It could not have been schemed any better than this. Not only are the Saskatchewan Roughriders back in the Grey Cup game, they will be playing the finale on their home field, Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field, the CFL’s little mecca on the prairies.
Better still, the championship-bound Riders will be facing their former head coach Kent Austin, former quarterback Henry Burris, former receiver Andy Fantuz and former kicker Luca Congi in a rematch of what many believe is the greatest Grey Cup ever played, Saskatchewan versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 1989.
Will the Riders party like they did when Dave Ridgway ended a whipsaw 43-40 thriller over Hamilton with a Cup-clinching field goal? They sure looked formidable Sunday.
On a chilly afternoon at McMahon Stadium, the Riders overpowered Calgary, turned running back Kory Sheets to the wind and ran away with a 35-13 victory in the West Division final. The match-up featured the top team in the CFL – the Stampeders with their 14-4 regular-season record – against a Saskatchewan group that had struggled down the stretch. Only there were no struggles for the Riders in a game they had talked about winning as soon as the 2013 season began.
After falling behind 3-0 early in the opening quarter, the Riders began wearing down their rivals en route to forcing seven turnovers. Defensively, Saskatchewan allowed only one touchdown – on blown pass coverage. Offensively, Saskatchewan used its dominance on the line to unleash the mighty Sheets.
He rushed 28 times for 177 yards and scored the crowning touchdown.
It was Sheets who had vowed before the game he wasn’t going to let Calgary move into the Riders’ dressing room at Mosaic, with Stampeders’ running back Jon Cornish taking over Sheets’s stall. Sheets got the ball early and often and didn’t disappoint himself or his teammates.
“What worked?” Sheets was asked by TSN while still on the field after the game. “Pretty much everything.”
“The Hoggies did the job up front,” Saskatchewan coach Corey Chamblin said of his offensive line. “They let Kory be special.”
Most everyone who started for the Riders was special, including quarterback Darian Durant, who used his legs to defeat the B.C. Lions in the West semi-final only to throw three touchdown passes against Calgary, one each to Rob Bagg, Chris Getzlaf and Weston Dressler. Durant’s execution was so good Saskatchewan had the ball for almost 41 minutes. Calgary’s time of possession was a mere 19 minutes 18 seconds.
“We’ve been battle tested,” Durant said of his side’s playoff fortunes over the past five years. “We had a heartbreaking time in 2009, a loss in 2010 [both against the Montreal Alouettes]. It’s all about the winning.”
Saskatchewan was so thorough against Calgary it sent starting quarterback Kevin Glenn to the sidelines after one half. Drew Tate showed some life in relief, tossing a touchdown pass to an uncovered Joe West, but Tate was eventually dispatched, too, unable to do much else against a team that could have won by more. Saskatchewan fumbled the ball at the Calgary one-yard line then had a field goal blocked. Several players mentioned they can’t afford to do that again and expect to beat Hamilton, which showed a second-half dominance of its own in defeating the Grey Cup defending champion Toronto Argonauts in the East final.
The Ticats boast a balanced attack led by Burris, who used to be quarterback of the Riders, and Austin, who quarterbacked and coached Saskatchewan to Grey Cup titles. When Saskatchewan and Hamilton met twice this season, the Riders won both games by a combined score of 69-20. All that and those intriguing storylines are of no interest to Durant.
“I’m not going to pay attention to the headlines,” he said. “We’re out to win it all.”
The Riders are so locked on winning the Grey Cup they had to be coaxed back onto the field at McMahon Stadium to receive the West Division trophy. Durant and his fellow team captains posed for photographs with commissioner Mark Cohon but refused to touch the trophy in case they jinxed themselves. They were already looking for more.
As Riders’ radio play-by-play man Rod Pedersen said at the end of the West final, “Grey Cup week starts now.”
The forecast calls for green and plenty of it.
TAKING IT TO THE HOUSE
For a third successive year, the host city of the Grey Cup has its own CFL team in the game. The Argonauts beat Calgary last year in Toronto to hoist the Cup and the B.C. Lions won it in Vancouver in 2011.
Calgary boasted the best regular-season record in the CFL at 14-4, but fell short of a return trip to the Grey Cup by losing the division final at home. The Argos were 4-5 at Rogers Centre during the regular season, the first time in CFL history a team had finished first in a division with a losing home record and lost the division final at home, too.
The 101st Grey Cup will be a homecoming for Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris and coach Kent Austin. Burris is a former Riders’ starter while Austin led Saskatchewan to Grey Cup wins as a quarterback (’89) and head coach (’07).