REGINA – Seven games into the season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are heading into the toughest stretch of their schedule.
The 4-3 Riders will host the 4-1 B.C. Lions on Friday, opening a run of eight straight games against West Division opponents.
In their first seven games, the Riders schedule included just one game against a West Division team (June 18 vs. Edmonton) with the other six games coming against East Division clubs.
The Riders currently find themselves in fourth place in the West, trailing the first-place Winnipeg Blue Bombers (7-0) along with the Calgary Stampeders (4-1) and the Lions, who are tied for second place.
Quarterback Cody Fajardo said that while the Riders are aware of the difficult schedule ahead of them, they’re not about to lose focus on the job at hand.
“I think there’s excitement because the only way you can catch teams in the West is by playing teams in the West. We’re excited about the opportunity to play one of the hottest teams in the CFL right now and see how we up against them,” said Fajardo. “It’s not a must win game because it’s still early in the season, but it is one of those games that can set you off on the right path.”
July has been a tough month for the Riders. In addition to the suspensions of defensive lineman Garrett Marino (four games) and receiver Duke Williams (one game), the Riders have been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak following the July 19 Touchdown Atlantic game against the Toronto Argonauts.
The Riders weren’t able to hold any practices before last week’s return game with the Argos, and this week was short as well with just one full practice.
They will benefit, however, from a number of veteran starters returning to the roster. Fajardo, cornerback Nick Marshall, defensive lineman Charbel Dabire, receiver Justin McInnis and offensive lineman Terran Vaughn are back after clearing COVID protocol while Williams served his suspension last week.
In addition to dealing with COVID, Fajardo has an ongoing issue with his left knee. He suffered damage to his medial collateral ligament (MCL) in Week 2 and has been wearing a large brace in every game since.
Fajardo, who said his knee is at 70 per cent, is more excited about getting the upper hand on his COVID issues.
“I had some congestion in my chest and I think through the practicing and running I’ve broken a lot of that stuff up so I do feel a lot better. I will say my energy is back to normal, which is the most exciting thing for me,” said Fajardo. “I felt like I was dragging a little bit. I did go to sleep early last night, eight o’clock, which pretty dang early for me. But yeah, I feel energized. I feel good.”
B.C. brings a high octane offence into Regina with Nathan Rourke, a young Canadian quarterback, at the controls.
The 24-year-old has completed 126 of 160 passes for 1,605 yards this season with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
With five games of film available to study Rourke, Riders head coach Craig Dickenson has a good idea of the kind of player that Rourke is.
“I think he’s very intelligent and you can tell he understands that offence. When it’s there, he gets the ball out quickly and when it’s not there, you can see him go through his progressions and then use his legs,” said Dickenson. “He’s showing what we all saw from his college days and he’s been able to translate his success from university days to the pros, which is hard because the level of competition goes up quite a bit.
“He’s got good people around him and I think they’re doing a good job of giving him giving them opportunities to be successful with the play calling. That offense is really clicking right now and he’s the straw that stirs the drink.”
The Riders enter Friday’s game with an eight-game winning streak over the Lions. The last B.C. victory over Saskatchewan came on Aug. 5, 2016, a 30-15 win at B.C. Place. During the eight-game streak the Riders have outscored the Lions 274-160.
B.C. is looking to start the season 5-1 for the first time since 2007 when they finished first in the West Division with a record of 14-3-1. The Riders, who finished 12-6, upset the Lions 26-17 in the West final before defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23-19 in the Grey Cup game.