August 14, 2014

Preview: Riders look to stay hot against Alouettes Staff

REGINA — The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Montreal Alouettes cap off a CFL double-header on Saturday night, as they look to add momentum in a Week 8 clash at Mosaic Stadium in Regina.

Following a forgettable first three games this season during which they were outscored 84-59, the Riders are back to looking like the Grey Cup Champions having won three straight contests by an overall margin of 98-40, including back-to-back blowout victories over the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa REDBLACKS.

Yet what had third-year head coach Corey Chamblin most impressed this season was the slimmest of victories – last weekend’s 23-17 road win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“There are no words to describe it, you had to be there,” Chamblin told “It was an energy-filled game, it was a tough game – it was like a championship game.”

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“It was a defensive battle and we were happy to come out with the win.”

It may have been just what the Riders were looking for considering it was the first close game they’ve played in this season. Before last weekend the most thrilling finish was a 26-13 loss to the BC Lions, hardly a nail-biter.

But playing in one of the loudest stadium in the league against their hated rival from next-door Manitoba, the Riders found themselves scrapping for every last inch against a defence that surrendered little.

It wasn’t pretty as Darian Durant finished with only 115 yards and the leading receiver was Chris Getzlaf with 37 yards on three catches, but in the end the Riders battled back from a 10-3 half-time deficit to win a game the old-fashioned way, led by a dominant defence and a powerful rushing attack.

From heated pre-game altercations to deafening crowd noise, Chamblin said it was one of the toughest games he’s coached in as a Rider.

“It started with the pre-game, pre-game was heated, everything was heated and Mike O’Shea had his guys ready,” he said. “Their mindset was if they beat the Champs then they’re legimiate in what they’re trying to do.”

“It was just the energy and the emotions of the game and the grit of the game and the strategy of everything.”

A key halftime adjustment may have been the difference for the Riders, who elected to lean on a bigger and stronger power back in Jerome Messam as opposed to the shiftier Will Ford. After just one carry for no yards in the first half, the former Most Outstanding Canadian carried the ball 18 times in the second half for 126 yards.

That seemed to really wear down a physical Bomber defence, as he rushed eight times for more than eight yards while 14 of his runs were of at least five yards. The 29-year-old wasn’t expecting the sudden increase in workload, but rose to the challenge when called upon.

“Going in we didn’t really plan it like that, I just felt like they wanted to switch it up with what they were doing,” Messam told the team’s official website. “It was just a quick decision, I got a series going in before the half and then at half-time they said they were gonna go with me for the rest of the game, so I said let’s go, let’s rock.”

“It was one of those deals to where we knew we had two tailbacks and George and I talked and it was real quick, and it was like ‘hey let’s get him a couple of runs also’,” Chamblin said of the adjustment. “It was a great change-up for us.”

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Messam earned Canadian Player of the Week honours for his performance, but more importantly moving forward he appears to bring yet another dimension to the Riders’ top-ranked rushing attack.

“It’s good to show the defence a change of pace,” Messam agreed. “Will’s quicker than me. Speed-wise I wouldn’t say he’s faster or anything but he’s definitely shiftier and quicker, but we’re both fast guys and we’re both capable.”

“All the running backs here, we can get the job done so it’s just a matter of whoever they want to put in position to do the job.”

Chamblin was also thankful for another dominant defensive performance, by a unit that’s quickly re-emerging as one of the CFL’s least forgiving.

The win over Winnipeg marked the third straight week holding an opponent to 17 points or fewer, while two fourth-quarter interceptions by the Riders in the final 2:05 – including one for a touchdown – ended up being the difference in the game.

That unit appears to pose the largest challenge for an Alouette offence in the midst of finding itself, as new coaches Jeff Garcia and Turk Schonert put their imprint on the offence and Alex Brink prepares to make his first start in a couple of years.

“They play very sound defence and they fly around and at times,” Head Coach Tom Higgins told when asked about the Riders’ defence. “They seem like they’re well in control and they have confidence and move the ball, and other times they haven’t been as good.”

“We don’t take anything for granted obviously, we’re going to play to their weaknesses and try to exploit anything that’s exploitable.”

