WEST­ERN SEMI­FI­NAL

What the Rid­ers need to do to beat the Bombers

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - NEWS - MUR­RAY MCCORMICK mm­c­cormick@post­media.com twit­ter.com/mur­raylp

REGINA Will it be a Novem­ber to re­mem­ber for the Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers or Win­nipeg Blue Bombers?

The an­swer will be­come clear Sun­day, when the prairie ri­vals meet at Mo­saic Sta­dium in the CFL’s West Divi­sion semi­fi­nal.

Both teams are rolling head­ing into the game.

The Rid­ers won five of their last six games (and nine of their last 11) en route to post­ing a 12-6 record and clinch­ing a home play­off game for the first time since 2013.

The Blue Bombers also won five of their last six games and, at 10-8, fin­ished third in the West. The Rid­ers and Blue Bombers met three times dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, with Saskatchewan win­ning twice.

Here’s what the Roughrid­ers need to do if they want to reach the West fi­nal Nov. 18 in Cal­gary against the Stam­ped­ers.

WHEN SASKATCHEWAN HAS THE BALL

Saskatchewan’s of­fence has been in­con­sis­tent, gen­er­at­ing a league-low 25 of­fen­sive touch­downs, com­pared to the Blue Bombers’ CFL-best to­tal of 53.

The Rid­ers need to score touch­downs if they are to over­come Win­nipeg. Whether that hap­pens hinges on the health of quar­ter­back Zach Col­laros.

Chris Jones, the Rid­ers’ head coach and gen­eral man­ager, was coy this week when asked about Col­laros’s sta­tus. He missed the fi­nal three quar­ters of the Rid­ers’ 35-16 win over the B.C. Li­ons af­ter tak­ing a hit to the head Oct. 27. He has passed all of the CFL con­cus­sion pro­to­cols, so that shouldn’t de­ter the Rid­ers from start­ing him.

On Fri­day, how­ever, Jones was non­com­mit­tal when asked if Col­laros would start. Backup Bran­don Bridge took the ma­jor­ity of the rep­e­ti­tions with the first­team of­fence. Col­laros worked pri­mar­ily with the sec­ond team.

“(The me­dia) places way too much em­pha­sis on that,” Jones said when asked who would start. “We’re go­ing to pre­pare both guys like they are go­ing to play and then we’ll see who plays.”

Col­laros pro­vides the Rid­ers with their best chance to win. He had only nine touch­down passes against 13 in­ter­cep­tions, but the Rid­ers are 10-4 in games that he starts and fin­ishes.

A key for the Rid­ers is pro­tect­ing Col­laros, which puts more pres­sure on the Rid­ers’ makeshift of­fen­sive line.

Saskatchewan and Cal­gary al­lowed the fewest sacks in the league (27). How­ever, Saskatchewan has sur­ren­dered 14 sacks in the last five games, with in­juries be­ing a con­tribut­ing fac­tor.

The Rid­ers have run the ball ef­fec­tively and were sec­ond in the CFL with an av­er­age of 111.9 rush­ing yards per game. Win­nipeg was first at 134.9.

Saskatchewan will be with­out Tre Ma­son (knee), who led the Rid­ers in rush­ing yards (809), but Cameron Mar­shall has re­gained the form he ex­hib­ited in 2017 be­fore be­ing side­lined by a knee in­jury at mid-sea­son.

Mar­cus Thig­pen is also ex­pected to see more play­ing time af­ter be­ing on the side­line for the last two games. In 2017, Thig­pen ex­ploded for 169 yards, in­clud­ing a 75-yard touch­down run, in the Rid­ers’ 31-20 win over the Ot­tawa Red­blacks in the East Divi­sion semi­fi­nal.

Shaq Evans, who led the Rid­ers in re­ceiv­ing yards (785), is ex­pected to be side­lined with an undis­closed in­jury. It helps that Naa­man Roo­sevelt (knee) is re­turn­ing to the ac­tive ros­ter against the Li­ons af­ter miss­ing four games. He is a vet­eran pres­ence among the Rid­ers’ youth­ful group of re­ceivers.

