Riders loss in Winnipeg gives Saskatchewan fans new hope

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The narrative around Saskatchewan Roughriders’ disappointing season remains just that following their Friday night loss to Winnipeg in Week 17.

“You are what your record says you are” was a quote once attributed to Bill Parcells, but we’ve heard Saskatchewan coach Craig Dickenson use it this year as well.

The Riders are now 6-9 and can do no better than reaching the .500 mark.

With eight losses in their last 10 games, the team is still in free fall but Friday night did show signs of a squad capable of duking it out with the league’s best, even on the road.

Dan Clark’s return at centre, along with Terran Vaughn to protect Cody Fajardo’s blind side at left tackle, proved that not only is this offensive line competent when healthy, but even capable of running the ball with no American running backs dressed. They did it against arguably the league’s best defensive front.

With a proper blocking unit in front of him, Cody Fajardo made better choices on when to find an open Kyran Moore, Justin McInnis, and Kian Schaffer-Baker or when to tuck it and run himself.

The Riders even discovered their fullback James Tuck is capable of much more than being a blocker, tossing him the pigskin three times and connecting on each one. That included a 22-yard-connection early in the third quarter that set up a Fajardo touchdown run, pulling the Roughriders to within a major of tying the Blue Bombers.

Despite the absence of any meaningful intention to try to run the football, even offensive coordinator Jason Maas showed us he can dial up a wide variety of play calls, getting the ball to eight different receivers.

Special teams had its usual solid part of the Riders’ night, with good punting and place-kicking from Kaare Vedvik and Brett Lauther. Mario Alford gave us all some exciting moments in the return game too.

The Riders’ defence, despite its inability to create any meaningful turnovers or generate any quarterback sacks on Zach Collaros, held the Blue Bombers to 17 points through three quarters and, for most of the night, did their part too.

And with Garrett Marino having been given his apple and a road map, penalties and discipline have suddenly disappeared from the critique of the Riders’ back-sliding in 2022.

The frustrating part of Saskatchewan’s third loss to Winnipeg this season had more to do with the little things that shouldn’t be so hard to execute.

How exactly does any CFL team get stopped on third-and-one not once, but TWICE in a single match?

The first one could maybe be blamed on the officials for not setting up the yard-sticks properly but the second was unforgivable. A late third-quarter handoff to Kienan LaFrance, who has underwhelmed as a CFL running back his entire career, instead of simply diving forward was an unforced error that snuffed out a potentially game-tying drive in Winnipeg territory. That one is on the Riders’ coaching staff, head coach Craig Dickenson or offensive coordinator Jason Maas, whoever selected that play.

Those two plays, in addition to a fumbled snap at Winnipeg’s 17-yard-line, did more to sink the Riders’ chances than any penalties, poor offensive line play or the absence of a Marino-like presence in the pass rush ever could.

And how does Nic Demski seem to get so wide open on scoring plays every time he plays the Riders?

The green and white gave the CFL’s best all they could handle on National Truth and Reconciliation Day. It still wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding or wipe away the thundercloud of doubt which has hovered over this team since that fateful July night when their former defensive tackle thought pumping his chest after a dirty hit on Ottawa’s quarterback was a good idea.

The Riders are almost certain to finish out of the West Division basement by virtue of the Edmonton Elks facing a tough schedule. That team will need to win all of their three remaining games to finish ahead of the Riders, an especially difficult task since two of those matches are at home where the Elks have been playing in front of lifeless empty stadiums and haven’t won in three years.

But that alone won’t get the Riders backdoored into the playoffs. The Ticats could push them out of the postseason party by winning two of their last four games, including a home game versus Saskatchewan next week and a couple more against the hapless Ottawa Redblacks.

A Roughriders’ loss in Hamilton next week and failure to win either of their back-to-back games against a highly motivated Stampeders squad fighting for a home playoff game could spell a 6-12 playoff-less conclusion to the Riders’ season, reminiscent of the year Regina hosted its first Grey Cup back in 1995.

Hamilton quarterback Dane Evans looks like a new man since taking a break from social media and with their season — and his status as a CFL QB — on the line, the Ticats are likely to be anything but a free spot on the bingo card. It all raises the stakes dramatically for Friday’s showdown in Steeltown.

It’s a crescendo to the season Rider fans never imagined they would find themselves in back when it all began in June but through all the doom and gloom hanging over the prairies’ favourite football team, the green and white did take a few steps forward in Winnipeg. They may have even given the melonheads a newfound optimism.

What happened in the Winnipeg loss opened the door, just a crack, for a late-season Riders rally for a Grey Cup appearance at home.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.