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Selnes: Riders win first game back on field

Columnist Bill Selnes is happy to be back reporting on the Saskatchewan Roughriders
Bill Selnes
Columnist Bill Selnes is happy to be back reporting on the Saskatchewan Roughriders

It had been 628 days since I last attended a Rider game – it felt longer. 

Walking into Mosaic Stadium on the evening of Friday, Aug. 6 was great. After the trials of the past 1.5 years I had wondered if there would be a CFL. The Riders are back and I am back for my 43rd year covering the team.

There was not a fan or player or coach or media member who was not emotional as the Riders charged onto the field. Cody Farjardo said he was tearing up in the tunnel. For Coach Craig Dickenson the emotion struck him during the national anthem.

Cody said he has to work to control his emotions before every game. He said he prays a lot before each game. On Friday he said he prayed twice as much as usual. He said he finally asked himself why he was so nervous and not to make the game bigger than it was but to just go play football and trust God will have his back.

When the game started Cody was flawless. Completing his first 15 passes the Riders were ahead 28-0 before he had an incompletion. He quipped that he felt better when he threw the incompletion as the pressure of perfection was off him.

I thought the key play to get the Rider offence rolling was their third and two gamble at the B.C. 46 on the opening drive. When Cody threw an 11-yard completion to Kyran Moore there was an emotional lift to the team.

Dickenson said had not planned going into the game to go on third down when it was over a yard. He said usually if it is closer to two yards he was not likely to go for it. On Friday he said he felt like let’s do it as he does not like to give up possessions. He continued that they are more likely to punt in such a situation, as they did in the second half, if the wind is behind them to make the other team go into the wind.

The game put a premium on quarterback decision making for it was a return to an era before even I started covering the Riders. Neither team had any film to study of the other team. The lack of film forced quarterbacks to use their experience to react to what they were seeing on the field. Cody said he understands defences better this year as he mentioned recognizing the soft spots in zone coverages.

His decision making was sound through the game even when the Riders faltered in the second half. His one interception had a receiver open over the middle but in his words he sailed the ball. His one clearly bad throw was a late out to Jordan Williams-Lambert. He said there was a sprinkle of Jesus on that throw as Garry Peters was in position to intercept the pass. I thought it was more Jordan grabbing Peters.

On the other side of the ball rookie Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke started for the Lions instead of Mike Reilly. It was a shock for the Riders. Dickenson said he had not realized Rourke would be starting until he was on the field for the first Lion offensive play. 

The Rider defence was immediately aggressive going after Rourke with waves of pass rushers. The young quarterback looked out-matched especially on Nick Marshall’s interception which he returned for a touchdown. Nick said he was reading Rourke and knew the play would be something quick. He was ready for Lucky Whitehead’s short out.

In the second quarter he said he misread Rourke. He was looking at Rourke when Whitehead hesitated going down field and then blew by Marshall for a 75-yard touchdown. Nick said they get paid too. I thought it was the key play in giving the Lions a sense they could compete in this game.

While the Lions were doing better I doubt Rourke could have led their offence to second half success. It was Reilly making a startling second half return that was crucial to the Lions getting back in the game. While his arm was clearly hurting he recognized Rider weaknesses.

It was bizarre in that several of his wobbly passes appeared to confuse the Rider defenders. Nick said they are used to Reilly making good deep throws and his poor throws messed up the timing of the defence.

More importantly, Dickenson said the Riders relaxed a bit and got a little tired in the second half. 

Dickenson felt if the Riders could have just made 1-2 more first downs in the second half they would have been alright. Those first downs were denied by Cody’s interception, a failure to run the ball and two dropped passes by Shaq Evans.

It is hard to believe that the Riders attempted but 2 running plays in the whole second half.  Cody said something about B.C. playing the edges more. Dickenson said he told offensive co-ordinator Jason Maas to run his offence as he sees the game. Hopefully Maas sees William Powell as a weapon all game long this weekend.

Shaq dropped two of the last three passes thrown to him. There has been a touch of anxiety in the past about Shaq. Hopefully once again, dropped balls are not an issue on Saturday night.

Consistent with their long history of making blowouts into close games the Riders confirmed no Rider lead is safe. With blood pressures rising across Rider Nation they managed victory. Rider fans would prefer not to have another season of the Riders being the Cardiac Cowboys.

Bill Selnes, who’s based in Melfort, has written about the Saskatchewan Roughriders since the late 1970s. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Football Reporters of Canada wing on Nov. 24, 2013.