REGINA -- While there are many exciting storylines coming up in each and every Scotiabank Labour Day Weekend game, the one with the most riding on it could be Sunday’s matchup between the Blue Bombers and Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium.
Both teams enter the game looking for a key win to keep it close in their respective divisions, and with the amplitude of the rivalry as well as what’s at stake, we could be in for a true classic in the prairies this weekend.
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All of a sudden, the previous eight games are thrown out the window, and as the coaches and players prepare to face their next opponent for the first time this season in back-to-back games, all that really matters is the next 60 minutes.
Not surprisingly, the key to the game will be quarterback play. That all starts with the guy facing the most pressure coming in, Darian Durant.
The seventh-year pivot celebrated his 30th birthday only recently, and after a stellar start to the season with zero turnovers in the first three games of the season, it looked like Durant had matured into a smarter, more patient, and more experienced version of himself.
But it was in the fourth quarter of the fourth game when disaster struck for Durant and the Riders, when the veteran quarterback threw a pair of late interceptions and the Riders allowed the Stamps to storm back from an 18-point deficit to spoil the Riders’ undefeated start.
Over the last five games, Durant has thrown eight interceptions and fumbled three times, leading some Rider fans to question whether their long-time starting pivot is the right guy to be running the ship.
The height of it all came after last week’s game in a 17-10 loss at home to the Stamps, when Durant fumbled twice in the second half on pivitol offensive drives, ultimately costing the Riders a chance to snap what’s now become a five-game losing streak.
But, the veteran quarterback showed why he’s still the undisputed leader of this team, calling a players only meeting after the losing effort in attempts to get his team on track for back to back games with the Bombers.
Durant knows as well as anyone that if the Riders can come out and win these two games, they’re right back in the middle of the race in the hotly-contested West Division.
For Durant, the key to the team’s recent struggles has been its inability to bounce back from mistakes – while it’s common for any team to turn the ball over, success lies in having a short memory, and being able to move on.
“We need to get mentally tougher when things get down, when we have negative plays or we have positive plays, we have to learn that it’s a 60 minute game,” said Durant, who currently sits fourth in the league in passing with 2,114 yards.
“We can’t throw the season away, we have to show up each and every week so if we show up we might as well put the work in and do everything that needs to be done to win the game.”
While turnovers have plagued the Riders pivot as of late, it’s important to remember that Durant is one of the most athletic players in the league, and has the ability to make big plays at any time. That’s something the Riders will look for more of against the Bombers, and it starts with running the football.
Durant said he had planned to make a conscious effort to make more plays with his feet against the Stamps, and the result was positive for the Riders as he took off six times for 72 yards. If he can continue to have that kind of success, the Riders will be a lot harder to stop offensively.
Either way, it’s time for the real football to start, and if we’re going to see the dangerous, elusive, big play-making Durant of old this season, this weekend would be a perfect time to get it going.
“I had someone say to me the true season starts right around Labour Day, so I guess the time is now,” agreed Durant.
For the Bombers, there’s a similar sense of urgency going into Sunday’s game. But the situation couldn’t be any more different.
Winnipeg goes in with a young quarterback with little game experience, and a coach who’s coming into his first career game as head man.
Tim Burke takes the reins from Paul LaPolice after the third-year Bomber coach was dismissed last weekend, and the former defensive coordinator has already added some wrinkles in practice to help raise the intensity for this week.
But, while Burke continues to get his feet wet as a head coach, the Bombers will be leaning on first-year starter Joey Elliott more than ever, as the 26-year-old prepares for his third straight start heading into Riderville.
So far the youngster’s been nothing but impressive for the Bombers, leading many to believe he could be the long-term answer for the Blue and Gold at the quarterback position, at the very least for the rest of this season.
This week though will be his biggest test, after failing to get the fourth-quarter touchdown that could’ve won the game against the Lions after the defence set him up in close range off a pair of interceptions.
“I just wanted to win the game, I didn’t want to put them in that situation,” said Elliott. “I wanted to put points on the board. Down there in the red zone we had a chance instead of kicking a field goal we would’ve been in a situation where Lulay would have to go down the field.”
Just win the game is a good mentality for the young gunslinger to take on, and with a little bit of comfort in knowing he’s the Bombers’ starting guy and will get a chance to prove himself in this league, the next two games are going to give us quite an idea of what he’s capable of.
So far, he’s looked poised in the pocket; he’s shown the ability to use his instincts and quick feet to get out of a jam; he can throw on the run, which is an important asset in this league; and he has good velocity as well as accuracy on his throws.
Right now he sits at 855 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and his quarterback rating of 86.8 puts him in the lower third of the league among starters.
But the stats don’t tell the whole story for Elliott. The biggest one so far is that he’s 1-1 as a starter this season, and has had success late in football games when the chips are on the line.
If he can do that against the Riders in back to back games and find a way to get the Bombers back in the middle of the East Division pack, a new hero will be born in Manitoba.
That’s the potential of these next two games. On one side, we could witness the emergence of a great young CFL quarterback, and on the other, we could see the result of sheer athleticism and ability to play the quarterback position.
There’s plenty on the table for both teams, and other than just bragging rights in what’s become one of the league’s hottest rivalries, Sunday’s game will be about getting back in position to contend for this year’s Grey Cup.
Both teams have shown flashes of great potential. If the Riders didn’t give away 18-point leads in their fourth and fifth games of the season, they’d have been a 5-0 team. Even though they did end up losing those games, the fact that they were in strong position to win shouldn’t be ignored.
The Bombers are in the same boat, with some close games just slipping out of their grasp. Without close losses to the Lions and Argos, we’d be looking at a 4-4 Bombers team. Meanwhile, they remain just one game out of a playoff spot in the competitive East Division.
For the Riders and Bombers, the season starts now. It’s go time.
- With files from Bluebombers.com/Riderville.com