Anything can happen on Labour Day weekend, but the Saskatchewan Roughriders know they are in for a monumental test when they face the rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday.
“That’s a good team; they’re 9-2. We’ve talked a lot about them this week and just watching them from afar, you can see they’re a very good football team,” head coach Craig Dickenson told the Regina media this week. “A lot of veterans on their team; we were hoping they’d slow down a little bit but they seem to be playing better each and every week.”
As has become tradition over the last few years, Winnipeg finds themselves all alone atop the West Division ahead of their trip to Mosaic Stadium and safe in their status as a Grey Cup favourite. After a couple of early season hiccups, they have now won five straight games and can officially clinch a postseason berth with a victory over the Green and White.
Meanwhile, the Riders continue to wade through the muck in the middle of the standings. Dickenson’s team currently sits at 5-5, hanging on to third place in the West by their fingernails as Calgary and Edmonton flounder behind them. A victory over their prairie nemesis could change the whole outlook of their season.
“It’d be really big,” the coach admitted. “I think it gets us back in the conversation for hopefully a home playoff game because that’s the goal. And it would really give us a big boost of confidence. We know it’s a big one and we’re excited.”
The rivalry matchup couldn’t be coming at a better time for the Riders. Though they are still down to their third-string quarterback in Jake Dolegala, the team is largely healthy otherwise and fresh off a bye last week. Prior to that, they notched a stunning 34-29 upset of the B.C. Lions in Week 11.
“It gives us some confidence and it allows, I think, some guys to feel good about their preparation and maybe hopefully put the dots together that if we prepare well and we play our game, that we’ve got a chance to beat anybody,” Dickenson said.
That added confidence will be needed considering the franchise’s recent history in Labour Day Classic games. Though Saskatchewan leads the all-time series 37-20 and won 11 consecutive meetings from 2005 to 2015, the last six matchups have been evenly split. The Bombers have claimed the last two in a row and now have a chance to three-peat for the first time since 1982.
Regardless of their recent record, Dickenson has not discussed the holiday losing streak with his team, citing fresh faces in the dressing room.
“It would feel better to just win one game on Sunday,” he insisted. “We can’t worry about how many we’ve lost over the years. We’ve got to win one game and that’s the goal.”
What has been discussed is the Riders’ most recent loss to Winnipeg, when the Bombers walked into Mosaic in Week 2 and emerged with a decisive 45-27 win. Poor special teams play proved to be the turning point, as Janarion Grant sliced through Saskatchewan for an all-time great return touchdown.
He won’t be on the field this week due to injury and the home team feels there were plenty of positive messages to be drawn from the rematch.
“I think we had some success early, so we tried to build off that. We’ve got some answers, we feel like we can move the ball on them,” Dickenson noted.
“I think this is kind of just one of those games where you take it for what it is. It’s the start of really the second half of the season and it should be a good one.”
A sold-out crowd of 33,350 is expected to be on hand to witness the festivities, a fact that Dickenson says will give his side a little extra “juice” come kickoff.
“You can feel it and our guys will tell you that,” he remarked. “Anytime you’ve got 30,000 cheering for you, you can feel it and our guys feed off of that energy. Boy, the more green we can get in the stands on Sunday, the better.”
“We don’t like to see them blue jerseys but as long as the seats are full, we’re happy with it. I’d say it’s a good rivalry. I know there’s a lot of fun about it and the fans have a good back-and-forth, but I think there’s mutual respect between both organizations and both teams.”
The Riders (5-5) and Bombers (9-2) will kick off at 7:00 p.m. EDT on Sunday, September 3.