good job keeping Streveler guessing with some disguises with Mike Edem and Derrick Moncrief. Reminiscent of how this team used to swap Craig Butler and Tyron Brackenridge.

The wheels really fell off for the Winnipeg offence in the second half.

The book is out on the Bombers offence led by Streveler. Makes you wonder where they go from here.

Shaq Attack

Shaq Evans is a microcosm of the Rider season. There were questions about him coming in after an up and down season last year.

Evans has easily been the Riders best receiver this season, not surprisingly his quarterback thinks Evans is the best pass catcher in the league.

Evans exploded for 193 yards and a touchdown against the Bombers. His touchdown officially put the game away and put the Riders in first place.

Could he be the Riders nominee for most outstanding player? Perhaps.

Odds and ends

– Was this game bad offence or good defence? Likely a bit of both but I’m willing to lean toward good defence. It was a solid night for both teams. Winnipeg’s defence had less support and ultimately couldn’t hold.

– TSN’s Glen Suitor has been on a weird campaign to have knockdowns and batdowns as different stats as he claims a DB knockdown involves more skill. If that’s the case, what should back to back dropped easy interceptions count as? A bad night for Streveler should have been even worse.

– One guy who didn’t miss his opportunity was L.J. McCray, the man who has probably been the Riders best defensive back this season. He added seven more tackles and a pick against Winnipeg. The South Carolina native is starting to build his case for the Riders most outstanding defensive player nominee.

– Craig Dickenson had himself a good night with the challenge flag winning both of his disagreements. I saw some questions about Dickenson challenging a reception that still would have resulted in a field goal attempt. It was a smart move by the head coach. Another Brett Lauther field goal would have made it an eight-point game. A touchdown and a two-point conversion seemed like a big ask of the Bomber offence, even without Evans’ 61-yard touchdown, it proved to be too much. If you have a chance to make your kickers job easier in a key spot, you do it.

– While I get where Duane Forde was coming from regarding tackling a player by their hair, that’s the risk you take. The rules are pretty clear. Don’t want to be tackled like that? Keep it in your helmet.

– A little disappointing that the game wasn’t sold out, considering how much was on the line against a long time rival, even before Calgary lost earlier in the day. 31,000 and change certainly isn’t awful but it’s something after a string of sell outs to open Mosaic Stadium.

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Joel Gasson is a Regina-based sports writer, broadcaster and football fanatic. He is also a beer aficionado.