REGINA -- Mark's Labour Day Weekend resumes on Sunday afternoon with another fierce rivalry, as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers visit Mosaic Stadium looking to tackle the red-hot Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Injured quarterback Darian Durant and recently-signed receiver Weston Dressler are both expected to suit up and start for the Riders, as a playoff atmosphere is expected in this prairie battle and both teams bear down on two more big points.
The veteran quarterback injured his hand during last week’s 20-16 win over the BC Lions, when it struck a helmet while making a pass. This week both Durant and Head Coach Corey Chamblin said the hand’s improved each day, and all indications are the field general should be ready to go.
“It depends on what type of game it was,” Durant laughed after hesitating, when asked midweek whether he’d be able to play right then and there.
Sunday’s game isn’t a playoff game, but it’s about the closest you can get for a late-August regular season affair. Given that, you can be sure the 32-year-old will give it all he’s got to suit up.
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“If it continues to progress then I’ll be good to go for Sunday,” he added in an interview with Riderville.com. “I felt fine, I made most of the throws I needed to make and we’ll see.”
“As long as I don’t have a cast on my hand I should be good to go.”
If the Riders don’t have Durant, at least they’ll be pretty comfortable with Tino Sunseri, the quarterback who’s on-call this week. The Riders were actually trailing 13-9 at halftime before Sunseri went in, and the 25-year-old went 8-of-13 for 86 yards along with touchdown in the third quarter that stood to be the game-winner.
“Tino is Tino, and I expect him to get in there and do well,” Chamblin said. “He’s probably one of the calmest guys, he’s been around football his whole life so he’s seen a lot of situations, and he throws a deep, great ball and commands the huddle.”
“Guys believe in him and he stepped in and we just kept playing ball.”
Last weekend’s game against the Lions was as big as any this season, considering both how tight the standings are in the West as well as the events leading up to the weekend – the Riders placing a billboard outside of BC Place, and the Lions guaranteeing victory.
Trailing 16-9 in the third quarter though, Sunseri went into a difficult situation in relief for Durant and led his team to two big drives: one culminating in a long Chris Milo field goal, and then a nine-play, 90-yard drive that took 5:05 and finished with a one-yard touchdown pass to offensive lineman Dan Clark.
"Tino had a great game, from the standpoint of being in the huddle and just talking to us, calming us down and saying ‘let’s go guys’, being a leader, he did a great job,” said running back Anthony Allen, who rushed for 83 yards on 17 attempts.
“Every day we go out there for practice, Tino’s doing good things,” he continued. “He’s out there with Darian all the time and he’s always watching film, so we knew when he came in we were going to be comfortable and keep clicking, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Clark’s rare touchdown proved to be the game-winner, after the Rider defence clamped down and pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter to seal the team’s fifth straight win, moving it to 3-1 on the road this season. It was a character win by every meaning of the phrase, and now the team looks to carry its momentum into Sunday.
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“It’s nothing but positive,” Clark told the team’s official website after beating the Lions. “[Chamblin] always talks about us going 1-0 this week, so here we go, Labour Day Classic let’s go 1-0.”
Regardless of who plays quarterback, the offence will get a little more help this weekend as Dressler could return to the lineup for the first time in 2014 after spending time south of the border with the Kansas City Chiefs.
He was a key piece to the offence during last year’s Grey Cup run, and while his reps will likely be capped on Sunday the team’s third all-time leading receiver is bound to make a difference right away in a season the offence has had its ups and downs – especially in a game of this magnitude.
“It gives us someone who’s more familiar with the offence and someone who’s more experienced, and the more experience you have the more chance you have of putting up more points and more yards,” Chamblin said. “So it definitely adds more experience.”
“I think we have a good team the way we are, the football team is already pretty good and this will add to it.”
While the Riders enjoy the high of a five-game winning streak, the Bombers appear to have re-discovered what helped them win five of their first six games to open the season, before losing two straight – including a hard-fought 23-17 loss to these very same Riders in Winnipeg.
The Bombers trailed through most of their contest with the Alouettes, but a special teams touchdown to start the third quarter and then a flurry of offence in the fourth led to 24-16 win. Head Coach Mike O’Shea said even though his team trailed as late as the fourth quarter, the outcome was never in doubt on the sideline.
“I don’t know that anybody on our side thought that we weren’t going to [pull it out],” O’Shea told BlueBombers.com. “Did we pull it out? When it can go either way I don’t know the word ‘pull it out’ is accurate.”
“I think our guys on the sideline felt pretty confident we were going to win the game, and whatever it’s going to look like, it’s going to look like,” he continued. “But I don’t think anyone on our sideline thought we weren’t.”
Confidence is never a bad thing, but perhaps most promising for the Bombers was the play of their defence, in a game that wasn’t a pretty one for offensive enthusiasts. Drew Willy completed 14 of 23 passing attempts for 200 yards and an interception, while running backs Nic Grigsby and Paris Cotton combined for 85 yards on the ground.
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It was the Saskatchewan defence that pulled out the comeback in Week 7 preventing Drew Willy from working his magic as the Riders took the first swing in this rivalry.
In the end it was the defence that forced three picks off Jonathan Crompton and also held Brandon Whitaker, the league’s second-leading rusher, to just 25 yards on 13 carries. It was a strong game that O’Shea said he hopes can carry into Labour Day Weekend.
“It’s important for our defence to follow up this last game we had with another good solid effort like against Montreal,” the rookie head coach said. “They were where they were supposed to be, they were tough, and they finished their tackles.”
“I think that’s the difference.”
The offence will try this week to get back on track, as its last time out against the Riders’ defence didn’t go so well. Willy was picked off three times in that game, while the Bombers got just eight rushing yards on 11 carries from their running backs.
Willy was picked off twice late in the game, leading to a 23-17 loss on home turf. Now as he returns to Regina for the first time since suiting up as a Roughrider, the challenge is even greater.
“It’ll be loud and obviously the passion in that game is very intense between the fans and players, so we just want to do everything we can to make sure we’re mentally and physically ready to go and we’re looking forward to the opportunity,” Willy told the team’s official website.
Willy spent two years in Riderville backing up Durant, passing for 1,182 yards and nine touchdowns before heading to Manitoba this year to become a starter. He’s fared well as a first-time starter, completing 65.2 per cent of his passes and compiling a 90.6 quarterback rating – and most importantly boasting a 6-3 record.
“I’m sure they’ll boo me, but you’ve gotta love that as a competitor and as a player,” Willy said. “I did everything I could the past two years I was there and I enjoyed my time there, but I’m so happy to be here and they’ll probably boo any Winnipeg guy.”
“So I’m looking forward to that and looking forward to going out there with my teammates and doing anything we can to get a win.”
Kickoff is at 4:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from Riderville.com/BlueBombers.com