CALGARY — Two West Division rivals cross paths on Sunday afternoon for the fifth time in 2012, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Calgary Stampeders meet in the Western Semi-Final at McMahon Stadium.
With a trip to B.C. to take on the division-leading Lions at stake, all eyes will be on two starting pivots who will meet head-to-head for the first time this season.
Drew Tate gets the nod for the Stampeders over fill-in veteran Kevin Glenn, despite missing a good part of the season with a shoulder injury he sustained back in Week 2 of the regular season.
But while Tate — a young pivot filled with potential that likely has many great years ahead — has plenty to prove this weekend, the bigger focus might be on Riders’ veteran pivot Darian Durant.
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After all, with all of Durant’s accomplishments, including two straight Grey Cup appearances against the Montreal Alouettes, he continues to search for his first ring.
Add in a five-loss season a year ago, and suddenly Sunday’s game might be more than just a regular playoff game for the seven-year veteran.
“No doubt about it, no doubt about it,” said Durant when asked about that one major achievement missing from his resume. “The more you play this game and the older you get, the thing you realize is that nothing matters but a championship right now.”
Durant became a major part of the Riders’ future plans in 2008, when he split playing time with the likes of Steven Jyles, Michael Bishop, and Marcus Crandell. Since then he’s emerged as one of the league’s top dual-threat quarterbacks.
The critics emerged last season after a forgettable 2011 campaign, and despite bouncing back with a strong year statistically in 2012, Durant knows the only way he’ll ever truly silence those doubters is to get back to just win.
“Stats, all those things they’re great, they’re good to look at,” Durant acknowledged. “But at the end of the day as a quarterback you get measured by championships, and that’s the only thing I have in mind.”
The road to the Grey Cup now starts in Calgary – a team the Riders have had mixed results against this season.
McMahon Stadium was the site where Saskatchewan’s season first veered off the tracks, when the Stampeders erased a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to spoil the Riders’ perfect start to the season. After a blazing start, that loss marked the beginning of a season-high five-game losing streak.
The second meeting came five weeks later on a blustery day in Regina, with the Stamps holding on for a 17-10 edge thanks to a pair of early touchdown passes from Glenn and running back Jon Cornish.
The Riders would get their first win against Calgary on the third try, thanks to a late defensive stand en-route to a 30-25 win at home back in September.
With each game being settled by an average margin of five points, it’s highly possible Sunday’s contest will come down to the wire once again – meaning how the quarterbacks manage the game down the stretch will be pivotal.
If that’s the case, the Riders hope Durant’s experience will be the difference.
“Darian does show up,” said rookie head coach Corey Chamblin. “Darian is a good quarterback and I fully expect him to show up in this game and treat it as a big game. I’ve seen good focus this week, I’ve seen crisp balls this week and I’ve seen him ready to go.”
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As for Tate, Chamblin knows that while the young starter may have less experience, there’s a reason he’s earned the starting role over an experienced proven quarterback like Glenn.
“Those are two things – big game, young QB,” said Chamblin. “[Tate] doesn’t have a lot of playoff experience, so Darian probably gets the edge there.”
But Drew is a young guy, he’s a competitor. I’m sure he’ll want the big game but I think we’ll be ready for Drew defensive wise.”
Durant, meanwhile, knows he has to take every opportunity that comes to him to help silence his critics.
“Whenever you have a good team, because you can’t get there by yourself, you have to make the most of it and take advantage of the opportunities,” he said.
“Nothing’s guaranteed, you have to cherish every opportunity you get and last year definitely showed me that you can get sent home at the end of the season so you better take advantage of the few opportunities that you get in the playoffs.”
While a playoff win on the road against a divisional foe would be a great way for Durant to make a statement, the Stampeders likely have other plans, which include keeping the Riders’ pivot on the turf.
The Stamps finished the season with the second-highest sack total in the league at 43, yet know they’ll need pressure up front in order to contain Durant.
If one thing’s certain, the front four won’t suffer from any lack of motivation.
The sensation, according to defensive lineman Corey Mace, can be difficult to explain to the 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday layman.
“I’d say it’s up there with the first day your parents let you drive the car by yourself,” said Mace. “We’ve all gone through that. You finally got your license and you’ve been waiting six months to crank up your favourite song, something by Ludacris, and get out on the road, on your own.”
Mace had just one sack this season, but enjoys the idea of getting to Durant on Sunday.
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“You finally get the car, window’s down, foot on the gas, you blast your song, and you feel this sense of exhilaration, of freedom, and you think — no, you know — you’re the man.”
“That’s what it feels like to sack a quarterback. That’s what it’d feel like to sack (Darian) Durant on Sunday.”
The Stamps have 17 sacks over the final four contests, not coincidentally all wins, and also not by chance since Head Coach and General Manager John Hufnagel signed 36-year-old Anwar Stewart.
“Crazy thing is, we’ve been playing solid all year,” sighed defensive line coach DeVone Claybrooks. “It’s just that we’ve been finishing the last four games. We’ve had opportunities, been winning our share of 1-on-1 battles, in all of our games, but we just weren’t closing the same way.
“Now, with a quarterback of Durant’s quality heading into the playoffs . . . he’s a guy we haven’t had as much success (against) as we’d like.”
As Durant goes, so goes Saskatchewan, naturally. When he’s allowed a comfort level, in a rhythm, throwing to Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf and keeping the marauding hordes off him by utilizing tailback Kory Sheets, the Riders are a different team.
“He can be hot or cold,” said Stewart, a longtime adversary. “I’ll tell you what you’ve got to do with him: keep him in the pocket and give him some looks, disguise coverages, hit him whenever you can.”
“If you can do that, he’s no different than any other quarterback – he’ll throw you an interception here or there,” continued Stewart. “When I was in Montreal, we said: Just everybody do their job and he’ll give us one at critical times, especially in the Grey Cup.”
– With files from Riderville.com and Postmedia