Hilltops ready to spike Rifles’ rushing attack
Conference semifinal will come down to team that imposes its will Sunday
The Winnipeg Rifles opened a few eyes and turned some heads with a 35-22 victory over the Regina Thunder last week to close out the Prairie Football Conference regular season.
The Rifles now take aim at the Saskatoon Hilltops, who play host to the Winnipeg squad in Canadian Junior Football League’s PFC semifinal action Sunday (1 p.m.) at SMF Field.
“Think about it,” cautioned Toppers head coach Tom Sargeant, whose team has won the last three PFC and Canadian Bowl titles.
“They (Rifles) have three rushers in the top 10. They’ve got a great running game. They’ve got a couple of big, physical slotbacks. So, they put together a nice offence package to allow them to move the ball down the field. Certainly in the first half, they took it to Regina and certainly it’s opened all our eyes knowing that it’s a team that’s improved a lot and they deserve to be in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to come out and play playoff football on Sunday.”
Winnipeg ranked No. 2 behind only Saskatoon in the PFC for rushing yards with 1,300 and a 185.7-yard average per game.
Micheal Ritchott leads the league with 772 yards and 110.3 yards per game. Quarterback Johnathan Remple ranked 10th in the PFC for rushing yards and sixth among passers.
“Their quarterback is an exceptional athlete,” Sargeant said. “And (Odun) Ogidan is a high-end, skilled runner as well.”
Defensively, the Rifles allowed 230 points. The Hilltops led the PFC with 338 points and they only gave up 127, second only to the Edmonton Huskies.
“It’s our offence against their defence,” Sargeant said.
“We are the best rushing team in the PFC, so we’re going to go run the ball. With the O -line and running backs performing at such a high level, that gives everybody a lot of confidence. I’ve got to assume that they’re going to try and figure out how to add in and trick us up into the schemes that we run.”
If so, Sargeant said they’ll then put the ball in the capable hands of QB Jordan Walls.
“Our pass game has been really good this year,” Sargeant said. “If we can get back to throwing 50 per cent and running 50 per cent, we’re going to be tough to defend.”
The Hilltops hope to use the home-field advantage throughout the PFC playoffs. That’s something they earned with a 38-28 win over the Huskies last week.
“Any time you’re in your own environment, you save that extra day,” Sargeant said.
“We’re not on a 12-hour bus trip to Winnipeg. That’s massive. When you’ve gone through a long season already, the more fresh you can keep your team, the more energy they’re going to play with on Sunday.
“Playing in Saskatoon out at SMF, we’ve worked hard to create these conditions and this opportunity. Now we’ve got to take advantage of it. We’re preparing hard. We’re practising hard. I guarantee you we’ll come out and probably play our best game of the year.”
Hilltops leading rusher Logan Fischer is expected to play Sunday.
“That’s certainly the plan,” Sargeant confirmed. “Has there been a better playoff performer than No. 21 over the years at any level? He’s just been exceptional.
“It sounds like all systems are go. The playbook will open up a bit. What have I said about that running back stable all year? They’ve just been phenomenal. We had three rushers in the top 10 and two in the top five. Adam Machart and Josh Ewanchyna have been exceptional, too.
“You put those three guys out there and it’ll make any defence feel uncomfortable.”
If we can get back to throwing 50 per cent and running 50 per cent, we’re going to be tough to defend.
Saskatoon Hilltops running back Logan Fischer is expected to play Sunday against Winnipeg at SMF Field.