‘Just pray’: Riders enter bye week without control of playoff destiny

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders no longer control their own playoff destiny and there is only one thing left to do.

“I would say really just pray,” linebacker Darnell Sankey admitted to the media following his team’s 18-14 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday.

“I mean, that’s really all we can do. It’s really out of our hands. There’s nothing we could possibly do, especially being on a bye week so it’s not like we can just play and we can distract ourselves with football. It’s an unfortunate time.”

At 6-10, the Riders remain one game ahead in the race for the final playoff spot in the East Division, which they can still secure by virtue of the CFL’s crossover rule. However, after falling flat against the 5-10 Tabbies, they will need significant help, as Hamilton can guarantee themselves the final playoff berth by winning their three remaining games.

The schedules are not in Saskatchewan’s favour, as they enter their final bye week before back-to-back clashes with a Calgary Stampeders team gunning to host the West Semi-Final. The Ticats also face the Stamps, but finish with a home-and-home series against the hapless Ottawa Redblacks.

“It’s going to be tough,” quarterback Cody Fajardo acknowledged. “We’re not dead yet, which is crazy to think but this is CFL football and so our goal is to try and win one at home. You can only win both if you win the first one. We’ve got a tough, tough schedule ahead of us, plus a good bye week to get healthy, but we’re not quite out yet and that gives guys hope.”

Nevertheless, things would have been much cheerier in Riderville had the team secured the victory over their Eastern opponent, creating much-needed separation that would have kept their playoff fate in their own hands. Saskatchewan came close but were ultimately out-muscled in windy conditions by Hamilton’s down-hill rushing attack, as running back Wes Hills put up 132 yards on 25 carries.

“We expected that but we couldn’t stop it. That’s a credit to them,” head coach Craig Dickenson admitted. “We’ll look at the film and see if there’s a way we can line up a little differently but that’s a big back and they went heavy personnel. Definitely, you could see that was their intention. Especially in a game with some weather elements, it really does bode in your favour if you can run the ball going into the wind and then when you’ve got the wind at your back, you can open it up.”

The Riders had no such luck of their own, as Shaquille Cooper took five carries for just seven yards. That put the offensive pressure all on Fajardo, who threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns but also added two picks while getting sacked seven times.

Each of the team’s final two drives ended in turnovers — the first on downs after an incompletion and the second a game-ending interception — a fact that the pivot found “sickening.”

“As a quarterback, you want the ball with the game on the line, and I felt like I let my guys down tonight missing a ball that I shouldn’t have missed,” Fajardo said. “That’s just unfortunate, so I’m a little bit down now but the sun’s going to come up tomorrow. I’m going to go home, see my wife and my son and I’ll have a great bye week with them.”

Usually the first to discuss the emotional rigours of playing in Regina, the 30-year-old will find solace from a pitchfork-wielding fan base in the arms of family. With the Riders on track to miss the playoffs in a home Grey Cup year, even more emotionally restrained teammates are having a hard time dismissing the constant outside noise.

“The media and our fan base, it’s a lot. It’s what you sign up for as professional athletes, I know they hold us accountable,” Sankey noted frankly. “They’re going to be coming for some heads, I’m sure, but you’ve just got to try to block it out as much as you can, stay focused and just take the bye week to rest your body or your mind and get ready to finish these last two games out.”

Dickenson, whose future in Saskatchewan hangs in the balance, is not concerned about his players dealing with that pressure. How they handle being under the microscope during this bye week, just like the team’s postseason aspirations, is out of his control.

“We do talk about social media and maybe not getting involved in social media, but they’re human beings and they’re going to do what they do,” the head coach admitted, before pivoting to the future.

“I will say this, I know Rider Nation is disappointed, as we are, but we’re going keep working and we’re going to do the best we can to finish strong and hopefully give them something to cheer about.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.