Veteran CFL linebacker Joe Lobendahn knows exactly why the Saskatchewan Roughriders signed him as a free agent this week.
“I take pride in stopping the run,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Although he’s had less than a week to prepare, Lobendahn said he can “absolutely” make an impact against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Sunday’s Labour Day Classic at Mosaic Stadium. He’s already set his sights on Bombers’ rookie tailback Chad Simpson, who has rushed for 354 yards and two touchdowns so far this season for an average of over five yards per carry.
Lobendahn has added incentive Sunday — he’s lining up against his former team, who cut him prior to this season’s training camp. But Riders coach Corey Chamblin will be easing his new recruit into action, planning to only use him first downs and on special teams.
“We needed a guy who could bring in some attitude and I thought he was a guy with attitude,” said Chamblin.
Chamblin didn’t play down the significance of Sunday’s opponent, comparing the rivalry to “Steelers and Ravens or Alabama and Auburn.”
Offensive guard Brendon LaBatte, a former Bomber who signed with the Riders as a free agent last winter, likened it to a playoff game, while defensive halfback Eddi Russ said there’s been more intensity than usual in the dressing room.
“This week in practice, there was an ‘oomph’ to it, because this game is special.”
If the Roughriders and Bombers don’t start winning games soon, this might be as close to playoff atmosphere as either team will get this season. The teams hold down last place in their respective divisions — Saskatchewan is 3-5 in the West, and Winnipeg is 2-6 in the East.
The Riders opened the season with three straight victories but have since lost five games in a row. But with the exception of a 24-5 loss to the B.C. Lions, the defeats have been close. In fact, Chamblin believes his team could have won “six or seven” of its first eight games.
“We just have to come together as a team,” Chamblin said. “We’ve won in several phases of the game. What we need to do is win the overall game.”
The Bombers’ troubles prompted the firing of head coach Paul LaPolice last weekend. His replacement, Tim Burke, the team’s former defensive co-ordinator, was all smiles on Saturday.
“I’m undefeated right now,” he said.
Burke watched from the sidelines as his assistant coaches conducted the final practice ahead of Sunday’s tilt.
“I’m just trying to focus on the game-day decisions,” he said.
Winnipeg quarterback Joey Elliott said although Burke began his tenure in a serious manner, he has lightened up considerably since.
This will also be Elliott’s first Labour Day Classic.
“It’s going to be a neat experience for myself, but I’m going to treat it like any other game,” he said. “I can’t wait to play.”