VANCOUVER -- The BC Lions and Saskatchewan Roughriders cap off Week 9 with a marquee matchup on Sunday evening at BC Place, as heated rivals jockey for position in the wild CFL West.
Sitting last in the West but also just two points out of first, the Lions are one of the league’s hottest teams having won three straight and five of their last six – yet as the rest of the division remains equally potent, a loss on Sunday night would erase this summer’s progress.
“There is a sense of urgency,” said star Lions’ offensive tackle Jovan Olafioye. “Everybody feels the pressure."
“We need to come with a win.”
The urgency Olafioye describes is real, and it’s consistent with the rest of the teams in the West Division, including this week’s opponent the Riders.
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Last weekend the Lions continued their hot streak, wearing down and eventually outlasting an injury-riddled Argos squad playing on a short week on the way to a 33-17 win. But with a visit by a West Division opponent this week, the intensity only increases.
That’s the case off the field too, where the Roughriders put an ad on a billboard outside of BC Place picturing a Rider fan, with the caption ‘Green is the new Orange’. The Lions’ front office responded by guaranteeing a win, otherwise free tickets for fans in attendance.
“This game is huge for us,” said running back Andrew Harris, who sat out last Sunday’s contest with an ankle injury, but is expected to play against the Riders. “It can set us up and move us up the standings.”
“The West is so tight,” he continued. “Any time you play a Western team it’s a must win, especially when you are neck and neck with a team.”
Neck and neck is a perfect way to describe these teams, both of which have five wins this season and would like to keep pace with Calgary and Edmonton, both in action this weekend against East Division teams.
The Lions went on the road and claimed the first meeting between these clubs back on July 12, avoiding a dreaded 0-3 start and moving into an early-season 1-2 tie with Saskatchewan. Both teams were dominant from there on out, combining for a record of 8-1.
Saskatchewan, adjusting after losing a number of key faces on offence including Grey Cup Most Valuable Player Kory Sheets along with top receiver Weston Dressler, has been most impressive, outscoring opponents 114-51.
“I think they are going through a transition right now,” said defensive back Ryan Phillips. “When you lose a whole bunch of veteran guys . . . it makes them struggle a little bit.”
“We know they can hit a spark any time,” he added. “We just have to make sure it’s not against us, especially on our home field.”
Powering the Lions has been a relentless rushing attack, which last week continued its dominance despite missing Harris from the lineup. Stefan Logan and Tim Brown filled in admirably, as the veteran scatback Logan set a career high in rushing with 145 yards on 19 carries to guide the Lions to another win.
“I told the coaches, ‘I know Andrew went down, but there will be no drop off in that backfield,’” Logan said. “I wanted them to have the confidence and have faith in what we’re doing back there and trust me to know that I’m going to do my best to help us win.”
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With Harris returning this weekend, the two can once again form the league’s best rushing tandem just in time to face a stingy Riders defence. In the win against the Riders over a month ago, Harris rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, while Logan added 47 on just 11 carries.
“We know when he comes back he's going to come back strong and we're going to keep this tandem that we have,” Logan added. “As people can see, we have three guys instead of two. We've got Andrew, me and Tim Brown, and that's what we're about.”
While the team’s rushing attack has become its identity, there remain questions at the quarterback position. Kevin Glenn has done his best to guide the Lions to an excellent start, but Travis Lulay earned his first game action in last weekend’s win after returning from off-season shoulder surgery.
The 2011 Most Outstanding Player ran four plays but didn’t throw a pass, although his role is expected to increase each week.
“I felt pretty good about what I was able to see,” Lulay told BCLions.com. “If I’m in mid-season form maybe one of those four plays plays out differently, other than that it’s just kind of the nature of the game.”
“I feel good, to be able to take some hits and go in and contribute in a small way – I feel good.”
Just as the Lions pinpoint last month’s win in Regina as a starting point for their upward swing, the Riders identify it as a turning point. The loss at home came on the heels of a blowout loss to the Argos in Toronto, and with the bye week that followed it marked the last game the Green and White would lose up to this point.
“I thought that was a catalyst, not just for the defence but for the team as a whole,” Head Coach, Corey Chamblin told Riderville.com. “The defence knew that we played well the year before and we weren’t playing to our capabilities, and they knew they had to do the fundamentals right.”
“They’ve lined up and they’ve been doing the fundamentals right and put in the extra time to be successful.”
Since then the Riders have surrendered just 51 points in four wins, giving up on average just below 13 points a game. Their highest total against was 17 against the Bombers, and while their offence continues to search for consistency it’s safe to say that loss sparked some extra urgency in Riderville.
“We were down in the standings, we were 1-2 at the time and a sense of urgency needed to happen with this team,” said quarterback Darian Durant. “I think the bye week came at a perfect time for us to just reflect on what happened in those first two games, to look at ourselves in the mirror and just make adjustments from there.”
“We’ve been fired up each and every week and we have to continue with that momentum.”
Last weekend the Riders survived a defensive duel with the Alouettes, finally scoring the game’s only touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Durant to Rob Bagg.
Despite the lack of scoring, though, Saskatchewan’s offence was efficient, as Durant threw for 221 yards and a touchdown on 19-30 passing, meanwhile Jerome Messam and Will Ford combined for 85 rushing yards.
Now as they try to win in a place they’ve historically had trouble doing so, the Riders hope for continued success on both sides of the ball. Last season they won 31-17 in their only visit to BC Place, but outside of that Durant is 2-5 in seven trips to Vancouver.
“At the end of the day it’s not just about me, I know quarterbacks get a lot of the glory but we just haven’t been playing well out there as a team throughout my career,” Durant said. “But hopefully what started last year can be a trend-setter and we can keep going with wins from there.”
Last year’s triumph there was an early-October clash that helped the Riders earn a home playoff game against the very same Lions, which they’d win en-route to a trip to the West Division Final and eventually the Grey Cup Championship at home.
It’s earlier in the season now, but Sunday’s game doesn’t carry any less weight.
“Every game is big, with the way the West is and how there’s not much separation at all in the standings every game is huge,” Durant said. “Every game you’re fighting for position for the playoffs, and the way things look, there’s gonna be a pretty good team that doesn’t even make the playoffs.”
“So every game is important.”
The Riders won’t dwell on what happened in last month’s meeting, and since then they’ve turned it around while playing some of their best football. They will, however, let it remind them of the challenge they’re up against this weekend.
“We know exactly what happened in that game and I have shown some of those things, but I’m not going to plant the seed of doubt,” Chamblin said. “We know we’re going into the Lions’ den, we know who they are and we understand that it’s going to be a tough ballgame.”
“I just think we’re still two good teams that are gonna go down to the wire, and it’s gonna be a dogfight,” the veteran quarterback admitted. “We didn’t play that well at home, but we still had an opportunity in the fourth quarter to change the game.”
“We had a few mishaps and there are gonna be some opportunities on both sides to make plays, and we have to make sure that we make more plays than they do.”
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL.ca Gamecast.
- With files from BCLions.com/Riderville.com