Welcome back, Kory Sheets.
The running back, before he hurt his knee in September, had been dashing towards one of the greatest-ever seasons in Canadian Football League history and his return to action Friday night in Vancouver was strong, helping carry the Saskatchewan Roughriders to an essential victory against the B.C. Lions.
It was a disappointing showing for the home team, playing for the second time in their 60th anniversary gun-metal grey uniforms, in front of a season-high crowd of more than 37,000.
The win, 31-17, halts a rough four-game losing skid for the Riders and rekindles hope on the prairie for a green dream in November this year when Regina hosts the Grey Cup. Saskatchewan had been a juggernaut, 8-1, at the midway mark this season, and Sheets was delivering remarkable performances, before the team slipped, and Sheets got hurt, a strained right knee.
So the Riders stumbled into Vancouver and the hostile environs of BC Place, where the Lions had not lost this season and had gone 19-2 in the two years since the stadium was renovated. It looked bad for the guests to start: in the first quarter, the Riders gained a total of just 16 yards on four pathetic drives and Sheets himself lost two yards, managing a gain of six on the ground and a loss of eight in the air. The dynamite Lions defence – so dominating in the past several games – appeared as formidable as ever.
But the Lions offence did not deliver – obviously missing the injured quarterback Travis Lulay – and the Riders began to rediscover their rhythm, slowly pulling away through the rest of the game.
The result leaves both the teams tied in their season series and also tied for second place in the West Division at 9-5, with four games remaining in the regular season.
The key drive came early in the third quarter. The Riders had gone to the locker room at half time with a comfortable 16-3 lead, putting up two touchdowns in the second quarter after their ugly first. Returning for the second half, the Lions immediately tromped down the field for a touchdown to narrow the score to six.
The Riders then turned to Sheets. The hand off was for a quick dart between the left side of the offensive line but the hole was closed, and Sheets had to bounce out farther to the left. Picking up speed, he pushed by potential all-star cornerback Cord Parks for a 16-yard gain. Quarterback Darian Durant then completed two passes and the Riders were down to the five-yard line. The ball went back to Sheets and he punched it home. He handed the football to centre Dominic Picard, who had produced the push for the score, and Picard happily spiked it in celebration.
Sheets ended the night with 80 yards on 14 carries, and six receptions for another 41 yards. The 5-foot-11 28-year-old running back has resumed his sterling second season in the CFL with hardly a hiccup, after missing two games. His goal to gain 2,000 yards, dubbed Mission 2K, is out of reach, barring a ridiculous quartet of gains in the games to finish the year. Sheets, even missing the two games and most of a third when he got hurt, was still leading the league in rushing before this weekend’s games, with 1,222, and now stands at 1,302.
Before his knee injury, Sheets was on pace to break Mike Pringle’s single-season rushing mark of 2,065 yards, set in 1998, the only time a CFL back has topped 2,000.
The B.C. game marks a return but not a total revival for Sheets, who had slowed somewhat before his knee was hurt. The last time he gained more than 100 yards was Aug. 24, when he had 139. Thereafter he had games of 91 yards and 65 yards before he gained eight yards and was hurt early in a Sept. 14 game against Toronto.
Sheets performed against a defence that has been in recent weeks near-impossible to penetrate, especially on the ground. The Lions had ceded the fewest yards on the ground and in the air this year, which they also achieved in 2012 – and should the Lions manage the feat again it would be the first time in CFL history it has been achieved.
Coming into Friday night, the Lions had posted five games giving up few yards on the ground, an average of less than 50.
Beyond the main action of the night, a near-odd occurrence: It was Geroy Simon’s return to BC Place as a Rider after his long tenure as a Lion. But just one week after breaking the all-time CFL record for receptions – which was recognized before the game and he received a standing ovation – he almost went without a catch on Friday. It would have ended a streak of 183 games in which he corralled at least one football but on the game’s second-last play he snatched a reception.
The Lions D did their work early but the team’s offence never got going. Backup Thomas DeMarco has served admirably in recent weeks but on Friday night was imperfect, throwing two interceptions in the first half, his first in his little CFL playing time, and a third late in the game. First-year receiver Korey Williams, who has mostly been on special teams this year, was one of the few bright spot, gaining 41 yards on his first CFL carry, a sweep play that looked botched until he found round and dashed diagonally across the field, and later a 41-yard reception, his second of the night and fifth of his young career.
Editor's Note: The original version of this online story gave incorrect information concerning the results of the B.C. Lions and Saskatchewan Roughriders season series. This online version has now been corrected.