After a couple of back-and-forth games in the regular season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers are back for a fourth go-round in 2018.
The Roughriders and Bombers are to meet in the Western Semi-Final on Sunday (3:30 p.m., CKRM, TSN) after facing off three times in the regular season.
Saskatchewan won the teams’ first two games, rallying from 10-7, 17-14 and 20-17 deficits to post a 31-23 victory in the Labour Day Classic on Sept. 2 and from 10-0, 17-7 and 27-26 deficits to prevail 32-27 in the rematch in Winnipeg on Sept. 8.
The Bombers squelched any hopes of a Roughriders comeback in the teams’ third meeting, building up a 31-0 halftime lead and cruising to a victory by that score on Oct. 13.
For Roughriders head coach-GM Chris Jones, the result of the fourth meeting of the season between the teams is dependent on ball control.
“If we turn it over early in the game like we did (on Oct. 13), it won’t be pretty for us,” Jones said earlier this week. “If they turn it over against us early or turn it over a bunch of times in the game, it won’t be pretty for them. That’s basically what it comes down to.
“You’ve got two very evenly matched teams that like to run the ball, that play good defence (and) that are very strong special teams-wise. It’s going to be basically who makes the mistakes.”
The winner of Sunday’s game advances to the Western Final against the host Calgary Stampeders on Nov. 18. The winner there qualifies for the Grey Cup game, Nov. 25 in Edmonton.
Here’s a look at some aspects of Sunday’s game:
A history lesson: The Roughriders and Bombers are to meet in a CFL playoff game for the first time since Nov. 25, 2007.
On that day, James Johnson’s three interceptions helped Saskatchewan defeat the Bombers 23-19 to win the third Grey Cup title in franchise history.
Since then … nada. The teams will end that 11-year drought Sunday.
Both teams have appeared in the playoffs in the interim.
The Roughriders participated in the 2017 post-season, when they finished fourth in the West Division and crossed over to the East for the playoffs.
Saskatchewan beat the host Ottawa Redblacks 31-20 in the Eastern Semi-Final, but fell 25-21 to the hometown Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Final. Toronto went on to win the Grey Cup with a 27-24 victory over Calgary in the championship game.
The Roughriders won their most-recent CFL title in 2013, when they beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 45-23.
As for the Bombers, their championship drought dates back to 1990. That season, they beat the Edmonton Eskimos 50-11.
Last season, the Bombers finished second in the West Division in the regular season, but lost 39-32 to the visiting Eskimos in the Western Semi-Final.
Winnipeg’s most-recent appearance in the Grey Cup game was 2011, when it lost 34-23 to the B.C. Lions.
The men in charge: Jones has been in the playoffs in all but one of his 17 seasons as a coach in the CFL.
Jones has appeared in 13 division finals and seven Grey Cup games in his career and is a four-time league champion.
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea began his CFL coaching career in 2010 as an assistant with the Argos. In his four seasons there, Toronto went 4-2 in the playoffs, including a win in the 2012 Grey Cup game.
After O’Shea became the Bombers’ head coach in 2014, the team missed the playoffs in each of his first two seasons at the helm. It has lost in the Western Semi-Final in each of the past two campaigns.
The arms race: Saskatchewan’s Zach Collaros started 14 regular-season games, posting a 10-4 record and throwing for 2,999 yards.
But he tossed more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (nine) and was forced to leave three games early after sustaining injuries.
Brandon Bridge started four games in place of Collaros and this week took snaps with the first-team offence as the Roughriders prepared both QBs.
Winnipeg’s Matt Nichols started 14 game in the regular season, going 9-5-0 and throwing for 3,146 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
But there were stretches during which he struggled and fans in Winnipeg clamoured for backup Chris Streveler.
The pressure will be on whoever plays quarterback — and not just in terms of the pass rush. The man who best deals with the strain likely will lead his team to victory.
Saskatchewan intercepted eight passes over the three regular-season games against Winnipeg. The Bombers recorded four picks against the Roughriders.
The running men: Winnipeg tailback Andrew Harris led the CFL in rushing this season with 1,390 yards, 28 more than Ottawa’s William Powell.
