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November 11, 2018

Five players (or things) to watch during Sunday’s game

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders are set to revive a rivalry.

The teams are to meet in the CFL’s Western Semi-Final at Mosaic Stadium on Sunday (3:30 p.m., CKRM, TSN), with the winner advancing to the Western Final against the host Calgary Stampeders on Nov. 18.

Despite the fact that the Bombers and Roughriders are bitter regular-season rivals — the Labour Day Classic in Regina and the rematch the following week in Winnipeg remain two of the most-hyped games of the campaign — their playoff history is somewhat lacking.

The teams haven’t met in a post-season game since the 2007 Grey Cup, which Saskatchewan won 23-19 in Toronto. They haven’t faced off in a divisional playoff game since 2003, when the Roughriders posted a 37-21 road victory in the Western Semi-Final.

Those droughts are to end Sunday at Mosaic Stadium.

Here’s one man’s list of five things (or players) to watch during Sunday’s game.

1. Give and take: The Bombers tied Calgary for the CFL lead with 49 turnovers forced in the regular season, and Winnipeg tied for the league lead with 151 points off those turnovers. The Roughriders tied the Ottawa Redblacks for third with 41 forced turnovers and tied the Bombers in points scored off those takeaways. Saskatchewan’s defence scored 29 points off turnovers over the three regular-season meetings with Winnipeg (including pick-sixes by Willie Jefferson and Sam Eguavoen), while the Bombers put up 24 points after Roughriders giveaways in those games (including interception and fumble returns for TDs by Anthony Gaitor). Whoever takes care of the ball Sunday should have an edge.

2. Defensive standouts: Jefferson and Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill were their respective teams’ nominees for the CFL awards as most outstanding player and most outstanding defensive player — and both were deserving of the double honours. Jefferson changed the game in Winnipeg on Sept. 8 with his pick-six and by forcing Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols to throw the pass that was intercepted by Eguavoen. Bighill was all over the field in the meeting in Winnipeg on Oct. 13, registering eight tackles, three sacks and the forced fumble that Gaitor returned for a TD. The impacts that Jefferson and Bighill can have on games is immense, so each offence must keep the opponent’s top defensive player at bay.

3. Cory Johnson: The second-year CFLer asked for his release from the Bombers after spending six weeks on the practice roster. So Winnipeg released him Oct. 30 — and he signed with the Roughriders three days later. Johnson is to start for the Roughriders on Sunday, replacing Lavar Edwards in the middle of the defensive line. Johnson is a proven commodity in the CFL, having recorded 28 tackles and five sacks in the 25 games he played with Winnipeg over the past season and a half. He’ll be asked to take on offensive linemen, clog up the running lanes and keep the Roughriders’ linebackers clean. Having faced the Bombers’ offence every day in practice during his time in Winnipeg won’t hurt his cause.

4. Cameron Marshall: The Roughriders’ tailback has been excellent since returning to the roster — and his workload is sure to increase in the absence of Tre Mason. Marshall rushed for 210 yards on 30 carries in Saskatchewan’s final two regular-season games, including a career-high 134 yards against the B.C. Lions on Oct. 27. Marshall has appeared in just three games this season, meaning his legs are fresh and his body hasn’t taken a season’s worth of hits. He’s a solid receiver, a willing blocker and a capable returner as well. Saskatchewan can change things up by replacing Marshall with Marcus Thigpen, who averaged 8.5 yards per carry in the regular season — and who was the rushing star of the Roughriders’ 2017 playoff run.

5. Andrew Harris: The Bombers have a rushing star of their own. Harris won the CFL’s rushing derby this season with a career-best 1,390 yards and tied a career high with eight rushing TDs. It’s the fourth time in his nine-year CFL career that Harris has gone over the 1,000-yard mark — and he barely missed it in two other seasons (coming up short by two yards in 2013 and by 26 yards in 2016). Harris can run inside and outside and he’s also an excellent receiver. The Roughriders are well aware that Harris is a key component of the Bombers’ attack, so they’ll be geared up to stop him Sunday and make Winnipeg’s offence one-dimensional. They held Harris in check in two of the three regular-season games, limiting him to 57 yards, but he had 158 yards in the other meeting.