As their traditional home-and-home series approaches, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers find themselves heading in opposite directions.
Saskatchewan sits atop the West Division at 7-1, while Winnipeg is mired in the East Division basement at 1-7.
With the Labour Day Classic at Mosaic Stadium on Sunday, followed by the “Banjo Bowl” in Winnipeg the following weekend, the Blue Bombers will be hoping to get on track and the Roughriders are looking to solidify their hold on first place.
Rest assured, the Riders, who are in position to start a season 8-1 for the first time in franchise history, are not taking the Bombers lightly.
“I’m real pleased with the way the team practised this week,” head coach Corey Chamblin said, adding his players are taking their rivals “100-per-cent seriously.”
Saskatchewan defensive tackle Tearrius George agrees with Chamblin this year’s Roughriders have exhibited maturity and confidence, citing back-to-back victories in which the team has had to come from behind against the Montreal Alouettes and Edmonton Eskimos.
“The last couple of games we’ve played, we had our backs against the wall and come out wins at the end,” George said.
Starting at quarterback for the Bombers will be Justin Goltz, who lacks experience but is now working with a new offensive co-ordinator, Marcel Bellefeuille, the replacement for the fired Gary Crowton.
“I like what coach Bellefeuille is doing,” Goltz said. “He has really helped clear some stuff up. I really like stepping up to the line of scrimmage and having a process, having clear cut keys and directions to go with the football.”
Saskatchewan linebacker Renauld Williams says whoever happens to be at quarterback for the Bombers can expect to be staring at defence that will be “flying around” and applying great pressure.
“We also have a lot of different looks we can give a quarterback,” Williams said. “We’ve been harping all week on just doing your job.”
The fact the Riders will be in hot pursuit comes as no surprise to Goltz. “I expect them to come after us, both the fans and the team,” he said.
A capacity crowd of 45,000 is anticipated for the Labour Day Classic.
“It’s not only a big crowd, it’s a knowledgeable crowd,” Saskatchewan quarterbacks coach Khari Jones said. “They know when to be quiet and when to be loud, to help our team.”
Added Roughriders centre Dominic Picard: “The 13th man will be there, absolutely.”
Despite their struggles, Goltz insists the Bombers are still fighting to turn things around.
“I don’t think anybody’s given up on the season. I don’t think anybody’s given up on themselves,” he said. “Guys come to work every day expecting to improve, expecting to get better. I don’t think anything’s a foregone conclusion.”
Saskatchewan slotback Geroy Simon said the Riders have to be wary of Winnipeg’s defence. “We’re not going to take anybody lightly,” because that’s been the prevailing sentiment in Riderville this week.
“Their front seven is very good,” Simon said. “We have to take care of their rush ends, and make sure they don’t screw up our game plan.”
Arguably the best way to offset the pass rush is with the ground game, and Saskatchewan possesses the most productive in the CFL, thanks to tailback Kory Sheets.
“He’s just very patient,” Bombers head coach Tim Burke said. “He just reads it, and then he sees the hole and goes. That’s where we’ve got to be good. We’ve got to stay in our gaps and just hold him down.”
Winnipeg cornerback Brandon Stewart says the Bombers defence knows what it has to do to try and contain Sheets.
“We’ve got to be assignment-sharp, because [Sheets] has vision as a running back, and he has the speed to also bound it when he sees it,” he said. “Everybody has to be in their gaps, or he can crease you. He’s shown it on multiple defences this year.”