The Saskatchewan Roughriders have been at the centre of some historic rivalries over their 112 years of existence but the one they have cultivated this season with penalty flags might be the most significant.
The Riders have been the CFL’s most undisciplined team over the first three months of the 2022 season, averaging 10.1 penalties per game and accumulating the most total penalties yards.
The team they play in the Banjo Bowl on Saturday, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, are the polar opposite, averaging the fewest penalties (6.3 per game) and penalty yardage (563) this season. If you want to know why one team is 11-1 and cruising to another first-place finish while the other is likely headed for the other side of the bracket, look no further than the above.
Saskatchewan head coach Craig Dickenson knows if his team is to beat their arch-nemesis — the Bombers, not the penalty flags — it won’t be because the reigning champions beat themselves.
“They’re very crafty. Winnipeg averages two penalties less than their opponents for 25 yards basically. That tells you they do a good job of playing clean and it also tells you that when they do hold, they’re pretty sneaky about it,” Dickenson told the media earlier this week, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “That’s a compliment.”
The Riders have not been able to escape penalties so easily. In the Labour Day Classic last week, the green and white were assessed a flag for an objectionable conduct penalty due to the actions of someone who wasn’t even playing, injured receiver Duke Williams.
While it may be going too far to say these are systemic issues with the team, the very fact that an undressed player would be so cavalier on the sideline speaks volumes.
To his credit, Dickenson did not mince his words when asked about his star receiver’s gaffe after the game.
“It was a stupid penalty,” Dickenson said bluntly following his team’s 20-18 loss to the Bombers last Sunday.
Williams has had his fair share of discipline issues this season, with the most notable being his one-game suspension for swinging a helmet at Toronto Argonauts’ defensive back Shaq Richardson in July.
While Saskatchewan’s veterans are the ones taking some of the worst penalties, Dickenson believes the opposite is holding true for his opponent this weekend.
“You can argue that they’re a disciplined bunch and I would argue that as well because it’s a veteran group,” Dickenson said.
“You look at every position group and they’ve got guys that have been there a long time. When you play a long time, you know what you can get away with and you know what you can’t, and we’re still trying to figure out what that line is.”
One player we know won’t be crossing any lines — either literal or figurative — for the green and white is controversial defensive lineman Garrett Marino, who was released by the team earlier this week.
The latest incident involving Marino occurred last weekend when a video of the oft-fined lineman hitting Bombers’ QB Zach Collaros late went viral. That seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“He got fined, he got suspended and he was getting warned again. After a while, it wears you down a little bit and we felt like it was starting to become a distraction,” Dickenson said earlier in the week.
While Dickenson stated emphatically that Marino’s release was not done to send a message — “I don’t believe in sending messages,” the coach said — it is one less distraction for a team that needs to clean up its act if it hopes to play this year’s championship game in front of their ravenous fans.
Beating the Bombers will likely be a necessary part of the Riders’ path to that home Grey Cup and Dickenson knows they will not offer his team any margin for error.
“You look at Mike (O’Shea) and Wade (Miller) and even Kyle (Walters), that’s a veteran, crafty bunch of guys running a veteran, crafty team that does a good job of playing within the rules and knowing what that line is without going over it,” he stressed.
If the Riders are to dethrone the two-time defending champions at some point this season they are going to have to learn where the line is and how not to cross it themselves.