VANCOUVER — Friday night, the Saskatchewan Roughriders served notice that it’s no small feat to sweep a season series in the CFL.
After enduring two home losses to the B.C. Lions in the last four weeks, the Riders rode a bounce-back performance by Cody Fajardo to a 23-16 win at B.C. Place.
“That's a good win and we did a lot of good things,” said Fajardo, who hit 19 of his 24 passing targets, throwing for 321 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 38 yards. “We’ve got a lot of things to improve on, but we needed that. That locker room needed that more than you guys know.
“It’s a good feeling in there — a lot of guys smiling and we worked really hard. We're down some really good players and we found a way to grit it out.”
“It looked like the guy that we know and love,” said Saskatchewan coach Craig Dickenson, after pulling his starter before halftime last week. “I feel very strongly that he's the right guy and I feel very good about his performance and very proud of him. He got the game ball. We only handed out one tonight. And he got it. "
With the Riders missing top receivers Duke Williams and Justin McInnis due to injury, second-year receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker led Saskatchewan’s offence with 170 passing yards. That included an 85-yard touchdown catch shortly before halftime that gave his team the lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“Any time that ball is up in the air, my mentality is, I’ve always got to come down with it,” Schaffer-Baker said.
The Riders also rushed for 164 yards. Frankie Hickson picked up 128 in an augmented role, with Jamal Morrow sidelined with a broken hand.
“It feels amazing,” said Hickson. “You don't ever want somebody to get injured, especially someone in your own crew. When one goes down, another one has to get up. I'm just glad that I could do that for the team.'
The Lions came into Friday’s game knowing their starting quarterback, Nathan Rourke, had come through his foot surgery successfully earlier in the day. Riding a five-game winning streak, 26-year-old Michael O’Connor made his first career CFL start.
He went 6-for-15 for 94 yards, but left the game in the second quarter with what Campbell described after the game as a leg injury which is still being evaluated by team doctors. He was replaced by third-string pivot Antonio Pipkin, who went 9-for-17 in the air for 112 yards and a touchdown and also ran for 26 yards.
“Michael made some really good throws early on,” said Lions coach Rick Campbell. “And Pip coming in — that's a tough, tough situation to come in. He knows what he's doing and he knows the offence. But he literally has very, very limited reps practising and obviously not playing.
“So, good for them for competing. And they kept swinging all the way till the end.”
After seeing the Lions with Rourke so recently, Dickenson felt confident in how his opponent would prepare.
“We knew they would not have to change the game plan but pare it down,” he said. “We felt like if we could pressure the quarterbacks, we could maybe get them to throw a couple to us, which they did. We just weren't able to intercept.”
With the loss, the Lions fell to 8-2 in the standings, and saw their five-game winning streak come to an end. B.C. also lost two players with hamstring injuries — key defender T.J. Lee, while trying to chase down Shaffer-Baker on his touchdown play, and wide receiver Lucky Whitehead in the third quarter.
The Lions are now headed into a bye week, where Job One will be to get healthier.
“No one should be coming back (unable) to practice if they haven't been getting in and getting treatment,” said Campbell. “We need to take advantage of this bye week that comes at a good time. We need to get guys as healthy as they can be, both mentally and physically, to play a lot of important football.”
Defence ruled early on Friday. The Lions held a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, off the first of Sean Whyte’s three field goals.
Saskatchewan posted its first points of the game with 8:35 left to play in the first half, when Brett Lauther connected on a 20-yard field goal after Fajardo hit Schaffer-Baker with a 49-yard dart that took the Riders down to the B.C. 13-yard line.
Pipkin took over on the Lions’ next possession, but the Riders quickly got the ball back. They scored the first major of the game with 3:57 left before halftime, when Fajardo connected with Schaffer-Baker for an 89-yard scoring play.
With the Lions trailing for the first time in the game, Pipkin efficiently moved the ball downfield. But a pass attempt to Rhymes in the end zone failed, setting up Whyte’s third field goal.
Taking over with 1:17 remaining before halftime, the Riders quickly moved into field-goal position. Lauther hit his second of the game to give the visitors a 13-9 lead as they headed into the locker room.
Lauther added another field goal midway through the third quarter. With 1:01 remaining, Fajardo finished off a strong sequence of passes with a 26-yarder to Tevin Jones, pushing the lead to 23-9.
In the fourth, Pipkin put together a strong passing drive then, from the seven-yard-line, scrambled out of the pocket to hit Jacob Scarfone in the end zone. That cut the lead to a single possession with 5:59 left to play, but the home side couldn’t get any closer.
YARDSTICKS: Per the CFL, Friday’s game marks the only time that any club has ever started two different pure Canadian quarterbacks in consecutive games. The only other time two Canadians have gone under centre in consecutive games was in September of 1955, when Bill Stevenson of the Calgary Stampeders was replaced by emergency starter Lynn Bottoms, regularly a halfback … Bryan Burnham’s first-quarter catch extended his personal reception streak to 102 straight games … Saskatchewan will host the West Division-leading Winnipeg Blue Bombers next Sunday at Mosaic Stadium, while B.C. has its final bye week.