What do the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their fans need to see on Sunday? Rocky II.
Rocky Butler, who had been buried on the Roughriders’ quarterbacking depth chart until injuries changed everything, was the unlikeliest hero in the 2002 Labour Day Classic. In his first CFL start, he rushed for three touchdowns to lead the Green and White to a 33-19 upset victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Taylor Field.
Now, with the stakes exponentially higher, it is imperative that someone — namely Brandon Bridge — emulate Butler by registering a win out of the bullpen.
TSN’s Dave Naylor, whose unerring reporting is infinitely more precise than the Roughriders’ passing game, reported Saturday night that Bridge is to start at quarterback for Saskatchewan in Sunday’s CFL West Division semi-final against the visiting Blue Bombers.
Naylor added that Collaros, despite having cleared the league’s concussion protocol, will not be in uniform.
The news triggered tension and apprehension in Rider Nation, and understandably so.
A team that is forced to start its second-string quarterback in a must-win game is not in an enviable position — especially when the backup does not have the credentials of, say, Tom Burgess or Marcus Crandell.
Bridge threw only one touchdown pass, as opposed to three interceptions, during the regular season. Saskatchewan did win two of the four games he started while Collaros was sidelined with a concussion, but neither conquest was offence-driven.
Last year, when stepping in for Kevin Glenn, Bridge was a difference-maker. He routinely enlivened the offence.
In Saskatchewan’s most-recent playoff game, for example, Bridge twice replaced Glenn in the 2017 East Division final against the Toronto Argonauts.
Glenn was benched for good after throwing his third interception of the first half. Bridge didn’t light it up in the second half, but he did throw a touchdown pass to Duron Carter and helped to put the Roughriders in a position to win.
As it turned out, it was the defence — not Bridge — that faltered in the clutch. The Roughriders were one third-down defensive stop away from beating Toronto and advancing to the Grey Cup. The Argonauts, however, converted a third-down gamble and soon scored the go-ahead touchdown, winning 25-21.
Now, what if the Roughriders had stopped Toronto on third down? Can you say “quarterback controversy”?
There would have been a clamour for Bridge to start in the 2017 Grey Cup game, and a strong case for such a move. We will never know what head coach Chris Jones would have done — the suspicion here is that he would have stuck with Glenn, but with an even quicker hook than usual — but it would have been an interesting week.
This much is beyond speculation: Bridge’s presence last season provided the Roughriders’ offence with some energy, and some insurance. He averaged one touchdown pass every 13.8 attempts — an eye-popping average.
A year ago, the scenario that faces the Roughriders today would not have been a source of extreme worry. But now, following a regular season in which Bridge threw for just one TD in 131 attempts, the mindset has changed as markedly as the numbers.
It is worth noting, though, that Collaros has not enjoyed an especially strong season — a reality that mitigates the impact of his absence.
There isn’t any parallel to 2014, when the Roughriders’ season was scotched as soon as Darian Durant suffered a serious elbow injury and in came Tino Sunseri, Seth Doege and, eventually, a 41-year-old Kerry Joseph.
Collaros’ interceptions (13) have outnumbered the touchdown passes (nine) in 2018. However, Collaros has provided the Roughriders with an experienced hand and someone with whom they can win. Bridge, when called upon, has not even remotely resembled his 2017 self, for reasons that remain a mystery.
Offensive co-ordinator Stephen McAdoo seems averse to allowing Bridge to do anything except hand off or throw short, safe passes. Last year, the Roughriders were more aggressive with Bridge behind centre, but now the opposite is true.
The recent Brandon Bridge sightings do not instil confidence. He has the capability of being a game-changer, as everyone saw a year ago, but can he reprise his 2017 form within the confines of the 2018 offence? Hmmm …
Here is one reassuring notion: The Roughriders have demonstrated that they can win without an abundance of offence. This is a team that is heavily reliant upon defence and special teams, units that combined for 15 of the club’s 40 touchdowns. (Last year, by the way, Glenn and Bridge combined for a league-high 35 TD passes.)
Even with Collaros at quarterback, it is conceivable that the Roughriders would have needed to win in spite of their offence. In that sense, nothing changes with Bridge being elevated to front-line duty.
Perhaps — and maybe this is a reach — the manner in which Bridge has been deployed this season is the wisest strategy against Winnipeg.
Play it safe. Avoid turnovers. Punt.
Put the game in the hands of a dominant, dangerous defence and hope that, as was the case Sept. 8 in Winnipeg, hope to win on the strength of some big plays from the defence. The formula, while unconventional and in many ways unprecedented, has worked so far.
Collaros threw three pick-sixes, including one against Winnipeg, this season. The risk of a recurrence may very well be reduced with Bridge in the game, simply because of the anticipated conservatism of the scheme.
Keeping in mind the weather forecast — which may rival some Collaros media scrums for sheer iciness — the prevent offence might just be the best strategy, anyway? The adverse elements could weak havoc with the aerial game.
When on offence, the Roughriders have been more effective while running the ball, anyway.
Cameron Marshall has excelled on the ground in the past two games, employing a rugged, chain-moving style that is ideally suited to smash-mouth playoff football.
Marcus Thigpen, who had a 75-yard touchdown run in last year’s East semi-final against the Ottawa Redblacks, has had TD sprints of 82 and 80 yards this season.
So why not run, run, run?
Take care of the football. Soften up the opposition with Marshall and, that being done, hope that the mercurial Thigpen can find a hole and then hit the afterburners.
Let the defence, special teams and loud home crowd take care of business.
If the game unfolds in that manner, the path to victory could be a Rocky one indeed.
Make the final: Saskatchewan 22, Winnipeg 14.