A 33-23 loss to the Eskimos in which the Als went down 30-8 at halftime wasn’t what Higgins envisioned when he hoped to see improvement, yet after outscoring Edmonton 15-3 in the second half the light at the end of the tunnel could be in view for a Montreal team that’s scored a league-worst 98 points this season.

First and foremost the Als snapped a run of 57 straight possessions without a touchdown thanks to a late 43-yard catch-and-run by Brandon Whitaker, also ending a run of three straight games without an offensive touchdown.

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The passing game meanwhile clicked a whole lot more, as six different receivers caught the ball and Duron Carter had the first 100-yard receiving game for an Als receiver in 2014 thanks to a 10-catch, 112-yard effort.

“It’s a long season and we’re just trying to get back into the swing of things and play Alouettes football,” Carter said. “Last week we sort of had a few steps forward even though we had some miscues; it’s just about playing a full game.”

“A lot of times we come out and play a good quarter or a good half, and we have to come out and play a full four quarters.”

One thing Higgins has preached in his tenure with Montreal is balance on offence, another thing the Als showed against Edmonton last weekend. Whitaker ran the ball 15 times for 79 yards and also made an impact in the passing game, while Smith showed more efficiency too.

“I like to think we balanced it out,” Higgins said. “We ran the football, threw high-completion passes that could help us stay on the field and get first downs.”

“That’s something that’s been very difficult for us,” he continued. “We lead the league in two-and-outs and that’s not a category you want to lead the league in, or you could say we’re last in two-and-outs.”

While a different quarterback is expected to go under centre in Brink this weekend, the same philosophy applies for an Alouettes club still well within reach of the first-place Argos in the East Division as well as a playoff spot.

Brink is making his first start since playing with the Bombers back in 2012 and knows that if he can capitalize on last week’s momentum and lead the Alouettes to a tough road win in Regina, the starting quarterback job could be his to lose going forward.

“I’m very excited, as a quarterback at the professional level that’s all you ask for is the opportunity,” said Brink. “For me I’m gonna have fun with it, prepare as hard as I can – I know I have the confidence of my teammates and my coaches and to me that’s all that matters at this point.”

With each game getting bigger and September football fast approaching, that’s all Higgins can really ask for.

“There are a lot of little things we’re hoping we can take advantage of and that’s why we lineup in practice and that’s what gives you hope the next time you line up, because the score always starts 0-0 and you have to earn your points,” the veteran head coach said.

“I know the team’s focused and I love the fact that they’re working hard, and we can reward them with a good game plan and letting them execute the plan and seeing if we can win two games on the road.”

Game Notes:

  • The Roughriders are in search of their fourth straight win, which would mark the second year in a row they’ve accomplished such a feat.
  • John Chick’s nine sacks in six games leads the CFL, putting him on pace for a CFL record 27 sacks this season (James Parker’s 26.5 in 1984 set the bar).
  • Last weekend Messam recorded his fifth career 100-yard game, while also going over the 2,000-yard mark for his career.
  • The Riders have the league’s most run-oriented first-down attack in the CFL, running 54 per cent of the time. By comparison, Toronto passes 72 per cent of the time on first down plays. The Riders have had more rushes than passes in four of six games this season.
  • Saskatchewan has a wide edge in scoring in the first three quarters of games in 2014 (135-70), but has been outscored in the fourth 54-22. The Riders have pitched third-quarter shutouts in their last two games.
  • The Riders rank eighth in the CFL in total passing with 1,222 yards, a 32 per cent decrease from last year at this time when they had 1,615 passing yards.
  • In the second half vs. Edmonton last week, the Alouette defence held the Esks to just 78 net yards and kicks on all six possessions, as well as only five first downs. They allowed Edmonton only one red zone trip all game.
  • In the last there weeks the Alouettes’ biggest downfall has been second down conversions, both for and against. In that span the opposition has converted 33 of 70 chances (47%) compared to Montreal’s 15 of 67 (22%).
  • Brandon Whitaker sits third in the league in rushing with 378 yards and has accounted for 30 per cent of his team’s total yards with an additional 117 receiving yards. His status for Saturday’s game however is up in the air as he tends to family matters.

Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.

– With files from