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November 12, 2017

The Roughriders are off to the East Division final

OTTAWA — One down, T.O. to go.

With a 31-20 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks on Sunday in the CFL’s East Division semifinal, the Saskatchewan Roughriders earned a berth in the East final on Nov. 19 against the host Toronto Argonauts. The winner of that game advances to the Grey Cup game, Nov. 26 in Ottawa.

The Roughriders are the 10th team since the CFL instituted the crossover format to move from the West Division into the East Division’s playoffs. None of the previous nine teams — including the Roughriders in 2002 and 2005 — advanced to the Grey Cup.

Saskatchewan is now one victory away from doing just that.

“It’s the first step,” Roughriders safety Jeff Hecht said. “The guys are enjoying the win, but we didn’t come here to be East semifinal champions.

“Our whole plan all year was to get into the tournament, play our best ball at the end of the year — which I think we’re doing — and get off to a great start. We started fast, put an exclamation point out there and really established the kind of playoff team we’re going to be.”

The crossover format was instituted prior to the 1996 season and gives the fourth-place team in a division a chance to change divisions for the playoffs if it finishes the regular season with a better record than the third-place team in the other division.

This season, Saskatchewan finished fourth in the West with a 10-8-0 record in the regular season. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats placed third in the East at 6-12-0, so the Roughriders went east.

Ironically, the format has helped only West Division teams since its inception. No squad from the East has ever shifted to the West in the post-season.

Six of the previous nine crossover teams lost in the East semifinal, while three fell in the East final. The Roughriders don’t want to be the fourth squad to get to the division final and lose.

“We have an opportunity to make history, but that’s bigger than what our focus is,” slotback Chad Owens said. “Our focus is, ‘OK, that’s the next game. They’re in our way of reaching our goal.’ We’re going to enjoy this and we’re going to get back to work and be ready to roll come next week.”

The Roughriders rolled Sunday, aided largely by Marcus Thigpen.

Making his second straight start at tailback, Thigpen rushed 15 times for 169 yards and a touchdown. His yardage total was the third-highest in franchise playoff history.

“The offensive line did a great job today,” said Thigpen, who started because of injuries to Cameron Marshall (knee) and Trent Richardson (ankle). “The coaches trusted in me and gave me a great opportunity to be the starting back and I’m just very thankful for the opportunity.”

The Roughriders wasted no time getting on the board, taking the opening kickoff and marching 79 yards in six plays for a touchdown.

Kevin Glenn was 4-for-4 for 57 yards on the drive, including a 29-yard touchdown pass to Bakari Grant at 2:49. Tyler Crapigna booted the convert to give Saskatchewan a 7-0 lead.

The Redblacks responded immediately.

Two plays after Diontae Spencer returned the kickoff 37 yards to the Ottawa 54-yard line, Trevor Harris found Spencer for a 56-yard touchdown at 4:07. Harris then hit Juron Criner for the two-point convert to give Ottawa an 8-7 advantage.

That lead lasted just one drive.

After the kickoff, Saskatchewan scrimmaged at its 28-yard line. Eight plays later, Glenn scored on a one-yard run at 9:06. Crapigna added the convert and the Roughriders led 14-8.

The Redblacks were driving for a score on their subsequent possession, but Saskatchewan linebacker Sam Eguavoen — playing his first game since Oct. 20 — intercepted Harris in the red zone.

The teams’ next four possessions ended in punts as the defences stiffened. But the Roughriders broke through again with a one-yard touchdown run by Vernon Adams Jr., on a third-down gamble at 10:26 of the second quarter.

Crapigna’s convert made it 21-8 and that was Saskatchewan’s lead at the half.

Ottawa got a 22-yard field goal from Brett Maher at 2:56 of the third quarter to make it 21-11, but the Roughriders needed just one play to respond.

Thigpen took a handoff from Glenn and sped 75 yards for the touchdown at 3:13. Crapigna’s convert made it 28-11.

Maher cut the lead to 14 with a 28-yard field goal at 8:04 of the third quarter, but Crapigna made it 31-14 with a 31-yard field goal on the final play of the third quarter.

Harris and Criner hooked up for a five-yard touchdown at 13:13 of the fourth quarter to complete the scoring.

Glenn finished with 18 completions in 28 pass attempts for 252 yards. Grant had three receptions for 85 yards, Duron Carter added five catches for 51 yards and Naaman Roosevelt had four grabs for 55 yards.

“When our offence gets the ball and scores early, we’re a dangerous team,” Hecht said. “We’re a very emotional team. When we get up, we’re a problem for a lot of people.

“Maybe outside of the East semifinal in Montreal in 2011 — when (Glenn) was playing for Hamilton and I was with Montreal — I don’t think he has ever played a better game. He looked amazing. I’ve been telling everybody that he’s our best chance to win and he showed it tonight.”

Harris was 37-for-60 passing for 457 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Spencer had nine receptions for 157 yards and Criner had 11 catches for 102 yards for Ottawa, which won’t be defending its Grey Cup title.

The Roughriders, meanwhile, still have a chance to win their first CFL title since 2013.

“For us to do what we did so far, it’s a blessing and it’s something good, but at the same time, it’s only one step,” Glenn said. “We’ve got three games. We knew coming into this one that we’re fighting for three games. We wanted to take care of that first one — and we did.”