CFL Pass

Roughriders clinch first in West Division

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are officially the best in the West.

Saskatchewan clinched first place in the CFL’s West Division for the first time since 2009 on Saturday with a 23-13 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos before an announced crowd of 29,156 at Mosaic Stadium.

The Roughriders did it by overcoming various forms of adversity with a late-fourth-quarter uprising.

“I didn’t think we played very well,” said head coach Craig Dickenson. “Maybe we were a little tight. I think the guys knew the gravity of the game and how much it meant. But we found a way at the end.”

Brett Lauther, who had an otherwise difficult day, kicked a 12-yard field goal with 13:30 remaining in the fourth quarter to snap a 13-13 tie.

On Edmonton’s next play from scrimmage, quarterback Troy Williams was intercepted by Cameron Judge, who ran 29 yards for a touchdown to effectively settle matters.

The Roughriders will now be idle until Nov. 17, when they play host to the West final for only the second time in a span of 43 seasons.

During that hiatus, questions will continue to swirl about the status of quarterback Cody Fajardo — the Roughriders’ most outstanding player in 2019 — who missed Saturday’s game with an oblique injury.

“I think he’ll be fine. I do,” Dickenson said. “I think he’s going to be all right but it’s one of those strange injuries. You just don’t know so we’ll just take it day by day.”

The Riders took a similar approach heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale. Although it appeared unlikely that he’d be able to start, they waited until the waning hours before kickoff to make the final call.

In the end, Dickenson said Fajardo was “not very close” to playing.

“I was hopeful; I really was,” the head coach continued. “This morning I came in early and visited with him and he just didn’t feel like he could be effective.”

Isaac Harker started in place of Fajardo, completing 23 of 28 passes for 213 yards. Harker became the first Roughrider since Rocky Butler, in 2002, to quarterback the team to victory as a first-year pro.

Heading into Saturday’s game, Harker prepared as if he’d be the starter and that’s how it played out.

“The reality is we kinda knew that Cody wasn’t going to be able to go, based on his lack of participation late in the week,” Dickenson said. “I thought Isaac did everything we asked him to do and did a pretty good job. I think the guys believed in him and I don’t think (having to start a rookie QB) had anything to do with us not playing as well as we could have.

“Credit to Edmonton, too. They played really well. They didn’t even have all their starters out there but I thought the guys that did play played very well.”

Dickenson also said that Roughriders receiver Shaq Evans injured a toe on a long pass — a near-completion — early in the game.

Evans finished the season with 72 receptions for 1,334 yards.

“I just talked to him on the way in here,” Dickenson said. “He thinks he’ll be fine.”

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders will meet in the West semi-final on Nov. 10.

Saskatchewan’s 13-5 record is the team’s best since the CFL increased the number of games per team to 18, from 16, in 1986.

The Roughriders have reached 13 wins for only the third time in franchise history, despite starting the season at 1-3. Saskatchewan went 13-3 in 1969 and 14-2 the following year.

On Saturday, the Roughriders opened the scoring 6:08 into the first quarter when Lauther kicked a 49-yard field goal.

Later in the first frame, Nick Marshall intercepted Eskimos quarterback Logan Kilgore and returned the ball 35 yards to Edmonton’s 40-yard line. Five plays later, Marcus Thigpen rushed for a four-yard touchdown at 13:56. Lauther’s convert made it 10-0.

Edmonton, which had only four first downs and 61 yards of net offence, came alive offensively to begin the second half.

A trick play — a 45-yard pass from DaVaris Daniels to fellow receiver Tevaun Smith — put Edmonton on Saskatchewan’s 14-yard line. On the next play, Kilgore found a wide-open Smith for a major. The convert attempt was blocked.

Saskatchewan went ahead 12-6 when Eskimos punter Hugh O’Neill conceded a safety touch at 11:50 of the third quarter.

To begin the next possession, the Roughriders botched an exchange on an attempted handoff from Harker to William Powell. The Eskimos pounced on the fumble and, four plays later, scored on a seven-yard pass from Kilgore to Kevin Elliott. Sean Whyte’s convert gave Edmonton a 13-12 lead at 14:23 of the third quarter.

The Roughriders tied the game 13-13 at 6:43 of the fourth quarter when Lauther missed a field-goal attempt from 32 yards away and settled for a single. That was Lauther’s fourth miss of the day.

Lauther made amends, though, with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter when he kicked a 12-yarder to put the Roughriders ahead 16-13.

“Ever since I started football in high school, I don’t think I’ve ever had a game like this,” Lauther said. “This one was obviously on me, for sure. I put us in a bad situation all night but luckily for me I have a great defence, a great offence, great coaches, great teammates around me to support me.”

The Riders drove 75 yards in eight plays before the decisive field goal. One of the key plays was a 29-yard pass from Harker to fellow rookie Justin McInnis, who was playing in place of Evans, on second-and-eight.

Just 17 seconds after Lauther’s 12-yard field goal, Judge stepped in front of a pass and took it the distance.

“I knew the out (route) was coming so I tried to bait him into the throw,” Judge explained. “I think I baited him a little too much because I don’t think I would have got there without the tip (at the line of scrimmage). All props to Charleston (Hughes) on that one for tipping that ball for me.”

The Roughriders also got a huge defensive performance from defensive end A.C. Leonard, who had two sacks — one of which forced a fumble that he recovered.

Saskatchewan held Edmonton to 197 yards of net offence. The Roughriders’ total of 270 yards was also modest.

“I don’t think we win that game without A.C. Leonard,” Judge said. “It just happened to be me catching a pick but I feel a lot of guys put it all on the line. It was a group effort to get this win.”

Now they’re headed to the West final.

“We’ve been working all year for this,” Judge added. “It’s nice to see it pay off getting this bye but there’s still a lot of work to be done. If we go out and lay down in the final, this is all for naught. We want to keep it going.”

EXTRA POINTS:Jon Ryan finished the season with an average of 48.9 yards per punt — a Roughriders record. Ken Clark set the previous mark of 47.4 in 1983 … The Riders’ previous 23-13 home-field victory over Edmonton was in the 1976 Western Conference final … The Riders’ Kyran Moore finished with 996 receiving yards. Naaman Roosevelt was 54 receiving yards shy of 1,000.