Jor­dan Wil­liams-Lam­bert is a fi­nal­ist for the CFL’s most out­stand­ing rookie award af­ter lead­ing the Rid­ers in re­cep­tions (62), fin­ish­ing sec­ond on the team in re­ceiv­ing yards (764) and ty­ing for the lead in touch­downs (four).

Wil­liams-Lam­bert’s ab­sence was noted dur­ing the only game he missed due to in­jury — a 31-0 loss in Win­nipeg on Oct. 13. He re­turned to the lineup the fol­low­ing week and had five catches for 113 yards in a 29-24 vic­tory over the host Stam­ped­ers. That is the kind of dif­fer­ence he can make.

Win­nipeg ’s dif­fer­ence-maker on de­fence is Adam Bighill, the West’s nom­i­nee for most out­stand­ing de­fen­sive player.

Bighill had a mon­ster game in the 31-0 win over Saskatchewan, record­ing eight de­fen­sive tack­les, three sacks and a forced fum­ble.

WHEN WIN­NIPEG HAS THE BALL

The Blue Bombers boast the league’s best of­fence, av­er­ag­ing 30.6 points per game. Saskatchewan has one of the league’s best de­fences, hold­ing teams to 24.7 points per game.

Saskatchewan makes teams pay for mis­takes, as ev­i­denced by a CFL-record-ty­ing 11 de­fen­sive touch­downs.

The Roughrid­ers also held teams to an av­er­age of 91.9 rush­ing yards per game, good for sec­ond in the CFL be­hind Cal­gary (86.5).

The Rid­ers also have West al­ls­tar de­fen­sive ends in Charles­ton Hughes and Wil­lie Jef­fer­son. Hughes led the CFL with 15 sacks. Jef­fer­son had 10 sacks and two in­ter­cep­tion-re­turn touch­downs, in­clud­ing a 97-yard gamechanger in Win­nipeg on Sept. 8.

Jef­fer­son and Hughes will be chal­lenged be­cause Win­nipeg has one of the league’s best of­fen­sive lines, which in­cludes three West all-stars.

The Rid­ers have had mixed re­sults while at­tempt­ing to con­tain An­drew Har­ris, the league’s lead­ing rusher (1,390 yards).

In the first meet­ing, Har­ris rushed for 158 yards on 15 car­ries in a 31-23 loss at Mo­saic Sta­dium on Sept. 2. The fol­low­ing week, Har­ris was held to 10 car­ries for 21 yards as the Rid­ers won 32-27. He was lim­ited to 36 yards on 10 car­ries on Oct. 13.

The Sept. 8 game was the worst of Ni­chols’ sea­son. He threw three in­ter­cep­tions, in­clud­ing two pick-sixes, be­fore be­ing benched.

Ni­chols has re­bounded down the stretch with some im­pres­sive per­for­mances. He was not in­ter­cepted in the Oct. 13 game.

Har­ris was con­trolled while de­fen­sive tackle Mic’hael Brooks was on Saskatchewan’s ros­ter. The run-stop­per is on the side­line with a bro­ken an­kle, which con­trib­uted to the Rid­ers sign­ing Cory John­son shortly af­ter the Blue Bombers re­leased him.

For­mer Rid­ers slot­back We­ston Dressler re­mains ef­fec­tive at 33. He has bat­tled in­juries this sea­son, but the Blue Bombers are 10-3 this sea­son when he has been on the ac­tive ros­ter and 0-5 in his ab­sence.

Lim­it­ing Har­ris and forc­ing the Blue Bombers to count on their pass­ing game is a key to help­ing the Rid­ers earn a berth in the West fi­nal.

We’re go­ing to pre­pare both guys (Col­laros and Bridge) like they are go­ing to play and then we’ll see who plays.

BRAN­DON HARDER

Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers play­ers braved a chilly prac­tice Fri­day at Mo­saic Sta­dium, where they’ll face the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers in Sun­day’s West Divi­sion semi­fi­nal.

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