The stakes are extreme for both the Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL’s West Division final.
For the Stampeders, Sunday’s game is about backing up the best record in the CFL this season and earning a second straight trip to the Grey Cup.
For the Roughriders, it’s about getting to play in the Grey Cup in front of their own fans as the host team Nov. 24 in Regina.
The Roughriders spoiled Calgary’s Grey Cup party in 2009 by eliminating the Stampeders 27-17 in the West final.
Saskatchewan took over Calgary’s locker room the following week for the championship game, although it was anything but a place of celebration.
The Roughriders lost to the Montreal Alouettes because of the infamous 13th-man penalty which gave the Als a second chance at the winning field goal.
The Roughriders are loathe to vacate their room for the Stampeders next week at Mosaic Stadium. Saskatchewan running back Kory Sheets considered the prospect of Calgary counterpart Jon Cornish claiming his stall an indignity.
“If we lose this game, Jon is going to get my locker somehow, some way he’s going to be sitting right in my seat and I can’t let that happen,” Sheets said Saturday. “That’s our locker with our ’S’ on it. I would hate to see a horse cover that ‘S’.
“It’s been a real big motivation.”
The Grey Cup’s East Division representative will be determined earlier Sunday when the defending champion Toronto Argonauts host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Calgary’s 14-4 record topped the league this season and also raised expectations for the playoffs. Saskatchewan’s 11-7 was good enough for second in the division.
The Stampeders went 2-1 versus the ‘Riders this season. Both wins were at home, including a 29-25 decision in the regular season’s penultimate game Oct. 26.
Saskatchewan is 4-1 in playoff meetings against Calgary over the last seven years, including back-to-back division final victories in 2009 and 2010.
Cornish, the CFL’s leading rusher, and No. 2 Sheets are a central plot Sunday. Temperatures cold enough to make the football feel like a brick and a hard, potentially slippery McMahon surface could keep the ball on the ground.
“The team that runs the ball better probably has a better chance to win the game,” Calgary head coach John Hufnagel said. “Both teams are going to come out and try and establish the run.
“They’re not going to hand the ball off every play, but they will want to try and win the line of scrimmage, which will allow the running back to get to the second level.”
Cornish overtook Sheets during the season to earn his second consecutive season rushing title and is the West division nominee for the league’s Most Outstanding Player award. Cornish says there is a slight advantage for the man with the ball when footing is tricky.
“You’re the one that knows where you’re going with the ball and the defence has to react to that, so you can slightly take advantage of that, but if it is really slippery you have to be conscious of that too,” Cornish explained.
“If you try and do too hard a move you could just fall, too. It’s something you can use to your advantage absolutely.”
Conditions are expected to be less challenging Sunday than they were in the 2010 West final at McMahon.
Minus-24 and blowing snow made for a miserable game for both players and fans. Calgary had a 13-5 season, but lost 20-16 to Saskatchewan that day.
Sunday’s forecast is for a high of minus-9, but a slight wind will make it feel more like minus-14. A storm that dumped about 10 centimetres on Calgary moved east Saturday to allow time to clear stadium seats.
“It’s cold outside, but I like playing in the snow,” Stampeder defensive end and CFL sack leader Charleston Hughes said. “It adds excitement to the game so when I knock the players down they can make snow angels.”
There were still tickets available Saturday with sales at about 32,000, according to a Stampeders spokesman.
Saskatchewan advanced to the division final with a 29-25 semifinal win at home over the B.C. Lions last week. Head coach Corey Chamblin believes his team gained mental toughness in a game where the ‘Riders had to come from behind to keep their Grey Cup dreams alive.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth in that area since the last time we were here,” Chamblin said. “We weathered the storm there and went through some things and the guys fought back through it.
“There was never that wavering fear that the game would be over. They were tough and in all situations we passed the test.”
Durant and Calgary quarterback Kevin Glenn are both experienced with five division final starts between them, as well as three Grey Cup starts.
Durant is considered the more mobile of the two. He ran the ball 76 yards in a 13-point fourth quarter against the Lions. So Calgary’s defence has the quarterback to consider in addition to Sheets when it comes to stopping the run.
“We cannot allow him to ruin the game with his legs,” Hufnagel said of Durant. “We’re not going to stop him, but we have to contain him. We do have a fast defence that will swarm for the ball and that’s what we’ll have to do tomorrow.”
Glenn led the Stampeders to the Grey Cup in Toronto last year with playoff wins over Saskatchewan and B.C.
“I’m excited to be back to this point with my teammates, to go out and do exactly what we did last year and win the West,” Glenn said. “We’ve got enough pressure as it is to win, so we’ve got to make sure we have fun while we’re doing it.”
Saskatchewan’s top receiver Chris Getzlaf returns to their lineup after missing the last two games with a knee injury suffered Oct. 26 in Calgary.
With regular starters Micah Johnson and Demonte Bolden out with knee injuries suffered in the regular-season finale, the Stampeders used their extra practices to audition replacements at defensive tackle.
Junior Turner, a third-year Stampeder from Toronto, and import Freddie Bishop III, have been assigned to protect the middle. Bishop signed as a free agent in July.
Notes: Roughrider defensive lineman Tearrius George is out with a knee injury he suffered in the division semifinal . . . Calgary is 2-2 in West finals under Hufnagel.