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Monday, June 15, 2015



 1 - FINALLY:  At long last we finally have a game to sink our teeth into and dissect in this 2015 Saskatchewan Roughriders season.  The game in question is Saturday night's 31-24 Rider preseason loss to the Edmonton Eskimos in the inaugural Northern Kickoff in Fort McMurray, AB.

The game started slowly, with veteran quarterbacks Darian Durant and Matt Nichols starting for their respective teams, and was tied 0-0 after the first quarter.  The Eskimos took a 14-11 lead into the halftime break while the Riders rallied for 13 points in the third quarter to hold a 24-17 advantage going into the fourth.  However the Eskimos turned the tables, and ratcheted up their defense, scoring two touchdowns in the final frame to eak out a 31-24 victory.

Durant was a pedestrian 4/8 for 42 yards in a little less than a quarter of work, but was victimized by some drops.  Centre Dan Clark fired a snap almost over Durant's head in the early going which muddled up the timing.  However all in all, considering it was his first game action in almost 10 months, Durant's work was admirable.

But something lit a fire in the offense when Kevin Glenn spelled off Durant in the final minute of the opening quarter, as he promptly hit Taj Smith down the sidelines for a 31 yard gain.  That particular drive ended in a 12-yard Chris Milo field goal.

One thing that was notable early was the Riders' penchant for putting the ball on the ground, and the hit on sophomore receiver Ryan Smith which knocked him out of the game.  It appeared the Riders simply weren't used to the pounding after having a lighter training camp, physically.  However it was something they quickly shook off.

As for Ryan Smith, the injury isn't believed to have been serious and he likely could have returned to the game had it not been preseason.

2 - THAT DIDN'T TAKE LONG:  My phone started to go off early in the second half with messages from friends and family saying Kevin Glenn looked far better than Durant in the preseason opener.  We're not going to have to deal with this all season long are we?  However I can see it now ... Should Durant falter ever-so slightly in the early going of the regular season, they'll be bellowing "PUT IN GLENN!" at Mosaic Stadium.  Groan.

3 - WHEN THE LIGHTS COME ON:  It's an age-old saying, but there's something about live game action that brings out the best in some players while others tend to wilt.  Here were a few that stepped up for the Riders:

- Sophomore receiver Alex Pierczalski (3 receptions for 8 yards and 1 TD) had a solid outing and was named CKRM's offensive game star.  It seemed like he was more involved than his stats show and in a way he was, blocking as a tight end and holding on field goals.

- First round pick Nic Demski was as flashy as advertised.  He muffed his first punt return but then was in Highlight of the Night contention with a 54-yard punt return.  When featured in the offense, he was shifty and displayed his lateral gifts.  There's a star in the making here, and one worthy of buying tickets to see.  His auspicious start reminds me of Hall of Fame bound kicker Paul McCallum who missed his first-ever PAT but then never missed another over the course of his stellar career.

- Rookie WR Greg Hardin out of UND did an amazing job getting wide open in the endzone in the third quarter on an extended play and QB Brett Smith was equally astounding by finding him for a 32-yard strike.

- Rookie Ray Early led all Rider punters with a 51.8-yard average including a 56-yard punt single.  He also stroked two field goals (44 and 31 yards).

I'll get into some more stand-outs throughout today's column ...

3 - TINO'S TIME:  Count me among those who was somewhat shocked to see Brett Smith come out to quarterback the Riders in the second half Saturday night ahead of veteran Tino Sunseri.  Based on two weeks of training camp the quarterback depth chart seemed pretty clear to me: 1) Darian Durant 2) Kevin Glenn 3) Tino Sunseri and 4) Brett Smith.

However on Sunday night, Sunseri was among the Riders' first wave of cuts.

And who woulda thought Smith would come out and look like Joe Montana?  It was during his time that the Riders put 13 points on the board and took the lead going into fourth quarter.  He rolled out of the pocket with ease and effortlessly scampered away from would-be tacklers.  Smith was a shining 5/6 for 99 yards and that 32-yard touchdown.

Conversely, when Tino Sunseri came on for the fourth quarter, he was 4/6 for 21 yards and an interception which the Eskimos turned into the winning points.  But not everyone is frowning on Tino.

