Some events are so rare I quit thinking about them.
The Riders being in first place late in the season happens so infrequently it was not even on my mind until late, very late, on Saturday, Oct. 5’s game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when it became clear the Riders were going to win the game. I was with head coach Craig Dickenson in not feeling comfortable until there were under 30 seconds left in the game.
The Riders won 21-6.
None of the Roughriders from Dickenson through the players were particularly excited about being in first place. It is nice but no more. At least two more wins are needed to guarantee even a home playoff game.
On Saturday the Bomber defence made quarterback Cody Fajardo look average unless he was throwing to Shaq Evans. Out of his 300 yards in passing, Fajardo completed passes to Evans for 193 yards and 107 to the rest of the receivers.
Fajardo did not look comfortable in the pocket. He spoke of a unique problem. The Bombers were without Richie Hall, their defensive co-ordinator for the game, as he was away because of personal matters. He said the new guy did not call the defences Fajardo expected.
As well, being the third time the teams have played each other during the regular season, they knew each other well.
As an example, Fajardo acknowledged that when he is in trouble in the pocket defences, he is going to try to spin out of the pocket counterclockwise. The Bombers were ready on the spins.
On Saturday night the Bombers had sustained pressure with four sacks. While acknowledging the Winnipeg pressure Dickenson said Fajardo was not seeing the field as well as he needs to in a game. It felt too often that Fajardo would look to one receiver and, if not open, look to run with the ball.
Yet, late in the game with a one touchdown lead, and the Riders at their seven yard line, he led the team to the clinching touchdown. During the drive he completed six consecutive passes accounting for a third of his completions for the game.
On that touchdown, he hit Shaq Evans on a quick turn in that Evans took 61 yards to the end zone. Evans saw the Bombers were blitzing and was ready for the quick pass. As he went upfield he looked at the defenders and knew he could cut inside and head for the touchdown.
Bomber cornerback Winston Rose is leading the league in interceptions with eight but appeared to gamble badly. Instead of making sure of tackling Evans, he went high. He was too late to either deflect the ball or make the interception. It was the end to a long night for Rose chasing Evans for most of the 193 yards.
While the touchdown put the Riders ahead by 15 points, they still needed a defensive play to seal the victory. With 1:43 to go the Bombers were at the Rider 33 with third and 10. On the play the Riders rushed just three linemen. Defensive tackle Mak Henry showing ever increasing skill surprised Bomber centre, Michael Couture. Instead of his usual bull rush Henry said he hit him with some moves. He took a quick step upfield to his left and swiped away Couture’s arms and had an uncontested run to the quarterback. The Bombers chose to leave Couture alone to block Henry. They double teamed the ends, Zack Evans and Lavar Edwards, It was a big mistake. Henry said he was not going to miss the quarterback. He was in so fast Steveler did not have time to even try to evade Henry.
Henry said the Riders concentrated all game on keeping their gaps covered and keeping Streveler in the pocket. He said they were forcing him to be a quarterback.
On the tackle for the sack, Henry took the approach of Rider defenders through the game except for one big hit by Cam Judge. They grabbed him securely rather than trying to run over the Bomber quarterback.
With first place on the line this Friday night’s game may see a record number of green clad fans at McMahon Stadium.
Bill Selnes, who’s based in Melfort, has written about the Saskatchewan Roughriders since the late 1970s. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Football Reporters of Canada wing on Nov. 24, 2013.