July 24, 2011
Going into Sunday night's clash against the league-leading Montreal Alouettes, few gave the Saskatchewan Roughriders much of a chance. They were 0-3 on the season and had lost every game by quite a bit, while the Alouettes were 3-0 with a trio of decisive victories. On the road in Montreal, it might have been a moral victory for Saskatchewan just to keep it close. They did more than that, eking out a 27-24 victory (in which Montreal defensive back Mark Estelle delivered the hit on Efrem Hill seen above) and climbing out of the CFL's basement in the process, and having a win next to their spot in the standings is certainly going to be a refreshing sight for their fans. The peculiar circumstances under which they achieved that victory suggest that they might still have some issues to deal with, however.
First and foremost, the biggest coda to this win is that the majority of the game was played without one of the CFL's most dominant players. Legendary Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo, the CFL's career leader in touchdown passes, was knocked out of the game with an injury in the second quarter (perhaps a concussion, as blurred vision was reported) and didn't return, and backup Adrian McPherson wasn't consistently effective in his stead. Saskatchewan was leading 14-7 when Calvillo left, so it's not inconceivable they could have still pulled this out if he had played the whole game, but it's also quite possible that Calvillo could have adjusted to their defensive tactics and broken them down in the second half. We don't know which one would have been the case, but the point remains that a win against a Montreal squad lacking Calvillo is much less impressive than beating an Alouettes team that has him under centre.
Beyond that, though, there were other issues with Saskatchewan's play. On the defensive side of the ball, they had a tough time containing Montreal's rushing attack. The Alouettes picked up 116 yards on 21 rushing attempts. The Riders did well to largely hold injury-limited Montreal receiver Jamel Richardson in check, but gave up 68 yards to S.J. Green on five receptions. Moreover, the defence stumbled down the stretch, allowing an Alouettes comeback that almost paid off.
On offence, the signs were more positive for the Roughriders, but there were still issues. Darian Durant's 14 completions on 20 attempts (70 per cent) were a notable step forward from an accuracy standpoint, and he threw one touchdown against no interceptions, but still only picked up 177 aerial yards. The ground game was great, with Durant picking up 70 yards on seven scrambles and Wes Cates and Hugh Charles adding 114 more on 19 carries, but it almost wound up costing Saskatchewan when Charles fumbled on a late carry and turned the ball over with a 10-point lead; McPherson marched the Alouettes down the field and got a touchdown, but they couldn't recover the ensuing onside kick. Overall, it was an offensive step forward for Saskatchewan, but not an unqualified one.
This is still a notable achievement for the Riders. Although it wasn't all that pretty, all wins count the same in the standings, and this could be the first step towards turning their season around. It's important to remember that it is just a first step, though. Some of the pressure on the team and rookie head coach Greg Marshall will be alleviated thanks to this first victory, but there's still a lot of work to be done in Saskatchewan. If they can build on this, it could be a good year for them still, but a single win won't solve all their problems.