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November 28, 2018

Many of the Roughriders have been here before

Before making his CFL playoff debut in 2017, then-Saskatchewan Roughriders rookie Tobi Antigha admitted he didn’t know what to expect from his first post-season game.

“I guess I’ll find out when I get there,” Antigha said before the Roughriders faced the Ottawa Redblacks in the Eastern Semi-Final.

Antigha found out a great deal in that game and in the 2017 Eastern Final against the Toronto Argonauts. Nearly one year later, he’ll take the lessons he learned in those contests into the Roughriders’ playoff run in 2018.

“Every play is meaningful and significant, so you really have to execute and put your best foot forward every play.”

“There’s an attention to detail that is amplified more during the playoffs than in the regular season,” Antigha said Friday at Mosaic Stadium, where the Roughriders are to face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday in the Western Semi-Final (3:30 p.m., CKRM, TSN).

“Every play is meaningful and significant, so you really have to execute and put your best foot forward every play.”

The sophomore defensive end said he figured that out early in Saskatchewan’s 31-20 victory over the host Redblacks. He estimated that on the second drive of that game, he realized just how focused his veteran teammates were — and he adopted that approach himself.

“Everybody knows playoff football is more intense and more detail-oriented, but until you actually get in that environment, you don’t know to what extreme it’s being taken,” Antigha said. “Last year, I got a feel for it, I understood it, and this year, I’m one step ahead of the game in understanding that.”

Entering Sunday’s game, the players on the Roughriders’ active roster, practice roster and one-game injured list have a combined 158 games of experience in the CFL’s playoffs (not including Grey Cup games). The Bombers on those lists have 119 games of playoff experience (excluding the Grey Cup).

Winnipeg has 15 players on its active roster, practice roster or one-game injured list who have yet to appear in a CFL playoff game. There are 26 Roughriders on those rosters who are playoff newbies.

“I don’t really know what to expect, but then again, I didn’t know what to expect in my first CFL game, either,” said rookie offensive tackle Takoby Cofield. “Every week has been a learning experience, learning different things about the game, so I’m just going to embrace it.”

Cofield noted he has listened to his veteran teammates since the regular season ended, hearing the intensity in their voices and realizing he had to match it.

One of those players is centre Brendon LaBatte, who has eight games of post-season experience (including two Grey Cup contests) under his belt.

“As a vet, you’ve got to make sure that everybody knows what’s coming Sunday,” LaBatte said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re as crisp assignment-wise as we’ve ever been this year and that our technique is as good as it has ever been. Then it’s about never losing the belief that you’re going to win the game.

“If adversity strikes and you get down two scores in a worst-case scenario, you can’t let it start to snowball and let (the opponent) build momentum while you go in the tank. It’s a long game and a lot can happen.”

That’s a lesson that many players who haven’t been on this stage may forget if things start going sideways. Having players who have been there before can only help.

“There’s going to be a lot of extra emotion flowing through the building, so you’ve got to be able to block out the noise regardless of what happens and keep playing like it’s any other game,” LaBatte said. “Trying to mentally keep yourself in that mindset is probably the biggest challenge some guys will have.”

Tailback Marcus Thigpen has appeared in five playoff games in his career, including both of the Roughriders’ contests in the 2017 post-season.

He plans to look back at his performance last season — including a 169-yard rushing effort in Ottawa — for self-motivation, but he also plans to pass on the lessons he has learned to his younger teammates.

“(Playoff experience) helps a lot just because the intensity picks up a lot and a lot of our rookies won’t know that until they get out there,” Thigpen said. “The hits are harder and everybody runs faster. It’s just a whole different dynamic because the goal is this close now.

“We’re only three games away from the Grey Cup, so we’ve got to really lock in and execute.”

Slotback Naaman Roosevelt played the first two playoff games of his CFL career last season and, even at age 29, he learned how much he didn’t know.

The emotions that are created by the playoffs, the ebbs and flows of the game and the intensity of the players were all different. So was the mindset required just to play in the post-season.

“There’s a lot more on the line,” Roosevelt said. “It’s win or go home and you don’t want to be that team that goes home. We want to be here for the next three weeks and win the Grey Cup.

“The mindset is, ‘Everything you do has got to be right. It has got to be full speed and it has got to be executed right.’ What I learned is that you can’t take any play for granted. You’ve got to make every play.”

Roughriders head coach-GM Chris Jones has been in the playoffs in 16 of his 17 seasons as a CFL coach, so he himself has a wealth of post-season experience on which to rely. He’s also well aware that having a roster full of players who have been here before can be beneficial.

“If you have enough veterans, you don’t make so many mistakes that (the situation) is insurmountable,” Jones said. “It comes down to execution in all three phases — and having veterans limits those (errors).”