Sask. Roughriders extend unbeaten streak heading into bye week

·7 min read
The Saskatchewan Roughriders are 3-0 to start the season and 16-5 in regular season games with head coach Craig Dickenson and quarterback Cody Fajardo leading the way. The Riders beat the Ottawa Redblacks 23-10 Saturday in Regina. (Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Saskatchewan Roughriders are 3-0 to start the season and 16-5 in regular season games with head coach Craig Dickenson and quarterback Cody Fajardo leading the way. The Riders beat the Ottawa Redblacks 23-10 Saturday in Regina. (Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Not since 2013 have the Saskatchewan Roughriders opened a season with three straight wins.

That was a magical year that will likely never be matched, with Darian Durant and the Riders going on to win the Grey Cup in their own stadium.

Any comparisons between this campaign and that one are a little premature, at least according to the guy behind the wheel.

"We're not going to win the Grey Cup in week three, week four, week five," said quarterback Cody Fajardo following his 21st game as the Riders' starter.

The Riders beat the Ottawa Redblacks 23-10 to go to 3-0 on the season.

Statistically it was arguably Fajardo's best game. He completed a personal high 85.7 per cent of his passes with no interceptions.

He leads the league with a 111.4 efficiency rating.

That has been Fajardo's modus operandi since his rude awakening on July 6, 2019, when the Calgary Stampeders taught Fajardo he didn't know everything he thought he did.

"The first Calgary game was the first time I played a true zone defence that just zoned me to death."

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

Fajardo was in the mood for reflection Saturday night after playing Ottawa, a team that predominantly employs a zone defence that reminded him of the Calgary loss two years ago. Since then Fajardo became a student of the game.

"[The Calgary loss] was probably the worst game of my career with the Roughriders and I really made a focal point to really hash out the playbook, understand zone defences, how to get the ball out of my hands quicker."

The extra studies have obviously paid off. Since then, the Roughriders have lost only three times in 17 games with Fajardo at the helm, including this year's 3-0 start.

Comfort and confidence with the offence has been the difference.

"Knowing that I was the guy definitely helps when they kind of say they are giving you the keys to the ignition, it's your offence."

Riders head coach Craig Dickenson knows there's still plenty of work to be done.

"It's going to get harder," Dickenson said after his 16th win in the role.

"We're going to see teams change things, teams do things to try and take away his game."

The Redblacks tried to do that Saturday, taking away everything downfield and limiting the Riders to only 79 yards rushing, 47 of them from Fajardo.

Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press
Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press

Fajardo trails the Riders' feature back William Powell by only 13 yards as the team's leading rusher. Fajardo is also seventh in the league, with the top six all running backs.

Fajardo leads the CFL with a 78.9 completion percentage, impressive considering his offensive line has been almost entirely rebuilt. Of the group that played against Ottawa, only centre Dan Clark played in the west final in 2019.

The Riders' offence is also operating without star receiver Shaq Evans, who is out for up to two months with a broken ankle.

Following the bye week, the Riders will have back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the team responsible for two of Fajardo's three losses since his awakening.

Fajardo also has yet to beat the Stampeders, meaning the upcoming game in Calgary on Oct. 2 is no doubt on his personal calendar.

Dominating defence

The biggest question facing the 2021 Roughriders prior to the season was the defence. How could they possibly replace the big names they lost to free agency following the 2019 season?

Gone are Charleston Hughes, Cam Judge and Derrick Montcrief. They even lost Solomon Elimimian to retirement and the CFL Players' Association.

One player brought in to anchor the defence was out for the season before training camp 2021 even started. Linebacker Larry Dean was one of four Riders to suffer a torn Achilles tendon during a pre-camp workout drill.

Yet three games in, the Riders lead the league in sacks (14) and are second only to B.C. in interceptions (five).

Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press
Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press

How could they possibly replace the sack production of Hughes?

Three games in, first year CFLer Jonathan Woodard leads the league with five, and teammates AC Leonard and Garrett Marino are next in the league with three each. Meanwhile Charleston Hughes is still searching for sack number one as a Toronto Argonaut.

"Charleston is a hall of fame player, so you're always going to have a little bit of drop off." said Dickenson.

The Riders defensive line wouldn't be having so much success without beast tackle Micah Johnson, who at times was tripled teamed by the Redblacks. Unfortunately Johnson, who was re-signed by the Riders during free agency, left early Saturday with an apparent foot injury.

The so called "drop-off" hasn't been noticed, with the Riders also getting quality games from a revamped linebacking corps including Micah Teitz, Deon Lacey and AJ Hendy.

The secondary, with the exception of cornerback Blace Brown, is the same group that started in 2019.

No worries whatsoever on kicking/punting

Jon Ryan is Jon Ryan, so you really have to nitpick to criticize what he's doing.

The Regina product with 12 years of NFL experience leads the CFL in punting average (49.4) and single points (three).

If not for the pylon getting in the way, Ryan's third quarter coffin corner punt on Saturday would have rolled out six inches out from the goal line.

As for kicker Brett Lauther, so far he is perfect, hitting five field goals Saturday in five tries.

He is nine for nine after three games.

Saskatchewan Roughriders
Saskatchewan Roughriders

Lauther got an opportunity to vent after the game Saturday.

He was not interested in discussing his own personal accomplishments in the game. He clearly had his own agenda when pushed on the subject.

His points of contention include game start times. He say his family out east has trouble staying up to watch a Riders game when it doesn't start until 11 p.m. their time.

But winning a job because of what your birth certificate says is beef number one.

"If you're good enough to play, you're good enough to play." said Lauther, who is also a Riders' players representative for the CFLPA.

He is not a fan of CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie's global project. Ambrosie has made exposing the CFL to the world a priority, despite the league still being without a team on Canada's east coast.

"You look at the first year, they went of their way to find the best of the best across the world in different countries to come in and play and not one of our players is back this year. Now I really don't know what we're doing," Lauther said Saturday.

"I think maybe the coaches and GMs, I don't want to say they made a mockery of it, but if you're having a [global] draft and the first 10 picks, five of them are kickers and the first overall is a kicker in a football league, there is a point right there."

Lauther feels for the quality kickers sitting at home, working other professions, while replacements struggle to locate the uprights.

There was a big fuss made when Takeru Yamasaki became the first Japanese player to score a point in the CFL. That happened in week one against the Riders.

But after missing 4 of 8 field goal attempts with the BC Lions, that experiment was over after only two games.

Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press
Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press

Extra points

  • With 16 players already on the injured list as of week three, the Riders may have added a few more Saturday night. Status is now questionable for Micah Johnson, Jordan Williams-Lambert and Marcus Murphy.

  • The Roughriders cut their number of penalties down to nine in week three from 20 in week two. However, two of those flags equalling 30 yards in total came during Ottawa's touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

  • More than a year after being selected in the 2020 CFL Draft, Kian Schaffer-Baker played his first game for the Roughriders, catching four balls for 64 yards.

  • The Riders are not expected to return to the practice field until Wednesday, Sept. 1, when they start prepping for the Labour Day Classic and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

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