Regina, SK - The first week of the 2014 CFL regular season draws to a close tonight when the defending Grey Cup Champion Saskatchewan Roughriders take the field against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Mosaic Stadium.
Watch the action live on TSN and TSN GO at 7pm et/4pm pt.
This is a replay of the 101st Grey Cup from November, when the Roughriders delivered a convincing 45-23 thrashing of Hamilton in front of nearly 45,000 fans.
The Riders, led by head coach Corey Chamblin, would like nothing more than to get off to the same type of start that they had a year ago when they rattled off five straight victories and captured eight of the first nine outings overall. The team did stumble slightly down the stretch with back-to-back defeats to close out the regular season and suffered a four-game slide during the month of September, but the club proved to be resilient, finishing 11-7 overall, but taking home the Grey Cup when all was said and done.
The third-leading passer in terms of yards last season with 4,154, Darian Durant is back under center for Saskatchewan as it begins the quest for back- to-back titles, something that has happened only once in the last 15 years. Durant, who has been with the Riders for his entire nine-year CFL career, tossed a personal best 31 touchdowns and finished with an efficiency rating of 95.7.
In 2013, Durant had a trio of top-notch receivers who he relied heavily on, but one of those, Weston Dressler has since signed with the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, leaving Chris Getzlaf and Taj Smith to carry more of the load this time around. All three posted at least 1,000 yards through the air, with Dressler leading the way with nine touchdowns. However, Getzlaf and Smith both landed in the end zone seven times and the former averaged a hefty 16.6 yards per catch.
Another major change for the Riders is the departure of running back Kory Sheets, the most valuable player of the Grey Cup, as he signed with the NFL's Oakland Raiders. Sheets was second in the league with 1,598 yards and tied for the lead with 12 rushing scores, which means there's a huge void to be filled in the backfield for the club. A couple of newcomers, Keith Toston and Anthony Allen will be tasked with producing on the ground moving forward.
Saskatchewan has to be pleased with the fact that they owned the toughest scoring defense in the CFL a year ago, allowing only 22.1 ppg, but that won't be easy to duplicate after losing Alex Hall. The defensive lineman placed second in the league with 16 sacks, but like many successful CFL performers, he too has latched on with an NFL squad (the Carolina Panthers) for the time being.
On other side, the Tiger-Cats were the opposite of Saskatchewan through the first month of last season, winning just a single game in five tries. But the group did finish strong with four wins in five opportunities before, putting up a 10-8 mark, before defeating Montreal and Toronto in the playoffs.
Kent Austin, the head coach, general manager and vice president of football operations for Hamilton, does have a major issue to clear up this time around with respect to his quarterback. Last year he watched Henry Burris tear up defenses for a league-best 4,927 yards, but this time around he will have to find a leader in either Zach Collaros, Dan LeFevour or Jeremiah Masoli.
Collaros has the most experience of the three after spending a couple of years with Toronto, but he is still a major work in progress. LeFevour finished with almost as many rushing yards (317) as passing (394) with the Cats last year while Masoli attempted a grand total of just two passes for the program in 2013.
At least for this week, it doesn't help that receiver Andy Fantuz is on the injured list, because he was one of the top pass catchers in the game with 65 grabs for 896 yards. That leaves Bakari Grant as the primary focus down the field after he posted 69 receptions for 947 yards, but a mere two touchdowns a year ago.
Running back C.J. Gable is capable of adding another dimension to the offense, having gained 782 yards and scored seven times on 130 carries in his first CFL campaign, but the squad will have to be careful not to run him into the ground too early.
From a defensive perspective, there is plenty of work to be done for the Tiger-Cats after they finished with a minus-13 in the turnover department. The squad logged just 14 interceptions, second-fewest behind only a hapless Winnipeg group, which they turned into a league-low 142 return yards. Hamilton was also last in the CFL in sacks with just 35.
Stretching back to 1961 and focusing only on games that took place during the regular season, Saskatchewan holds a slight advantage in the series with the Cats at 42-38-4. The Riders have taken four of the last five and a startling 17 of the last 20 matchups with Hamilton.