It was quite the weekend in Riderville with the toppling of Taylor Field, much like a drunk hitting his limit and falling over, followed by Bakari Grant sleepwalking to the end zone and fumbling the ball on the one yard line, Darian Durant getting his standing O and Nik Lewis drawing a career to a close in front of family and friends.
Add to that that everything from second to fourth place in the west is wide open and first place in the east has yet to be decided and this weekend will have their share of storylines to be played out in what Environment Canada seems to be hinting maybe a winter wonderland.
It should not have been a surprise to see the thousands of people come out Friday afternoon to witness the final moments of Taylor Field. Taylor Field has arguably played host to some of the best moments in Saskatchewan history, including the 2013 Grey Cup. Despite the facility lacking the ability to walk around it, you had to exit the stadium to get to the other side, and washrooms that leaked interesting fluids at times, it served to reflect the fans belief that if people rallied together and did what they could, then maybe they could will the Riders to victory.
My first game was sometime in the late 1960s when I came down with my family from Yorkton and saw the Riders lose to Calgary. It was a combination of Wow! and then trying to figure out what was going on. It was the start of a love affair with a place where magic sometimes occurred at the strangest times.
I played high school ball on that turf and on my first play as a running back, the ball got tossed past me and I ran to pick it up since it was live. Then I got creamed by a tackler and then the next day on the front page of the LeaderPost there was a picture of me, with my name misspelled, getting tackled. I finally got a copy of the picture blown up and its hanging on my wall, my one moment of athletic glory.
When covering the Riders for the Prince Albert Daily Herald, there was one moment when I understood what an emotional charge the fans could give the Riders. It happened on the first visit of the Sacramento Gold Miners the first American based CFL team. George Harcus, the photographer and I had just gotten to the field and were going through the tunnel to the field when a door swung open and Harcus and I found ourselves trying to make our way through the Gold Miner players. The roar from the crowd as we got out onto the field was unbelievable. It like a concert with the Beatles, Elvis, Led Zeppelin, anyone you could think of, and if you were a Rider player, you could not help but be emotionally lifted. The Riders won that game.
While the games were the attraction, what stays are the memories in 2001 I managed to create one of the best. My Dad was dying of anaplastic cancer of the Thyroid and there was one thing left I thought I could do for him. I called the Riders and talked to Tony Plater, who did communications for them, and asked if it was possible for my Dad and I to sit in the Press Box for a game against Hamilton. When my Dad and I would walk to our seats in Section 204 on the second level, we would walk past the press box doors and talk about how much fun it would be to sit there and listen to the football talk.
Tony said yes and while the Riders were lousy that day, they won and Dad got to meet Ron Lancaster, the Hamilton coach, one last time. Dad died two weeks later and that was the last game we saw together at Taylor Field, something I thought about in 2013 when the Riders won the Grey Cup. On Friday there were a lot of us with similar memories, probably amongst them was Darian Durant who got the money he was looking for from Montreal, but was likely making his last start for the team.
The Riders did a video and asked fans to stand and thank him and so I did, and then cheered for the Riders to sack Durant and run Montreal out of town. What happened was a kind of belated exhibition game with the Riders juggling their quarterbacks, running Trent Richardson and playing sloppy football that could have blown up real good for them.
Matthew Schliltz took over from Durant, apparently Durant had suffered an injury, but it felt more like he had been lifted for ineffectively leading the Als. Nik Lewis was apparently playing in his last game, which considering he had family in town was appropriate. Lewis had three catches for 30 yards and seemed to be at the end of his particular run, which will likely get him into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Schiltz moved the Als pretty good, including a toucdown pass but Montreal was clearly looking at auditioning people for next year. With Montreal picking up 15 penalties and 11 for the Riders, it was a chippy affair that maybe Trent Richardson and Chad Owens came through with flying colors.
Montreal takes their extended training camp to Hamilton for a game that means nothing but maybe everything. Kavis Reed has said he will not be back as coach and for Reed to show he is a real GM, he needs to get a coach who can put together pieces quickly to maintain the interest of the fickle Montreal fans.
DeVone Claybrooks is rumored to be among those Reed would like for the head coaching position, which makes sense because Montreal’s defense is old and will need to be rebuilt. However trying to predict what Reed will do is an iffy proposition because there are so many loose threads including Darian Durant and his contract and his lack of production.
