REGINA — It may only be the midpoint of the CFL season, but the Saskatchewan Roughriders are playing for their playoff lives.
The Riders, fourth in the CFL West Division at 5-4, open a four-game stretch Friday against visiting B.C. that includes home-and-home series with the 7-1 Lions and the 9-1 Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Craig Dickenson agreed with a suggestion from a reporter that this four-game stretch might be the toughest during his tenure as Riders head coach.
"It’s going be a tough one but the nice thing is two of the games are at home," said Dickenson, who has a 27-14 record as head coach. "We also feel like we're going to play better football than we have as it feels like we're getting better as a team. And maybe these teams we’re playing in Winnipeg and B.C. are a little bit worn down.
"But this is one game at a time territory. If we can win this one, we'll be happy and hopefully be prepared to get the next one."
The Lions beat the Riders 32-17 in Regina on July 29, overcoming a 17-point deficit in recording the victory. Quarterback Nathan Rourke spearheaded the comeback, finishing the game 27-of-33 passing for 336 yards and two touchdowns.
In his first year as a starter, Rourke is compiling ridiculous numbers. He has passed for 2,906 yards to date, the most at the eight-game mark by any quarterback since 1994 (Winnipeg’s Matt Dunigan, 3,032).
Rourke is on pace for 6,538 passing yards, which would rank second in CFL history behind Doug Flutie’s total of 6,619 set in 1991 with the Lions.
Rourke is also on pace to break the league record for both completions and passing touchdowns in a season. He’s projected to finish with 509 completions, topping the current record of 481 set by Henry Burris in 2015 with the Ottawa Redblacks.
Flutie’s record of 48 touchdown passes, set in 1994, would be passed by the projection of 52 this season for Rourke.
“Nobody expected that from (Rourke)," Dickenson said. "I mean, that's MVP calibre football that he's playing and he's only a second-year guy. So am I surprised? The short answer is ‘No,’ but I'm impressed. It's not easy to put together the string of seven or eight games that he has. It doesn't matter who you are.
“He’s good at so many things but one thing you’ve got to be impressed with is his resiliency. He'll make a mistake early and it's like water off a duck's back, he forgets about it and moves on to the next play. The guy's a winner and you can see that the team really plays hard for him and really believes in him. That belief is a very powerful thing and that's what they've got going on right now.”
The Riders will benefit from the return of a number of players, especially on the defensive line. Pete Robertson and A.C. Leonard are back after dealing with injuries, while Garrett Marino has completed a four-game suspension.
Robertson was leading the league in sacks with seven in five games when he suffered a foot injury in Saskatchewan’s 28-13 victory over Ottawa on July 8. He rejoins a unit that has enjoyed success when healthy – Anthony Lanier also has seven sacks while Leonard has three in five games.
Robertson is anxious to get back on the field and the let defensive line prove how good it is.
“We’re going to let everyone else be the judge of that,” said Robertson when asked if the Riders have the best defensive line when the unit is healthy. “I feel like we play lights out. We all play together as one and we all we all love playing next to each other as well.”
The Riders, who have allowed a league high 32 sacks this season, will be starting Andrew Lauderdale and Jamal Campbell at the tackle positions following the release on Tuesday of Na’Ty Rodgers and a hamstring injury that will sideline Terran Vaughn.
Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo is hoping this latest group will improve the pass protection.
“Once again, it’s another changeup at the offensive line. Hopefully we can get some continuity now and those guys can start playing together and meshing well together,” said Fajardo.
B.C. LIONS (7-1) AT SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS (5-4)
Friday, Mosaic Stadium
TRIPLE THE FUN: The Lions have three receivers on pace for 1,350-plus receiving yards this season – Dominique Rhymes, Keon Hatcher and Lucky Whitehead. No CFL team has ever had three receivers go over 1,300 yards in the same season.
SUPER MARIO: Saskatchewan’s Mario Alford is closing in on the Kick Return Hat Trick club. Acquired from Montreal on July 3 for 2023 draft pick, Alford has returned a kickoff and a missed field for touchdowns for the Riders. A punt return for a touchdown will enable Alford to join Dominique Dorsey (Toronto, 2007), Bashir Livingston (Toronto, 2004), Marcus Thigpen (Hamilton, 2010) and Henry Williams (Edmonton, 1990).
DYNAMIC DUO: Saskatchewan linebackers Larry Dean and Darnell Sankey are vying to become only the second set of teammates to total 100-plus defensive tackles in the same season. Dean currently leads the CFL with 58 tackles while Sankey is second with 54.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2022.
Jeff DeDekker, The Canadian Press