REGINA — With the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on the verge of clinching a CFL playoff spot, Saskatchewan head coach Craig Dickenson understands Sunday’s Labour Day Classic will be a tough challenge for his Roughriders.
The Blue Bombers enter the contest in first place in the West Division with a 9-2-0 record. The Riders rank third at 5-5-0.
Winnipeg currently tops most team statistical categories in the league. They’re first in offensive points (327), offensive touchdowns (36), and net offence (390.5 yards per game) while defensively they’re No. 1 in offensive points allowed (182) and offensive touchdowns allowed (15).
Dickenson believes the Roughriders will have to be tough and physical to prevail Sunday at Mosaic Stadium.
"We’re going to have to be very physical up front on both sides of the ball," said Dickenson. "They're a very good team and they look like they're playing better now than they were at the beginning of the year.
"I think our guys are ready. We've had a good week of practice and they're anxious to see how they measure up, but we certainly don't underestimate Winnipeg. Any time (Winnipeg quarterback Zach) Collaros gets cooking, it makes for a long day so we're going to do our best to try to make sure he doesn't see things quite as quickly as he normally does."
The Blue Bombers can grab a playoff berth for the seventh straight season with a win, which would be their longest run since 1996. Despite Winnipeg winning the past two Labour Day Classics, head coach Mike O’Shea isn’t taking Sunday’s game for granted.
O’Shea will coach the Bombers in a Labour Day Classic for the ninth time in his career. He knows why these games seem more competitive than regular-season contests and what’s required by the players to be successful under the intensity of the game.
"You’ve got two good football teams that are highly competitive that understand the magnitude of the rivalry and what the Labour Day Classics mean to the CFL,” said O’Shea.
"There is a lot of hype and a lot of noise around these games that you have to be prepared to block out. You can't get way too high and emotional and be able to function out there the way you should.”
While Winnipeg's defence has dominated this season, linebacker Adam Bighill feels there’s still improvement to be had.
“As you get in the back third (of the regular season), you need to be noticeably a lot better. We're taking big strides but we're not where we want to be yet,” said Bighill.
"We're getting closer, guys are playing really well, playing fast and playing physical. We're playing with a lot of confidence because we come out here and earn that confidence every day with the work we put in and the results we get when we keep rolling.”
Winnipeg took the first meeting of the season against the Roughriders with a 45-27 victory June 16. Veteran quarterback Trevor Harris was Saskatchewan's starter in that game.
With Harris and backup Mason Fine now sidelined with injuries, the Roughriders send out Jake Dolegala for his third CFL start. Dolegala's first start of the season Aug. 20 was a 34-29 victory over the B.C. Lions.
Dolegala, who finished 18 of 29 passing for 239 yards and three touchdowns, understands what he’s facing in Winnipeg's defence.
"They’ve got a lot of talented guys out there. Bighill roams around the field and you just have to keep an eye on wherever he is," Dolegala said. "And on the back end they've got some ball hawks, so we’ve got to play within ourselves, take one play at a time and just execute."
Dickenson likes what he has seen of Dolegala since he took over as starter.
“He's a charismatic guy," Saskatchewan's coach said. "He's got a presence about him that guys gravitate toward. He’s making good decisions back there and he’s got a live arm, as you can tell. He's just slowly getting better. He's gotten better every day."
Following Sunday’s game, the teams meet again Sept. 9 in Winnipeg.
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS (9-2-0) AT SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS (5-5-0)
Sunday, Mosaic Stadium
IMPROVED PROTECTION: After giving up 28 sacks in their first 10 games, the Riders have allowed only three in their last three. The Bombers have six sacks in their last four games.
OFF AND RUNNING: Winnipeg’s Brady Oliveira leads the CFL in rushing with 902 yards for an average of 82 yards per game. He's on pace for 1,476 yards this season, which would be the second-highest rushing total by a Canadian in CFL history. Calgary’s Jon Cornish ran for 1,813 in 2013 to average 106.6 yards per game.
QB CAROUSEL: CFL teams have started 21 different quarterbacks so far this season, compared to 17 in 2022. Of the 21 starters, 17 have led their team to a victory. Hamilton’s Taylor Powell earned his first victory last week while Dolegala collected his first win in Week 11.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2023.
Jeff DeDekker, The Canadian Press