Hamilton in the meantime went from Kent Austin to June Jones and seemed to be playing much better. They could have and should have won against Ottawa, but with Jeremiah Masoli leading the way, Hamilton will likely be looking to deal Zach Collaros, especially if Johnny Manziel is on deck for next season.
So with two teams out of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see how Hamilton wraps up its season because fans must be encouraged by how the team played down the stretch. For many in Montreal, this will be their last game as professionals and while you would think that pride will be a factor for Montreal, the fact of the matter is they lack adult leadership and so Hamilton wins this one 28-25.
Then Winnipeg goes to Calgary and this is becoming an interesting game, mostly because of subtractions to both teams. Winnipeg has lost three out their last four, and while that has dropped them into a tie with Edmonton for second, they still hold the season series with Edmonton should they be tied.
The problem is Winnipeg has Matt Nichols injured, and Andrew Harris looked a bit woozy but seems to be good to go against Calgary. With Nichols an open book on starting or lasting, the attention has turned to Winnipeg’s back up quarterbacks and they don’t seem to be ready for prime time or even playoff mop up duty yet.
Calgary has dropped two games in a row and while they have a bye to the western final, they need to get a bit of momentum and reversing the losing trend. Both teams are looking vulnerable and it is this vulnerability that may spell opportunity for either Edmonton or the Riders in whoever claims third spot.
I’m going on the assumption that Nichols will play a bit because Winnipeg needs to either end their own Stampeder jinx or if they can exploit a sleeping Stampeder team, clinch second spot. But that won’t help because Calgary after losing two games doesn’t need to lose three, unless they are planning to rest a whole bunch of starters and try to make the western final with a healthy roster as possible. Calgary should win this one 30-25 to set up the last day of the season nicely.
That starts with Edmonton going to Mosaic Stadium in a game that could spell second, third or fourth for Edmonton and is now sparking the question – is it better to go through the west or the east to get to the Grey Cup?
Edmonton and the Riders are playing better football than Calgary and Winnipeg and Edmonton has been getting players back from the injury list and the win over Calgary was good for Jason Maas’ blood pressure. Prior to the last couple of weeks, fourth was probably not a bad spot to be in for a crossover playoff berth because Ottawa and Toronto were having 500 or sub-500 seasons.
However both teams have been playing better football and while the Riders did sweep Toronto and Ottawa on an eastern road trip, Ottawa came back to beat the Riders in the last minute when the defense fell asleep. Winnipeg is looking beatable and Calgary’s aura of invincibility has been tarnished the last couple of weeks.
At this point – Monday – I would expect both teams to play most of their starters. The Riders will likely rest Naaman Roosevelt for one more week and save him for the playoffs because Chad Owens has been filling in nicely. If Trent Richardson is back from his rolled ankle, the Riders will likely work on their running game, especially if the weather forecast lives up to the snowy portion. After all, it is November and playoff football.
The difference may be the Rider defense, who stifled Edmonton when the Riders went up for their only visit, and has held Calgary off the touchdown list for two games. The Riders seem interested in playing a lot of zone coverage but Chris Jones has been changing his book of tendencies defensively and that should be enough to get the Riders to go into the playoffs on a winning note, finishing third with a 29-26 win.
The season ends with Toronto going to BC and this on the surface seems pretty straightforward. If Toronto wins, they finish first with a 9-9 record and get a bye to the eastern final. Lose and they finish second and host either Edmonton or Saskatchewan.
Adding to the interest is Toronto has to go west and eastern teams heading to the left coast have enjoyed mixed results, although Ottawa did pretty good a couple of weeks ago. BC wants to wrap up its season before their fans on a winning note, especially since everything from ownership to coaching to players may change big time next season.
BC beat Winnipeg in Winnipeg, which is pretty impressive, until you see what kind of team Winnipeg is fielding these days. Toronto is coming off a bye and may well feature a lot of James Wilder at running back as they work on execution. The Argos will win this one 27-26 in a game that will be close because for Toronto, this will be a gut check for the playoffs and I think Marc Trestman may have enough on the ball to confound the BC offense and defense.
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