Corey Chamblin is head coach of the best team in the CFL, but he’s been 3-0 before and seen it go all too hell. So no wonder he had little difficulty keeping perspective after a 39-28 win on Thursday night that frankly flattered his teams opponent, the Toronto Argonauts.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders were 3-0 in 2012, then went 5-10 the rest of the way. So they’ve been here before. Asked what the difference between this 3-0 and last season’s start, Chamblin chuckled a bit and then added: “Three hundred and sixty-five days? I guess what I look at it the fact that the last two weeks, we’ve played the Grey Cup teams from last year and have won both games. So that’s a good step for us. We want to be measured against those teams.”
The Argonauts have the Grey Cup rings but there is no doubt that the Roughriders are miles ahead of them right now. Both teams were faced with the prospect of over-hauling their defences after last season. They chose different tacks, with the Roughriders bringing in new faces with CFL experience, while the Argonauts chose players with no CFL experience. The edge that gave the Roughriders was evident in Thursday’s win, as was another difference between the teams: offensively, Saskatchewan has become a much more complicated and balanced package under new offensive coordinator George Cortez, who flamed out ingloriously as head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last season but built his reputation as a quarterback guru.
“If you’re in Wal-Mart and you get next to him, you might score a touchdown,” Chamblin told the Regina Leader-Post after Cortez’s hiring.
Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant would concur. Durant hit Taj Smith on 61 and 70-yard long bombs for touchdowns in front of a surprisingly small crowd of 18,211 at the Rogers Centre as Saskatchewan raised their record to 3-0.
Scott Milanovich, the Argonauts head coach, has said several times that despite the presence of Chad Kackert and the useful Andre Durie, his over-riding priority is to ensure that quarterback Ricky Ray gets into his rhythm. All else comes from that.
The Argonauts came into their meeting with Saskatchewan with just six rushing first downs and 30 passing first downs; the Roughriders, meanwhile, had a run-pass ratio of 53 per-cent pass that was the most balanced in a league skewed heavily to throwing the football: 67 per-cent to 33 per-cent running.
That trend continued against Toronto, with the Roughriders passing for 10 first downs and rushing for 11, led by running back Kory Sheets who rushed for 178 yards and two TDs to become the first Roughrider to rush for 100 yards in three consecutive games since Wes Cates in July and August of 2008. Sheets, who has 442 yards, has made little secret of the fact he thinks he can be the next Mike Pringle, or at least take aim at his single-season record of 2,065 yards. He’s already thinking about what he’ll do when he hits 1,000.
“First thing I did two years ago when I came to the league was look it up,” said Sheets, a two-year CFL veteran from Purdue. “I might have to do something if I get to 1,000 yards early.”
The first half narrative was simple: Ray’s passing (18 of 22 for 183 yards and hitting on his first 12 passes, just five shy of the club record set in 1975 by Mike Rae) and penalties. The teams combined for 14 penalties and 142 penalty yards and the Argonauts, now 1-2, had an 87-yard interception return TD called back when cornerback Jamie Robinson was flagged for pass interference after he budged the shoulder of the Smith en route to picking off Durant. Two plays later, Sheets skipped into the end zone. The Argos had one first down in the second quarter – on a roughing the passer call against John Chick.
It was two of those Argonauts newcomers who were victimized by Durant with 50 seconds left in the first half, as Robinson and Janzen Jackson – the latter a defensive halfback playing his first game – let Smith get behind them for a 61-yard pass that put the Roughriders ahead 21-11.
Durant, who was replaced by University of Buffalo product Drew Willy with 10 minutes left in the game after Durant limped off with a foot or ankle injury, hooked up again with Smith on a 70-yard scoring play seven minutes into the second half. Smith clearly pushed off the Argonauts cornerback Jalil Carter, but this was one time no flag was thrown. The Argonauts pulled back to within 11 points with 9:59 left in the game when Ray hit Kackert on a 46-yard pass, but with Durant sitting with his foot in ice, Sheets loped 37 yards into the end-zone with 2:15 remaining.
It was a conclusive win for a team that looks mighty sure-footed at a time when most everyone else is trying to find their equilibrium.
Chamblin realizes how important balance is. As Durant - who has 10 days to heal before the Roughriders entertain Hamilton - noted, being balanced means a team is “multi-dimensional." That’s not always easy in three down football. “George is a very good play-caller,” Chamblin said of Cortez. “I can’t say we’ll always be 50-50 or even that you aim to be 50-50, but I know if Kory’s running the ball we will continue to feed it to him, just like we’d feed it to our receivers.”
Durant believes this years Roughriders team went to school in 2012. It knows the warning signs of another melt-down, and has a better idea of what actions need to be taken to prevent it from lingering. They’re older and wiser and they’ve found an equilibrium that is usually not discovered so early in a CFL season.