The Saskatchewan Roughriders see this year’s Labour Day Classic as a chance to climb out of the CFL West basement.
On Sunday afternoon at Mosaic Stadium, the 3-5 Roughriders aim to snap a five-game losing streak against the 2-6 Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who play their first game under new head coach Tim Burke.
Corey Chamblin, Saskatchewan’s rookie head coach, has been preaching focus and intensity to his team this week, and Thursday’s practice was as enthusiastic and loud as any workout this season. There were unmistakable signs of energy and enthusiasm as the players attempt to answer Chamblin’s challenge against the Bombers.
“I talked to the guys about frustration,” Chamblin told reporters after practice. “I told them that frustration can be a good thing ... we have to focus. It’s the little things.”
Defensive end Odell Willis, a former Blue Bomber, was his usual animated self, claiming that his team’s recent losing skid hasn’t changed his approach to the game.
“At the end of the day, it’s football. You still have to have fun,” he said. “I’ve been around long enough to understand the vibes of the locker room. The vibe is different because all we have to do is clean up the mistakes. Nobody has beaten us. We’ve beaten ourselves.”
Willis has participated in the Labour Day Classic before, but never as a Roughrider.
“I know what it’s like coming from the Winnipeg side,” he said. “This will be my first time coming from the Saskatchewan side.”
Veteran offensive guard Brendon LaBatte finds himself in a similar situation. The Regina native played with the Bombers for four seasons before joining the Riders last winter as one of the team’s high-profile free-agent signings.
“I was a little bit jealous of all the other Saskatchewan guys,” he said.
Saskatchewan’s defence has shown improvement as the season approaches the halfway point, but the offence has been struggling to score points. Quarterbacks coach Khari Jones suggested this has to do with personnel changes that have been made because of injuries or sub-standard performances.
Regardless of the reasons for the lack of production, Jones said there are genuine indications of progress.
“I see it in practice. The guys are getting comfortable with each other. There’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle.”
Jones particularly wants to see improvement in the Riders’ long passing game. Quarterback Darian Durant and his receivers found success early in the season, but opposing defences appear to have caught on, and Saskatchewan’s aerial attack has lately been confined to shorter passes.
“I’ve been around good teams and I’ve been around bad teams,” Jones said, who played this game as a Blue Bomber earlier in his career. “This is a good team. I really believe that.”