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Roughriders roll past Blue Bombers in pre-season tilt

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REGINA — Corey Mace picked up a victory in his first game as head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Monday, but he believes it was just the first of many steps forward the team needs to take to reach his expectations.

Mace and the Riders opened the CFL’s 2024 pre-season schedule at Mosaic Stadium and collected a 25-12 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Mace, who joined the Riders after five seasons as the defensive line coach for the Calgary Stampeders and most recently two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Toronto Argonauts, brings a winning pedigree to Saskatchewan. In six seasons as a player with the Stampeders, Mace was a member of the 2014 Grey Cup winner. He won two additional Grey Cup titles as a coach, in 2018 with Calgary and in 2022 with Toronto.

After two consecutive 6-12 seasons under head coach Craig Dickenson, Riders general manager Jeremy O’Day was looking for a robust coach who would change the team culture. During its recent struggles, Saskatchewan was undisciplined and took too many penalties.

Mace has been preaching accountability since taking over and he pointed out in the post-game media conference that there was work still do be done.

“We came here to do what we wanted to do and that was win a football game, but the Achilles heel for us is the penalties,” said Mace after the Riders took nine penalties for 117 yards, including a holding penalty that negated a 59-yard punt return by Dhonte Meyers midway through the third quarter.

“We've been hard on that since camp started so to see us do those things, I might take a deeper look and see if some of them could have been avoided or happened in high speed and we just got to work better technique. But it was just perhaps far too many for our liking. Penalties equal points, and we’ve got to do a much better job. That's the focus.”

Veteran quarterback Trevor Harris saw his first action for the Riders since suffering a tibial plateau fracture of his right knee in a 33-31 loss to the Stampeders on July 15, 2023. Harris played two series against the Bombers, completing seven of nine passes for 123 yards. His longest completion went for 65 yards to Shawn Bane Jr.

The 38-year-old Harris was thrilled to be back on the field.

“It was amazing. It was just one of those things where I came to grips with as I walked down the field today. I just thought about what had happened and the work that had gone into coming back to this point and I looked up there and said, ‘If something were to happen again, I'm at peace with it,’ because I learned so much and I grew so much from it,” said Harris.

Although Harris was adamant after undergoing surgery that he would return to the field, many CFL followers weren’t so sure he would be able to bounce back from such a serious injury. Harris said he wasn’t motivated by the doubters during the rehabilitation process.

“I hope they think that but just watch. That’s not why I play, I play for the love of the guys in the locker room and to glorify Jesus and that’s really where my mind is at," said Harris.

"It’s not about proving anyone wrong but it’s more or less about proving the people that have believed in me and that been with me all along."

Chris Streveler, who has returned to the Bombers after three seasons in the NFL, made the start at quarterback in place of Zach Collaros who didn’t make the trip to Regina. Like Harris, Streveler played a couple series before giving way to Eric Barriere. Streveler was good on seven of eight pass attempts for 65 yards. He also showed his hasn’t lost his running ability, gaining 25 yards on three carries.

The Riders got touchdowns from tailback Frankie Hickson, on a one-yard run, and slotback Ajou Ajou, on a 38-yard reception.

Ajou, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound wide receiver, was selected 59th overall in the 2024 CFL draft by the Riders. He announced his presence to the home crowd on Monday with a dazzling touchdown catch. Crossing the middle of the field, he made a leaping one-handed catch over a Winnipeg defender before running unchallenged into the end zone.

Mace praised the rookie for his effort, in the game and in training camp.

“Ajou has been making phenomenal plays in camp. If he can figure out what it looks like to be a pro, and he's been doing that since he's been at camp, man, what a steal of a draft pick … He’s been excellent to this point in camp so I was pleased to see the day that he had today,” said Mace.

Fullback Thomas Bertrand-Hudon added a two-point convert on a one-yard run for the Riders. Kicker Brett Lauther hit on field goals of 24, 38 and 41 yards. He also had two rouges on misses from 53 and 48 yards.

Saskatchewan’s defence had a strong day, collecting five sacks and two interceptions. Rodney Clemons, Deontai Williams, Tre Crawford, Miles Brown and Habakkuk Baldonado had one sack each, while Diego Fagot and Zacoby McClain each intercepted Barriere.

Winnipeg’s lone touchdown came with 2:22 left in the fourth quarter when Terry Wilson connected with Kevens Clercius on an eight-yard scoring pass. The Bombers missed the ensuing two-point convert.

Bombers kicker Sergio Castillo kicked two field goals, hitting from 26 and 53 yards.

In addition to Collaros, other veterans not making the trip to Regina for the Bombers were linebacker Adam Bighill, receiver Nic Demski, tailback Brady Oliveira and receiver Dalton Schoen. Defensive end Willie Jefferson dressed for the contest but didn’t see any game action.

Tyjuan Garbutt and Chauncey Rivers had one sack each for Winnipeg.

The Riders complete their pre-season schedule in Edmonton against the Elks on May 25 before opening the regular season on June 8, also in Edmonton.

The Bombers host Calgary on May 31 in their final pre-season game and will open the regular season on June 6, hosting Montreal in a rematch of the 2023 Grey Cup game that the Alouettes won 28-24.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2024.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect date and opponent for Winnipeg's final preseason game.