By GRAHAM KELLY on November 25, 2021.
You can bet Winnipeg is pulling for Calgary to beat Saskatchewan in the semi-final Sunday. Because of COVID-19, come Dec. 1, all players must be vaccinated to travel. While all Riders but one are vaccinated, Stampeder coach Dave Dickenson admitted that for the Western Final against the Bombers, “We are not going to have a full squad, no.” That won’t be a problem if they lose in Saskatchewan Sunday.
The teams are evenly matched. Saskatchewan finished with a mark of 9-5, Calgary 8-6. The Stamps took the season series, winning twice in Regina, but the point differential over the three games was 10. The Roughriders were 5-2 at mid-season, Calgary 2-5 but now the hottest team in the league winning six of their last seven. Which squad is the hottest right now? Which is the best team this week?
Offensively, neither team has averaged more than 1.5 touchdowns per game. Field-goal kickers Rene Paredes of Calgary and the Riders’ Brett Lauther will likely determine the outcome.
In terms of production, the quarterbacks are about equal with the consistent Rider Cody Fajardo completing 69.6% of his passes. Stampeder Bo Levi Mitchell was good on 64.9% of his throws, but performed well above that down the stretch. In passing yards Calgary ranked second overall, Saskatchewan eighth. The Stamps had a better second-down conversion rate and were more productive in the red-zone. Calgary allowed the second-fewest sacks, 20, while Saskatchewan gave up 40. To win, the Rider offensive line has to protect Fajardo, not an easy task because with defensive ends Shawn Lemon and Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund and inside men Derek Wiggan and Mike Rose Calgary’s front four is ferocious. Also, the Stamps have D-line depth.
The Riders do have excellent receivers in Duke Williams, Shaq Evans, rookie star Kian Schaffer-Baker, Ricardo Louis, Brayden Lenius and Mitchell Picton but a weak line means Fajardo’s hurried or running for his life. Because Fajardo was sixth in rushing, the Riders ranked higher on the ground but Cowboy Ka’Deem Carey was the CFL’s second leading rusher, Rider William Powell fourth. The Stampeders can mount more of a sustained ground game and set up the aerial attack better.
Since the beginning of the season, Calgary’s linebacking corps, with rookie Darnell Sankey in the middle and Jameer Thurman and Branden Dozier, has evolved from uncertainty to one of the best in the league. They can stop the run and shut down the Riders’ short passing game. Saskatchewan needs to throw deep more to Evans and Williams. Two weak spots in a strong Calgary secondary are DBs Raheem Wilson and Richard Leonard.
Calgary is ranked fifth against the pass, Saskatchewan seventh. The Riders have a gambling aggressive defence that forced the second most turnovers. Their front four of Jonathan Woodward, Anthony Lanier, Micah Johnson and A.C. Leonard recorded 47 sacks, best in the West. When it comes to rapid read and release, Mitchell is matchless. His receivers Reggie Begelton, Markeith Ambles and Kamar Jorden will put enormous pressure on the secondary of Nick Marshall, Ed Gainey, Loucheiz Purifoy, Damon Webb and Jeremy Clark. The Riders should mount an all-out front four blitz and drop off their excellent linebackers Micah Teitz, Deon Lacey and A.J. Hendy into coverage. Bo is no threat to run.
Another major Rider weakness is their penchant for penalties. They took the most in the league. The defence was the worst offender meaning the opposition kept drives alive. Saskatchewan coach Craig Dickenson is resigned to the problem. “You are who you are at this point. That group(his team) plays hard and enjoys coming to work but has a hard time controlling their emotions on game day. We’ll try to make the necessary corrections but that’s something that takes a long time to get out of a team. I’m not overly optimistic we’re going to turn the switch on come playoff time”.
The forecast shows six degrees at game time. The Stamps feel at home in Regina. They are confident they can win there because they usually do. At this point, Calgary is the better team. But it all comes down to Bo. He’s inconsistent. If he’s on, Stamps win. If Bo is bad, they won’t.
Extra motivation? Seven Stampeders made the West All-Star team, only two Riders. Saskatchewan has something to prove.
Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 49 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to email@example.com