Historic cold places premium on defence, turnovers in West semifinal

Historic cold places premium on defence, turnovers in West semifinal

REGINA — Two storied Canadian Football League franchises are ready for a playoff battle of massive proportions in the prairies on Sunday.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Western semifinal. It’s the 21st post-season meeting between the two teams, with the Riders holding a narrow 11-9 series lead. 

It’s only getting colder in the prairies going into the game. On Friday, Regina broke a century-old record with the temperature dropping to -24.9 C. The previous record of -23.9 was set in 1919.

The wind has swirled on the flatlands all weekend. The snow has left the turf at Mosaic Stadium slippery and slick. It’s the type of weather you’d expect when the Riders and Bombers meet in a playoff game in November.

At kickoff, the temperature is expected to be hovering around -10 without the windchill. Turnovers could be a big part of the game.

Collaros out?

There’s also a high level of gamesmanship unfolding as kickoff nears. At Saturday’s final pre-game press conference, Roughriders head coach Chris Jones wouldn’t confirm who was starting at quarterback for the team.

Zach Collaros’ health has been questioned after a hellacious hit in the team’s final game against B.C. Collaros was forced to leave the game after a blow to the head from Odell Willis.

When Collaros was asked about whether or not he would be starting, he took the game-playing one step further, saying he wasn’t even sure if he’d dress for the game.

Then, late Saturday night, there were reports indicating that Brandon Bridge would get the start for the Roughriders and Collaros wouldn’t even be in uniform. It’s the type of stuff you’d expect in the playoffs.

Home-field advantage

The crazed green-clad Roughriders fans haven’t watched their team at home in the playoffs since their magical Grey Cup run in 2013. Today’s playoff game is the first in the new Mosaic Stadium.

Still, expect there to be a wave of blue and gold in the stands; Bombers fans are wild about their team and travel well. Winnipeg finished 5-1 down the stretch. The Manitoba team hasn’t captured the Grey Cup since 1990 — the longest drought in the CFL.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers humiliated the Saskatchewan Roughriders 31-0. It’s Winnipeg’s first shutout victory since their 29-0 win over Hamilton on July 28, 2006. 1:16

Mosaic Stadium is one of the most hostile places to play in the CFL, making it difficult for opposing teams to operate on offence. This season, the Riders finished with a 6-3 record in the friendly confines of Mosaic. The Bombers were 4-5 on the road, including a Labour Day Classic loss in Regina at the beginning of September.

This is only the third time ever the Roughriders are hosting the Bombers in the conference semifinal — the last time was in 1975 when Saskatchewan won 42-24. The only other time before that was in 1971, which the Roughriders also won.

Perhaps the biggest key to Sunday’s playoff game will be special teams and the turnover battle. When the Roughriders win this season, they score on defence and star on special teams. This year, the Roughriders tied a CFL record with 15 kick return touchdowns. They also scored 11 touchdowns on defence this season — also a CFL record.

The Riders intercepted Bomber quarterbacks Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler 8 times in 2018. From those eight interceptions, Saskatchewan created 30 of their 63 points in the 3-game season series. In eight games in 2018, the Riders’ defensive unit had as many or more touchdowns than their offence.

Nichols confident

But don’t underestimate the Bombers’ ability to get the job done on defence either.

In their 31-0 thumping of the Roughriders — their final meeting of the year — Winnipeg was all over the football, forcing a number of interceptions. They scored 151 points off turnovers this year.

Defence was the story in the 2018 Banjo Bowl, with both team’s combing for a fumble recovery and six interceptions, but Saskatchewan was able to stay poised enough to come away with the 32-27 win in Winnipeg. 2:28

Then there’s Nichols. He comes into the game riding a five-game winning streak as a starter. The team has a seven-game streak with at least three touchdown drives and were the only CFL club two score at least two touchdown drives in every game in 2018.

Finally, how the Bombers start this game could go a long way in deciding whether or not their season stays alive. Winnipeg outscored the opposition 335-196 (+139) in the first half but were minus-8 in the second half in 2018.

In terms of big game experience, there’s not much to choose between the two teams. Winnipeg’s projected starters have 68 career games; Saskatchewan’s have played 72 playoff games.

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