(With files from Postmedia and Riderville.com)
REGINA -- The Ticats and Riders are set to square off for the second time this year on Saturday at Mosaic Stadium, on a date players and fans from both teams most likely have circled on their calendars.
Andy Fantuz makes his highly-anticipated return to Riderville, the place he called home for from 2006 to 2011, before he departed for Hamilton over the winter as a free agent.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said the 28-year-old, reflecting on the memories of a six-year career in Regina. “I had a lot of friends in the community, and just being back in the city in general and Rider nation will be something I’m used to.”
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And as if the storyline itself weren’t intriguing enough, Fantuz comes into the game as the past week’s top Canadian, after catching eight balls for 135 yards in a breakout 39-24 Ticats win over division rival Montreal.
With these two teams already having played back in Week 1, a dominant 43-16 road win for the Riders, there’ll be plenty on the table as each team has a chance to stay at the top of their respective division. That won’t stop Fantuz from enjoying his return to Riderville though, even if the first-year Ticat isn’t quite sure what’s in store for him.
“I guess it’ll be kind of a different circumstance – I know it’s going to be a hostile environment, it’s going to be loud for us,” he added. “I’m not sure how the reception’s going to be. I know I’m going to have a lot of fun with it, just playing against all the old guys again and of course seeing some of the familiar faces in the stands.”
Fantuz certainly isn’t the only player who’s caught fire entering this game, as the Ticats head into Mosaic Stadium on a mini winning streak after back-to-back home wins over the Alouettes and the Argos, in which they were firing on all three cylinders.
It wasn’t until last week’s win over the Als that Henry Burris – another former Rider who knows what it’s all about to go into a hostile environment – really broke out, completing 27 of 30 passing attempts for 360 yards and a touchdown.
That was likely the most impressing quarterbacking performance we’ve seen so far this season, and this week the ‘Cats offence will be looking to show that last week was no fluke.
“The fact guys are starting to get more comfortable in the offence, and not ask as many questions on the field shows the maturity is coming along,” Burris said in an interview with the National Post.
The 37-year-old is the league’s highest-rated starting quarterback through four games, with a passer rating of 113.9. His success so far has come from his ability to protect the ball, as well as to sustain drives with a combination of a high efficiency rating and being able to move the offence with his legs.
He’s 68.9 per cent on his throws this season, which looks pretty impressive considering two weeks ago he completed just 12 of 27 passes against a tricky Argos secondary. That ranks him third among starters behind only Toronto’s Ricky Ray, and Calgary’s Kevin Glenn.
But while plenty of offence makes CFL games pretty – which we’ve been privileged to see so many times this season, with scoring in the league way up in 2012 – sometimes it takes a little bit of ugliness to make a team more complete. In other words, as the offence continues to grow, the defence needs to grow with it.
Last week the Ticats took a comfortable lead into half time at Ivor Wynne, but received a little bit of a scare for the second week in a row when the Als opened the third quarter with 14 straight points. The ‘Cats would bounce back in the fourth though, shutting down one of the league’s top passers ever in Anthony Calvillo to preserve the win.
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“You like to keep your foot on their throats,” veteran linebacker Jamall Johnson told the Post. “In the last couple of weeks we haven’t played well in the middle of the game so that is the one thing we’ve got to do.”
It’s something the offence is guilty of too, and that was most noticeable two weeks ago against the Argos, when the Ticats stormed out to a 21-0 lead, but let the Argos back into the game before half. Were it not for a missed field goal returned for a touchdown by Chris Williams as time expired in the second quarter, the result in that game may have been a little bit different.
“We have to clean things up a little bit,” added Fantuz, agreeing that the team needs to be more consistent in the middle of games.
Still, it’s hard to get down about too much after the performance against Montreal – something they’ll be looking to repeat on the road in Saturday’s grudge match against the Riders.
With Saskatchewan sitting pretty at the top of the West Division with a 3-1 record though, it’ll be no easy feat.
The Riders appeared to be well on their way to a 4-0 record last weekend, leading the Stamps by 10 points in the later stages of the fourth quarter after what would’ve been considered an impressive game from Darian Durant, Weston Dressler, and Chris Getzlaf.
But rookie head coach Cory Chamblin’s team got a first-hand view of why no lead is safe in the CFL, as Glenn put together one of the greatest late-game performances in recent memory while taking advantage of costly Riders’ turnovers to lead the comeback and send the game to overtime.
After the Riders opened the extra frame with a long field goal from Chris Milo, the Stamps picked up right where they left off in the fourth, as Glenn found his favourite target Nik Lewis, who burst into the endzone.
|The last time they met|
The Riders invaded the Hammer and opened the 2012 season with a win, as Darian Durant quickly put 2011 behind him with 390 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-16 Rider win. Weston Dressler had a first game to remember, with 180 yards and three touchdown catches, while Kory Sheets had 80 yards and a touchdown in his first career CFL game. Chevon Walker was the highlight for the Ticats, with an 89-yard touchdown run and 132 yards on seven carries.
It was a finish that would’ve been shocking for a Riders team that had previously given up a game-high of just 20 points and an average of 17.7 points per game through the first three weeks of the season, as the Stamps would take it 41-38 on the shoulders of Glenn.
This week, the Riders will be happy to return home, where all teams have dominated this season, including themselves at 2-0 with wins over BC and Edmonton. Coach Chamblin said he couldn’t be happier to be back in familiar territory.
“For me, the fans are awesome,” Chamblin told the Regina Leader-Post. “For this game to be sold out the way it is, that really helps us, having that 13th man just roaring. You can practise with crowd noise. It’s not the same. I’ve coached here and we’ve had the crowd noise. It’s not the same.”
“Those guys are going to be in for a treat there, and hopefully we can continue to keep the energy going through every play, whether it be on the field or in the stands, just to make it hard for the Tiger-Cats that night,” he added.
It’s always a special night in Riderville when Burris is back in town, but with Fantuz now in the mix as well, the Ticats can expect to have their hands full with a sold-out, rowdy Regina crowd.
“It’s going to see how loud it gets with everybody screaming Henry’s name, with about 32,000. That’s going to be a pretty good deal — and see how they handle Fantuz — but it’ll be tough for them,” said Chamblin. “I don’t care who you are. We’re all human. If somebody’s screaming your name in a bad manner, I think that may affect me a little bit.’’
The Riders have a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the West following the Esks’ loss to Winnipeg on Thursday night.
Kickoff is at 6 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca.
|2||Blue Bombers||DE||Mulumba, Andy|
|3||Alouettes via EDM||LB||Edem, Mike|