The Saskatchewan Roughriders, as you’ll no doubt recall, had roared out of the gate to start the CFL season and had a 3W-0L record heading into the game. The Hamilton Tiger Cats, meanwhile, were struggling to find their feet under new head coach Kent Austin. They were also struggling to replace star receiver and kick returner Chris Williams who had left the team after a bitter contract dispute, and were without the services of another star receiver, Andy Fantuz, who was out with injury. In addition, the team was faced with the prospect of playing their entire 2013 home schedule at the University of Guelph Stadium while a new stadium was under construction in Hamilton that is scheduled to open in July 2014.
The Riders destroyed the Tiger Cats that day 37-0 on the strength of four TD passes by QB Darian Durant (who was 20-32 for 347 yards and zero interceptions) and 130 yards rushing on 24 carries by Kory Sheets. Receiver Rob Bagg also had a big game, hauling in five passes for 125 yards and two TDs. The next weekend in Guelph the Riders, under back-up QB Drew Willy, who was subbing for an injured Durant, prevailed 32-20. Sheets again had a big game, rushing for 140 yards on 25 carries, and receiver Geroy Simon enjoyed his best outing as a Rider recording five catches for 125 yards.
After a mid-season swoon due, in part, to injuries to key players like guard Chris Best and RB Kory Sheets, the Riders, with solid victories against the B.C. Lions in the West semi-final, and the Calgary Stampeders in the West final, seem to have regained their early season form. The Tiger Cat team that they’ll face today, though, is much improved over the one they faced in late July. Following their back-to-back losses to the Riders the Tabbies were 1W-4L. Since then, they’ve gone 11W-4L, including East semi-final and final wins against the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts.
Despite that impressive run, odds-makers have installed the Riders as 5.5 point favourites to claim their fourth Grey Cup championship in the franchise’s 103 year history. It looks like the weather gods will smile on the Tiger Cats today. The Riders are a proven cold weather team, but according to the forecast the deep freeze that has enveloped Regina for most of Grey Cup week will lift in time for the game. Still, the Riders are veteran-laden team that, since training camp, has had as its sole goal winning the Grey Cup. Half of Hamilton’s roster, meanwhile, has two or less years of CFL experience. Throw in a rabid pro-Rider crowd in the neighbourhood of 44,500 and the Tiger Cats definitely face a stiff challenge.
Hamilton QB Henry Burris is capable of hurting the Riders with the long ball. But throughout his career he’s shown a tendancy to become rattled under pressure and go from what media pundits describe as “good Hank” to “bad Hank”. So the Rider D will be looking to apply plenty of heat. Rookie running back CJ Gable is also a threat. But as the Rider D showed last week against Calgary in holding Jon Cornish to 67 yards on nine carries they are more than capable of shutting down a top-flight RB.
On offense, the Riders will look to establish the run. Last week against the Stamps that worked like a charm, with Sheets recording 177 yards on 28 carries and Jock Saunders chipping in 61 yards on eight carries. As Durant showed the week previous against the Lions, he can also hurt opponents with his legs. But he’s also been deadly through the air, going 41 for 53 in the two playoff games for 550 yards, five TDs and no interceptions.
If the Tiger Cats still had Williams returning kicks they might have an edge on special teams. But they don’t, and throughout the year the Riders special teams have been as good as any in the league. Really, when the Green & White is hitting on all cylinders, they are a very formidable team.
There’s still the Kent Austin factor to consider. As head coach for the Riders in 2007, and with Hamilton this year, he’s yet to taste defeat in the CFL playoffs. But as I noted previously, this Rider team has been focused for the entire season not just on reaching the Grey Cup, but winning it. Now, they’re just one step away from fulfilling that destiny. And later today we’ll see if they do.