REGINA — The lights shine brightest during Mark’s Labour Day Weekend, and with the 55th annual Banjo Bowl against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers staring them down on Sunday, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are focused on one thing: going 1-0 this week.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit bigger, and we know that. It’s two teams that are playing very well right now,” head coach Craig Dickenson told Riderville.com. “Our guys know there’s going to be a lot of hype and a lot of attention to this game but we’re really just trying to focus on each day as it comes.”
Saskatchewan is arguably the hottest team in the CFL right now. They’ve won their last five games and have moved into a tie for second place in the West Division. The Bombers occupy the first position in the division, and at 8-2, they present one of the hardest challenges of the Riders’ entire season.
However, this won’t be quite the same Winnipeg squad that we’re used to seeing. Matt Nichols went down with an upper-body injury in Week 10, making it Chris Streveler‘s ship to steer for the next month or more. Additionally, Andrew Harris, an early candidate for Most Outstanding Player, will miss the next two games due to a suspension.
That will leave the Bombers with a dilemma in the backfield. Johnny Augustine will almost certainly get the start for the blue and gold, but he’ll likely split time with John Santiago.
Despite the changes to the personnel on the other side, Dickenson knows that his team can’t take their opponent lightly.
“It’ll change a little I’m sure, but they’ll be motivated to win without them. So our guys know it’ll be a tough challenge,” he said. “They’re a good football team and they lead the league in rushing and they’ve got a physical, nasty bunch up front. We know it’s a big challenge with or without Andrew Harris and Matt Nichols.”
In their Week 11 thrashing of the Ottawa REDBLACKS, the Riders posted 40 points with help in the form of 241 yards and a touchdown by pivot Cody Fajardo. William Powell also continued his massive year, accumulating 70 rushing yards and two scores against his former team. But it wasn’t just the offence getting the job done.
The defence continued to play at a high level, holding the REDBLACKS to just 18 points while forcing two fumbles and collecting three interceptions.
If all goes according to plan, they could also see Micah Johnson make a return to the lineup on Sunday. The defensive lineman has been out of action since Week 8 after suffering an ankle injury.
As a player that’s been a part of one rivalry during his time with the Calgary Stampeders, Johnson is no stranger to seeing animosity build between two teams. But which rivalry does he think is the most intense across the league? The Battle of Alberta or the Banjo Bowl?
“With these fans out here, I’m going to probably go with this one. It’s real exciting and you can definitely feel the energy switch up a little bit this week,” he said.
The 31-year-old has posted 11 tackles in eight games so far this year. He’s going to be pushing hard to get back into the lineup, and if he does get the start, he’ll help pressure the quarterback along with Charleston Hughes.
For Johnson and other members of the Riders, this will be their first taste of the annual rivalry game. One of the veterans of the team is Saskatchewan-born Dan Clark. The offensive lineman is used to the added hype and physicality that comes along with this game.
“The goal is to go 1-0 this week. We can’t overlook what’s going to happen, and especially playing them back to back, we can’t overlook what’s going to happen in the first week. Until that happens, some of these guys don’t understand what this place is going to be like on Labour Day, but as a guy that’s been around for 11 of them now, you know the atmosphere, you know what’s going to happen.
“You’ve just got to be able to weather the storm and come out on top.”
The Bombers are going to have a big defensive playmaker on their sideline as well. Willie Jefferson was named a player of the month for August, and he capped the month off with four tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries against Edmonton. He also swatted an onside kick out of bounds to secure the Bombers’ victory. He’ll be the main focus for the Riders.
“He’s a difference-maker; he’s just so long and so athletic and he really does play hard so he’s a very good football player and our guys are going to need to know where he’s at at all times,” Dickenson said.
The Bombers have gotten the best of the matchup as of late, winning three of the last four Banjo Bowls. With some new faces adding fuel to the rivalry, what should we expect on Sunday?
“Just a slugfest, honestly, and I think we’re expecting a very physical game,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a physical offensive line and a physical defence. You’ve got to have it right in your mind that you’re going to come out and hit somebody.”