"You've gotta give Tino some credit," surmised CKRM analyst Carm Carteri.  "It was tough on him.  He had to start out inside his 15-yard line the last couple of drives.  He really had no veteran receivers out there and they had an empty shotgun going into that fight I thought.  He tried to get the Riders out from within their goal posts and couldn't do it.  Consequently the Riders lost the football game.  We can't dwell on the loss.  The preseason is about evaluating players and I think they were able to do that."

Upon immediate recollection, Sunseri had the same personnel around him which was afforded to Brett Smith.  The second string offensive line (albeit with Dan Clark at centre) and the same inexperienced group of receivers.

Perhaps that's what told the tale in the end.  I saw on Facebook where someone said they once thought of Sunseri as the heir to the throne in Saskatchewan. Now he's wondering what to do with the rest of his life.

What a business.

4 - "THAT'S FOOTBALL":  We'll have to defer to Corey Chamblin's go-to quote when discussing Eskimo coach Chris Jones' defensive strategy to blitz seemingly once every two downs on Saturday night.  It seemed that way, however CFL Stats informed me the Eskimos blitzed on 17 out of 53 plays.  It was pretty even throughout and I'll provide their breakdown in a moment, but here's some commentary on what went down in Fort Mac.

"Talking to coach after the game I asked him about Chris Jones blitzing as much as he did and Corey just kind of rolled his eyes and goes 'That's Chris Jones, we all know that'," Carm Carteri said on CKRM after the game.  "Well if you know that, you've gotta stop it and it looked like a lot of the time the Eskimos sent one extra guy and maybe the Riders were trying to give their guy a quick read and make them dump the ball off.

"That's a Chris Jones defense, the Riders will have to adapt to that, and you know that they will during the season because there's such a rivalry between the two coaches.  You know Coach Chamblin probably didn't like that but that's the way it is.  If some coaches really want to attack you, and the Eskimos really stole that game late in the fourth quarter, and it was on the backbone of their defense.  Their defense was very aggressive."

On Sunday I ran into Eskimos play-by-play man Morley Scott from 630 CHED and taped an interview with him.  In it, I asked him about Jones turning up the heat in Preseason Game 1.

"Let me flip it around the other way," Morley reasoned.  "If you're a team that's going to throw the football, then you're not going to run the football in the preseason.  You do what you do.  That's the defense that he's going to play all season long.  So why wouldn't you play it in the preseason?  You have to find out if your guys can execute the plays so you gotta call the plays and you gotta play that way.

"He likes to play that way, he always has played that way.  He needs to evaluate his players in that system.  To do that, you've gotta play that system!  I know it's kind of unfair at times and in the fourth quarter he had some of his top dogs out there defensively against the second and third stringers for the Riders which makes it unfair.  But I've got no beef with that.  You do what you feel you have to do to evaluate.  I don't think Chris Jones was concerned about winning it.  Going in they had the game plan to get the video on the guys playing their system."

Here's a breakdown courtesy @CFL_Stats of the number of times blitzed versus offensive plays per Rider quarterback:

Durant: 5/12 (42%)
Glenn: 5/17 (29%)
Smith: 2/10 (20%)
Sunseri: 5/14 (36%)

5 - LEADERS:  Here's a list of the Roughriders' statisical leaders coming out of Saturday's game:

PASSING: Brett Smith 99 yards
RECEIVING: Sam Ojuri 45 yards
RUSHING: Anthony Allen 17 yards
TACKLES: Tyree Hollins, 4
SACKS: John Chick, Michael Carter, 1
KNOCKDOWNS: Ryan Wellman, 1

6 - CHAMBLIN QUOTES:  Corey Chamblin hasn't met with the media since immediately after Saturday's game when he appeared live on 620 CKRM's 5th Quarter postgame show.  Here's a transcript of his thoughts:


"There was some good and there was some bad in that game.  Of course there was a lot of penalties, adjustments to the new penalties and all that.  I thought that was the bad part.  For the good, there were some guys that made some big plays, that may have been on the bubble that kind of made me kind of change my mind when I go back and look at film.  But for the most part I saw some winning football out there, I saw some losing football, and that's what preseason is.  We just have to build on that winning football and continue to grow."


