by Doyle Fox
After ending the Edmonton Eskimos season last weekend at Mosaic Stadium, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are preparing to do the same to the visiting BC Lions in the Western Conference semi-finals on Sunday.
“I think it’s setting up just how we need it to,” Riders quarterback Darian Durant said. “We had a little slump. Now we’ve got a game where we can, I guess, get a little prep and get ready for the playoffs. It’s kind of shaping up in our favour a little bit.”
With four losses in the last five games, the end of the regular season couldn’t have soon enough for the Riders; however, they did end the season on a high note with a 31-23 win over a desperate Eskimos team.
“We are certainly disappointed with the way the last few weeks have gone, but we’ve got good players and they are proud people and competitive, so we all want to win,” said veteran offensive lineman Gene Makowsky.
The Riders finished the season 10-8, good enough for second place in the Western Conference, behind the 13-5 Calgary Stampeders.
Although the Lions finished the season with a measly 8-10 record, they were a team to reckon with during the final stretch of the season. The won seven of their last 10 games, including a 23-17 win over the Riders late in October.
The Riders won the other two regular season meetings 37-18 and 37-13. However, the players know those games are meaningless now.
“I don’t think it matters because of how we’ve been playing lately,” Durant said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We just need the win. We’re going to do everything we can to make that happen. We’re trying to make sure we go into the playoffs playing pretty good football, and that’s the goal.”
“We know what time it is,” added Durant. “Like I’ve been saying, we’re a veteran group. We understand what’s at stake.”
Durant had a career year as the Riders undisputed starting quarterback. He threw 25 touchdown passes and had a league leading 5,542 yards passing. He also did a lot with his legs. He rushed for 618 yards, the most for quarterbacks this season, and also recorded seven rushing touchdowns. However, he still hit slumps and threw for a CFL-worst 22 interceptions.
“As far as my game goes, maybe I’m not running as much,” Durant said. “That definitely helps us out when I use my feet. At the same time, I still have to play better. I can’t turn the ball over in crucial situations. I think that’s one of the main reasons we have been losing games. It has just been the turnovers.”
Durant had plenty of help from his receivers this year, as Andy Fantuz led the league with 1,380 yards and Weston Dressler chipped in with 1,189. Both receivers found the end zone six times as well.
Running back Wes Cates enjoyed a bounce back year, with 1,054 yards rushing and a league-leading 16 touchdowns.
“We are a good team, with good personnel,” Makowsky said. “We just have to execute and we have to make big plays and take care of the football, and if we do those things, we’ve got a chance.”
As a 15-year veteran, Makowsky knows about the pressure of playing in the playoffs. However, he said coaches are making sure the team stays positive while heading into playoffs.
“I think you just have to realize that there is a sense of urgency because you are one and done, but at the same time, you can’t reinvent yourself or do something drastically different just because it is the playoffs,” Makowsky said. “It’s still football- the fundamentals of football will apply and the intensity will apply. That’s really what we’ve got to focus on, not the hype or the hoopla. We’ve got to concentrate on our assignments and our game plan.”
“It’s never tough to stay together,” added Durant. “If you let go what you’ve been taught your whole life about the game just because you lose a couple, then this isn’t the sport for you. It’s never going to be easy. We know that. That’s why the mood is upbeat. There’s no one with their head down. We feel good. We’re just as confident as we were coming into the season.”
The Lions will have to battle more than Durant and the elements – they will have to deal with over 30,000 fans at Mosaic Stadium.
“Our fans are obviously the best anywhere and it gives us an advantage when teams come here because it’s a hostile environment and a loud crowd,” Makowsky said. “Those factors give us a slight advantage, so hopefully that will be the case, where we can give them something to cheer about.”