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November 17, 2021

Cauz: Can Duke Williams get the Riders over the hump?

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

There is an arm’s race going on in the West and with the playoffs right around the corner it could not have come at a better time.

The Calgary Stampeders saw the return of CFL-All Star receiver Reggie Begelton, who showed little rust in going off for 119 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions in the team’s playoff-clinching 33-23 victory over the BC Lions. Suddenly the Stamps’ passing attack has achieved the balance they need with Kamar Jordan, Markeith Ambles and the newly added Begelton. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Reggie’s arrival coincides with Bo Levi Mitchell’s first three-touchdown game of the season.

Then there is what we saw from Duke Williams and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The coming out party for Duke may have taken longer than it did for Begelton but what a shindig it was, as the Roughriders captured home field in the Western Semi-Final with their 29-24 win over the Edmonton Elks. Sticking with this metaphor for just a moment longer, Williams’ 146-yard receiving day was like going to one of those super cool parties where there’s a live band with a complete horn section and an open bar serving premium drinks. Oh, and crab cakes! The room is wall to wall with crab cakes.

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I want to focus on what we saw from Saskatchewan, because to win a Grey Cup you need special players. We’ve seen plenty of teams gut through a regular-season and end up with a winning record with a collection of average to good players that know how to execute their specific duties on the field. But to go deep in the playoffs, well, you’re going to need the kind of difference makers that can destroy the best intentions and game plans of their opponent.

When I say that, I’m thinking about the 2019 Grey Cup. Hamilton was a beast that year but on that night at McMahon Stadium, the Tiger-Cats got beaten by “special.” Andrew Harris (169 total yards and two touchdowns) was able to outmuscle and run through all the talent and schemes that Hamilton threw at him and then on the other side of the ball, Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat (a combined five sacks and three forced fumbles) treated the wonderful Hamilton passing attack like their own private piñata party.

For Saskatchewan to beat both Calgary and Winnipeg in the playoffs they are going to need a couple players to (cliché alert!!!!) play at a whole other level, to stand out on a field already littered with talent. In the regular season “good” can beat “great” but in a couple weeks that won’t cut it. Not only do you need “great” but the Roughriders will need something special to capture their first Grey Cup since Kory Sheets was dummying Hamilton’s rush defence.

Before we dive into Williams’ performance against Edmonton let me make clear this piece is not about denigrating the rest of the roster. You don’t go 9-4 in the West without high level contributions from all three phases of the game. The Roughriders are not second in the West without players like William Powell, Loucheiz Purifoy, A.C. Leonard, Jonathan Woodard and so many others. But the one statistic that is hard to ignore from the broadcast was the fact that Cody Fajardo had completed a CFL low eight passes of 30 yards or more. This was a team desperate for more big plays on offence and Williams provided them last Saturday.

The quote that sticks out for me after Fajardo hit Williams for a 48-yard pass near the end of the first quarter was how Duke gave his quarterback confidence to execute the deep throws. It’s hard to argue with that sentiment when you pause your television right as the ball is completed. The closest defender was two yards away from the 2018 CFL All-Star, which may not sound like that much but in football terms that is a marathon’s length away.

Williams’ 146-yard outing is what Riders fans have been waiting for. If Saskatchewan wants to advance  in the playoffs, they’ll need their recently-signed receiver to play like a star (Photo: Riderville.com)

Two other defenders were about 10 yards away chasing from behind. It is jarring seeing a receiver that wide open when you consider his resume and that Williams ran a simple seam route. The value of Williams on the field goes beyond his individual production; it’s about his ability to create an easy target for his quarterback deep down field. I’ve said it many times: Creating separation between yourself and the closest defensive backs is as important a skill for a receiver as not dropping catchable balls, overall speed or blocking.

There is one other moment that did not result in touchdowns but was the kind of play that could pay dividends down the road.  Soon after his 46-yarder, Williams was moved from the right slot to split wide on the left side, where he caught a simple nine-yard slant. I liked the fact he was being moved all over the field and that he used his body to shield off Jonathan Rose, whose coverage was on point. How many times do we see an interception that is less about a poor decision made by the quarterback and more about a receiver not coming back for a ball? The Williams touchdown was a result of an egregious Edmonton defensive breakdown and his 36-yarder that came at the end of the half was a hell of a catch but inconsequential. I hope I’m not being a football hipster in saying that nine-yard catch is still bouncing around my brain.

Beyond his athleticism, what stood out was just how tough Duke is. His third-quarter 13-yard receptions saw him get bent like Gumby by Aaron Grymes but he still held on. Later, he took a big hit by Rose after his left leg buckled on the turf. It looked like that would end his night yet there he was soon after, still a part of the Saskatchewan offence. After the game he told TSN reporter Sara Orlesky that he would have to have his leg amputated for him not to be on the field. Even on one leg I still feel he’d be good for a couple of first-down conversions.

I have no idea if Saskatchewan can go through both Calgary and Winnipeg to punch their ticket to the Grey Cup but I do know that if they do, Duke Williams will be a major factor. From creating single coverage for his teammates to inspiring Fajardo to uncork it deep, to forcing busted coverages all over the field, Williams is a special player. Sometimes all you need is a couple of them going above and beyond the call of duty at the right time to win it all.

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