"It's going to be tough.  That's why I told them I would reserve (judgment) for the game.  My judgment waited for the game.  Guys did some things and we saw it.  It's not about practice, it's about the game.  We may think we don't have penalties in practice but they showed up tonight.  We just have to increase our tempo in practice and get ready for a game."


"Ya that's good.  All around there were positives.  There were big plays on special teams, there were stops on defense and the QBs did some good things.  There are makings of a good team there.  I'm very positive with what I've seen, especially with all the transition we had in the off-season, so we are headed in the right direction."


"Regardless of who's in the game, some of the young guys probably seen as much pressure as Chris is gonna bring.  He's gonna pressure, we know that, so we just have to prepare for that.  We'll have plans for that.  Right now there wasn't a game plan.  It was just to play football."


"He was a guy that we saw some positive things from.  That's what we wanted to see.  How would he look in a game?  It's not CIS but he did take the next step.  He had a good, he had a bad and that's where we were tonight.  We had some good, some bad and when you go 50/50 you're gonna lose so we just gotta get above and get into a positive."

7 - THE COMMISH:  New CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge dropped by our broadcast location during the pregame show Saturday for a five minute chat.  He agreed that the Northern Kickoff was a tremendous celebration of Canadian football with fans wearing jerseys not only from the Riders and Eskimos, but also of such teams as the Tiger-Cats, Blue Bombers and Lions.

Orridge's first day on the job was April 29 and while many CFL observers say everything he's touched has turned to gold in the six weeks since, he was quick to point out the Toronto Argonauts situation had been in the works long before he was even thought of.

As for his proudest moment so far, it was signing the deal with the U.S. social media company Whistle Sports which will take the CFL global.

It's still odd to have an American as a Commissioner of the CFL however if he's the best man for the job, I'm all for it.  After all, seven of our nine coaches are American plus over half the players.

8 - WHAT YOU DIDN'T SEE:  If you were watching the TSN telecast of Saturday's game, you wouldn't have seen the inebriated fan who ran across the field during the second half.  A heavily-armed RCMP officer was unable to track the man down however he was bodychecked by Eskimos defensive tackle Eddie Steele and later corralled by an Eskimos lineman who was not identified.  It might have been former Roughrider Alex Krausnik.  TSN tends to avoid these scenarios if they can so as to not glorify such behaviour.  However it's made for tremendous blooper reels over the years.  (Who can forget Morganna Roberts, The Kissing Bandit?).

9 - FORT MCMURRAY:  It was exciting to get up to Fort McMurray for the first time in my life, believed to be the furthest north I've ever been in our country.  The area is home to some 100,000 residents and I came away impressed.  The average age is 31 and there's a distinct vibe and energy within the city.  It was all positive as far as the city goes.

As for the Northern Kickoff itself, most everyone in attendance from the CFL was disappointed by the attendance of 11,825.  That's 3,175 short of a sellout.  But no blame is being hung on the locals.  Tickets were going for $100 a pop and if you want to take a family of four and include concession visits and maybe some replica jerseys for the kids at $125 a crack, it got a thumbs-down.  Sure it was a novelty, but so is the circus.  Money only goes so far.

To me, it's a privilege to watch the Saskatchewan Roughriders whenever they take to the field.  Even if it's just on TV, there's something special about it.  But when I go waaaay back to when I was purchasing Rider tickets as a fan, there's no way I could've shelled out $100.

Incidentally, only 4000 tickets have been sold for the Toronto Argonauts-Edmonton Eskimos game in a few weeks at SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place.

10 - RUNNING BACK TO SASKATOON:  It's not home, but it was nice to see the sign SASKATOON SHINES welcoming us at the Saskatoon Airport after a long travel day on Sunday.  It'll be a few more days before I get to sleep in my own bed back in Regina but it is tremendous to be back in Saskatchewan.  The Riders will be practicing here for the next three days and the Bridge City has been a wonderful home-away-from-home.  The Boston Pizza on 8th Street has on their marquee "WELCOME BACK RIDER NATION! GREY CUP 2015 GO RIDERS GO".  Even the staff at the Colonial Hotel & Suites had my room ready once again Sunday evening.  Upon our second check-in last week, all the housekeeping and office staff gathered at the front desk when Luc Mullinder and I arrived, gushing, "We're all huge Rider fans!"

Indeed, it's great to be home.