The Canadian Press
REGINA — It was 10 years in the making for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but on Saturday afternoon, they locked up the West Division with a 23-13 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos.
For the Riders, it was the first time since the 1969 campaign that they won 13 games in a single year — they won a franchise-high 14 games a year later. Following the win, head coach Craig Dickenson reminisced about the year and what his squad had accomplished.
“I think that a lot of things went right for us this year. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Jeremy O’Day and Craig Reynolds. I think we’ve got a good group in that locker room,” Dickenson said post-game. “We’ve won a few close games. It would’ve been nice to win those by a few more scores.
“…To win 13, you’ve got to do a lot of things right and get some breaks.”
The Riders’ fate was in their hands, as with a victory against the Eskimos, they would clinch the West Division crown for the first time since the 2009 season.
On top of the expectations of an entire fanbase longing for a divisional title weighing on them, starting quarterback Cody Fajardo was a game-time decision. The pivot suffered an oblique injury during a practice earlier in the week and said that it was so painful that the injury brought him to his knees at that point in time.
Ahead of game time on Saturday, the team announced that Fajardo would sit out, leaving 24-year-old Isaac Harker to run the offence in the season finale.
In his first start, Harker impressed, completing over 80 percent of his passes on the afternoon for 213 yards. His favourite target was running back William Powell, who hauled in all six of the balls thrown his way for 32 yards. The receiving leader was Kyran Moore, who finished with 43 yards on the day.
“The nerves are always going for me as a person. That’s just how I’m wired,” Harker said. “But if I didn’t have Cody and coach Walsh and coach McAdoo in my ear helping me the whole time, it would’ve been a lot more difficult.”
During his post-game availability, Harker had to stop mid-quote, as his teammates were enthusiastically celebrating their victory in the hallway.
The lone offensive touchdown on the day came courtesy of Marcus Thigpen, who rumbled from four yards out, extending to cross the plain in the first quarter.
The Riders’ defence had a big day to close out the season. They had three sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. One of the interceptions came in the final minute of the game, with Cameron Marshall
It was a tough day for Riders kicker Brett Lauther, who was 1-for-5 on field goals at one point in the contest. However, he made the one that mattered the most, putting the team up by three points with under two minutes remaining in the game.
That kick was set up by a big-time pass from Harker, who aired it out down the right side for Justin McInnis, who won a one-on-one battle and came down with the football for a gain of 29.
“I knew he had the length and the ability so I gave him a chance on a go ball,” Harker said. “You know you’re going to take (a hit) but I had confidence in him and the O-line to get everybody (out) and let me get the throw out.”
Saturday marked the first career start for Harker, who, despite admitting he prepared like a starter every week, never thought he’d be in this position in 2019.
“A lot of times, you never think that you’ll end up being here,” he said. “Me and Cody had always said that none of us were supposed to play this year. None of us were supposed to be here. Whether it was him, me, or Bryan (Bennett) — and Bryan had a pivotal role today — so (we’re) just a bunch is misfits.”
The victory allows the Riders to get some much-needed rest before they host the Western Final. Fajardo will now have two weeks to get back to full health, as will Shaq Evans, who was forced to leave the game with a lower-body injury.
Dickenson did say that he talked to Evans prior to the game, and the ailment isn’t a major setback.
They’ll have the weekend off and return to practice on Tuesday, where they’ll start game-planning for either the Calgary Stampeders or Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
So is there a team that the Riders’ head coach wants to face more in the Western Final?
“Not really. I’m pulling for Calgary because I want to see my brother do well,” he said. “I might even call him tonight and see if he’s up; I know they play the late game but maybe I’ll bug him on the way home.”
Each team presents different challenges on either side of the ball, however, one thing is now clear: The West Division’s side of the playoffs will have to go through Mosaic Stadium.
“There’s good people in this province and I think it’s going to be a tremendous atmosphere,” Dickenson said of the upcoming playoff game. “After the game, we had a fan appreciation deal and there are probably 3 or 4,000 people out there just sticking around, wanting to shake hands with the players. Hats off to Rider Nation. I couldn’t be more proud to be wearing the green and white.
“This is a great place to live, a great place to coach, and I’m very proud to be a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.”