I’m not sure what the crowd for the West semi-final will be. In preparation for Grey Cup, capacity at Mosaic Stadium has been expanded to 44,500. But as of a few days ago there were around 12,000 unsold tickets. Most are end zone seats that go for $25. Regardless of how many people are in the stands, though, I suspect the vast majority will be nervous with a capital “N”.
At the mid-point of the season, the Riders had an 8W-1L record and looked to be a shoe-in to represent the West in the Grey Cup in Regina on Nov. 24. But in the second half of the season, starting with a loss to the hapless Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Banjo Bowl, the Riders were a sub-par team. They limped home with a 3W-6L record in the final nine games. Fortunately, two of those victories came against the B.C. Lions, which enabled them to finish second and host this game which goes at 3 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium.
As of Saturday morning, the forecast for Sunday called for a game-time temp of minus 12 C with a north wind gusting 25 to 44 k.p.h. and a windchill of minus 22. During their last visit to Mosaic Stadium on Oct. 19 (game photo above) the Leos struggled with the elements, committing several early turnovers that enabled the Riders to roar out to a 31-7 half-time lead and ultimately coast to a 35-14 victory.
On Sunday, the weather will be worse — and the crowd presumably louder, at least at the start of the game. But if the Riders struggle early, as they’ve done practically every game this year, frustration could set in. On paper, the Riders are a better team than B.C. But in the second half of the season they showed an alarming tendency to self-destruct. Last week’s game against Edmonton was a perfect example. Statistically, the Green & White dominated, recording 36 first downs to 12 for the Eskimos, 525 total yards compared to 240 for Edmonton, and winning the time of possession battle 38:19 to 21:41.
Yet at the end of the day, they still lost. Yeah, it was a scrub game with a lot of second stringers in the line-up. But on special teams, they surrendered 320 return yards. In the fourth quarter, they also had a first and goal on Edmonton’s one yard line and after two fruitless plays settled for an eight yard Chris Milo field goal. Short yardage has been a problem for the Riders most of the year, and it’s a truism of sports that you only get so many opportunities to put your opponent away. If you fail to take advantage of them, all it takes is one big play, like a kick return for a TD as happened in the Edmonton game, or a turnover, and the game can be lost.
I’m not sure about the status of B.C. QB Travis Lulay. In the last game against Calgary he took a few snaps and performed okay. And he is apparently supposed to start today. But it’s debatable how effective he can be after being out with a shoulder injury since mid-September, so back-ups Buck Pierce and Thomas DeMarco will likely see action too. With the addition of Stefan Logan to complement primary back Andrew Harris, the Lions running game has enjoyed a resurgence in recent games. If the weather is sketchy, that could work in B.C.’s favour. But the Rider defence is pretty solid, so I don’t see the Lion offence running roughshod over them.
On offence, the Riders will be without all-star receiver Chris Getzlaf. That will be a big blow, but with the return of guard Chris Best the Rider offensive line has definitely been strengthened. If the Riders can establish their running game, it could be a long afternoon for the B.C. defence. Another thing the Riders need to do is stay focussed. On-field discipline has been a problem all season long, and if players don’t maintain their composure they’ll incur penalties that will either stall drives on offence or prolong B.C. drives when the Riders are on defence.
With the Grey Cup being held in Regina all the pressure is on the Riders to give themselves a shot at playing in the CFL title game by beating the Lions and advancing to the West final in Calgary on Nov. 17. The Stamps were the class of the league this year, but they lost three starters to injury in the season finale against B.C. (D linemen Micah Johnson and Demonte Bolden, and receiver Marquay McDaniel) so they’ve been weakened. And coming off a bye week they could be rusty. Will it be the Riders or the Lions who will oppose them? We’ll find out later today.