Harris gouged the Roughriders for 158 yards on 15 carries in the Labour Day Classic, but managed only 57 yards on 20 carries over the final two games of the season series. The Roughriders held him out of the end zone in all three of their meetings.
Tre Mason was Saskatchewan’s leading rusher in the regular season with 809 yards and in the series against Winnipeg with 202 yards. But Mason is out with a leg injury, so the Roughriders will rely on Cameron Marshall and Marcus Thigpen.
Marshall played in only three regular-season games, but he managed 220 yards — including a career-high 134 yards against B.C. on Oct. 27. Thigpen had 408 yards (including 63 on seven carries against Winnipeg) and four TDs.
If 2017 is any indication, the playoffs are Thigpen’s time to shine. In last season’s Eastern Semi-Final, he gashed the Redblacks for 169 yards on 15 carries and scored on a 75-yard run to help send the Roughriders to the Eastern Final.
Show us your hands: The Roughriders were one of only three teams that didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver in the regular season, joining the Montreal Alouettes and injury-ravaged Stamps in that club.
Shaq Evans led Saskatchewan with 785 yards, a total that left him 17th in the CFL. Darvin Adams topped the Bombers’ receivers with 1,028 yards, good for eighth in the league.
Adams was Winnipeg’s leading pass-catcher in the season series with the Roughriders, catching eight passes for 192 yards with two touchdowns. Drew Wolitarsky added 12 receptions for 147 yards.
Jordan Williams-Lambert (nine catches, 136 yards), Kyran Moore (seven receptions, 110 yards), Evans (eight grabs, 100 yards) and Naaman Roosevelt (nine catches, 100 yards) led the Roughriders’ receivers in the three games. Evans won’t play in Sunday’s game due to injury.
None of Saskatchewan’s receivers caught a touchdown pass against the Bombers this season. Thigpen was the only Rider to do that, hauling in a 25-yard scoring toss on Sept. 2.
Pressure packed: In an interesting statistical anomaly, the Roughriders and Bombers tied for the league lead in regular-season sacks … with the other three teams in the West Division. All five defences had 45 quarterback takedowns.
The Roughriders’ sack attack was led by ends Charleston Hughes (who had a league-high 15) and Willie Jefferson (who had a career-high 10). Eddie Steele (four), Sam Eguavoen (three), Matt Elam (three), Chad Geter (three), Tobi Antigha (two), Cameron Judge (two), Zack Evans (one), Ed Gainey (one) and Makana Henry (one) also contributed to the Roughriders’ total.
The Bombers’ leading sacker was Craig Roh, who had eight. Jovan Santos-Knox (six), Tristan Okpalaugo (five), Jackson Jeffcoat (five), Adam Bighill (four), Jake Thomas (three), Anthony Gaitor (two), Drake Nevis (two), Jeff Hecht (two), Brandin Bryant (two), Gerald Rivers (two), Chandler Fenner (two), Maurice Leggett (one) and Marcus Sayles (one) had the others.
Saskatchewan had eight sacks over the three games the teams played in the regular season. The Bombers got to Saskatchewan’s quarterbacks six times, including four in the contest Oct. 13 when Winnipeg regularly blitzed.
Getting their kicks: The contest features two of the CFL’s top kickers — and they’re close friends.
Saskatchewan’s Brett Lauther and Winnipeg’s Justin Medlock were teammates with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2014. Hamilton had signed Medlock in the off-season and that sent Lauther — who had played four games with the Tiger-Cats in 2013 — to the practice roster.
Medlock offered Lauther advice that season and in the intervening years; the two men still talk regularly.
Medlock’s guidance obviously paid off for Lauther in 2018. In his first full season as a CFL kicker, he went 54-for-60 on field-goal tries (including 7-for-7 in three games against the Bombers).
His 54 three-pointers were the most by a Roughriders kicker since Dave Ridgway nailed 59 during the 1990 season. Lauther’s success rate of 90 per cent was the highest since Ridgway was good on 90.6 per cent of his tries in 1993.
Medlock is no slouch, either. The Bombers’ veteran was 6-for-7 against Saskatchewan in the regular season and was 42-for-47 overall.