Sunday, 17 November 2019

’Riders lose frustrating West final, surprise season still fun

Cody Fajardo was the breakout star for the Roughriders.
    No matter how well things go for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, fans always have to fear one of those moments is just around the corner where you ask yourself, “Why do I cheer for this team?”
    The latest installment of asking that very question went down on Sunday, when the Roughriders fell 20-13 to their archrivals the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL’s West final before a near capacity crowd of 33,300 spectators at Mosaic Stadium.
    With the Bombers holding their 20-13 edge, they turned away the Roughriders on two defensive stands inside the Winnipeg 10 yard line to preserve victory.
    The last play of the game saw Roughriders breakthrough star quarterback Cody Fajardo wire a pass intended for open receiver Kyran Moore off the upright in the Winnipeg end zone. With that thud, the Roughriders magical 2019 campaign came to an end.
    Winnipeg advances to the Grey Cup this coming Sunday in Calgary, Alta., to face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the CFL championship. The Tiger-Cats romped to a 36-16 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL’s East final on Sunday in Hamilton, Ont.
    For Roughriders fans, the West final loss to the Bombers was a painful way to season come to an end that far exceeded expectations.
Shaq Evans led the Roughriders with 1,334 receiving yards.
    When training camps opened for CFL clubs back in late May, most pundit predictions had the Roughriders posting a record that would allow them to just scrap into the playoffs as a best case scenario.
    Only those on the inside with the team would have had higher hopes.
    During the off-season, the Roughriders went through a head coaching change with Chris Jones leaving his head coach and general manager duties behind to bolt or an assistant coach position with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
    Craig Dickenson, who is a player’s coach type that everyone likes, took over as the Roughriders head coach, and Jeremy O’Day became the club’s new general manager.
    At the start of the campaign, the Roughriders were bringing back Zach Collaros as the team’s starting quarterback. Fans feared Collaros might potentially suffer another concussion injury, and the season would go down the drain.
    That fear played out as a reality on the fourth play of the Roughriders regular season opener on June 13 against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton. Collaros ran for a seven-yard gain and gave himself up on a feet first slide only to have Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence drive his shoulder into the signal caller’s head.
Charleston Hughes, right, led the CFL with 16 sacks.
    Collaros left the game due to a concussion, and the Roughriders ultimately dropped that contest 23-17.
    After the first four weeks of the regular season, the Roughriders had a 1-3 record. No one could have seen they would turn their campaign around in a big way topping the West Division for the first time since 2009 with a 13-5 record.
    The 13 victories were the most for the Roughriders in the regular season since finishing 14-2 in 1970.
    The surprising first place campaign resulted due to the emergence of Fajardo as a star. Before signing with the Roughriders, the Brea, Calif., product spent about two-and-a-half seasons as a reserve quarterback with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and British Columbia Lions.
    The 27-year-old had an out of nowhere fantastic season completing 338-of-473 passes for 4,302 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He became the West Division nominee for the CFL’s most outstanding player award.
William Powell led the Roughriders with 1,093 yards rushing.
    Thanks the Fajardo’s meteoric rise, Collaros was deemed expendable. The Roughriders traded Collaros to the Toronto Argonauts in late July.
    Before the CFL’s trade deadline on Oct. 9, the Argonauts dealt Collaros to the Bombers. The Bombers were looking for more consistent quarterback play after star signal caller Matt Nichols was lost for the season due to shoulder injury in the Bombers 32-16 victory over the B.C. Lions on Aug. 15 in Winnipeg, Man.
    Roughriders 35-year-old defensive end Charleston Hughes played like an ageless wonder leading the league with 16 sacks and piling up 50 defensive tackles.
    Linebacker Cameron Judge is the West Division’s nominee for the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian player award. Judge posted 61 defensive tackles, 11 special teams tackles, five sacks and two interceptions for the Roughriders.
    Pass catcher Shaq Evans topped the Roughriders in receiving catching 72 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns.
    Running back William Powell came over from the Ottawa Redblacks and broke the 1,000-yard barrier in rushing for a third straight season. He carried the ball 215 times for 1,093 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Cameron Judge is up for the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian award.
    Dickenson is the West Division’s nominee for CFL coach of the year.
    Just when all things seem great for the Roughriders, adversity strikes. In a practice leading to their final regular season game, Fajardo suffered an oblique muscle injury. He revealed after the West final loss he tore two oblique muscles.
    In another crazy twist, Collaros was healthy entering the West final with the Bombers. The Bombers had many pundits predicting in training camp they would make the Grey Cup game, but they finished third in the West Division still with a solid 11-7 mark.
    Had the Bombers overcome their injury bug, they could have had more wins. Still, Collaros’s arrival and strong play restored Grey Cup hopes in the Manitoba capital.
    In leading the Bombers to their West final win over the Roughriders, Collaros completed 17-of-25 passes for 267 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
    Fajardo had a strong game despite his injuries completing 27-of-41 passes for 366 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Makana Henry (#74) had a solid campaign at DT for the Roughriders.
    The Roughrider struggled inside of the Winnipeg 10 yard line, and those struggles were costly.
    On the first of two defensive stands the Bombers made inside of the final 2:30 of the fourth quarter, the Roughriders gambled on a third and goal from the one on a Fajardo quarterback run. He was stopped creating a turnover on downs, but knowing his injury status, the play call was a curious one.
    When Fajardo rang his final pass off the crossbar of the goalpost on the game’s final play, it was the final sign to show this wasn’t the Roughriders day.
    The Bombers will try to win their first Grey Cup since 1990 going in as underdogs against the Tiger-Cats, who finished first in the East Division with a 15-3 regular season record.
    When the Roughriders host the Grey Cup next season, hopes will be high they can win it all at home like they did in 2013 downing the Tiger-Cats 45-23 at Taylor Field.
    Going into the 2019 campaign, the Roughriders had a lot of question marks, and those question marks have disappeared.
Craig Dickenson, middle, is up for the CFL coach of the year award.
    There will be questions and chances this off-season too. On the local front, one wonders if 37-year-old Regina product Jon Ryan will return as the punter and 33-year-old Weyburn, Sask., product Brendon LaBatte will be back on the offensive line.
    Age and life pursuits could play part in decisions on those fronts.
    The Roughriders have a franchise quarterback in Fajardo, who has the potential to play for a large number of years. That instils a bigger belief it is possible to build on the club’s meagre total of four Grey Cup titles.
    While it seems something always happens to dampen hopes of Roughriders fans, Rider Nation continues to find reasons to keep believing the best is still possible.

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