Well, the elements certainly factored into this game.
Steady rain for 18 hours before kick-off, and winds gusting out of the southeast at 81 k.p.h. made conditions for the Riders and Eskimos Friday night at Mosaic Stadium difficult to say the least. As I texted my friend, a 40-year season ticket holder who elected to stay home and watch the game on TV: There’s a playoff atmosphere, at least as far as the weather goes.
My friend (and his wife and daughter) weren’t the only ticket holders to skip the game either. The announced crowd was 29,130, but there probably weren’t more than 20,000 in the stands. It’s not that the vaunted 13th Man didn’t dress for the Riders, more like his/her effectiveness was hampered by turf toe or some other nagging injury.
With starting QB Darian Durant watching from the sidelines, Ryan Dinwiddie started and looked pretty good. Mind you, for 15 out of the 25 minutes he played he had the benefit of the wind at his back, which gave him instant field position and stretched the defence by forcing them to respect the deep threat.
On the drive that led to the Riders first TD (a six-yard run by Wes Cates mid-way through the first quarter) Cary Koch made an outstanding one-hand grab of a pass over the middle for a 31-yard gain. The other TD the Riders scored when Dinwiddie was in the game was courtesy of Hugh Charles on … what was it the announcer called it … a punt return? Apparently, if you force the other team to punt, it’s legal for you to actually receive the ball and run it back for a touchdown.
Okay, I did know that. But to see the Riders do it was certainly a novelty, considering that they didn’t have a return TD on either a punt or kick-off in the entire 2010 season (while being scorched four times for return TDs themselves). Determined to rectify that situation, new head coach Greg Marshall has devoted a significant chunk of time to special teams at training camp.
Charles’ TD is a positive sign. Although the Riders still made two special teams blunders. To start the third quarter, Edmonton kicked off into the still ferocious wind. The ball got hung up in the wind, and the Esks ended up recovering it. At least, that’s how my friend described it in a post-game phone conversation.
I didn’t see the play. And, no, it wasn’t because I was late returning to my seat from taking a leak and doing a beer and snack run at half-time. I didn’t see it because with four minutes left in the first half I got called away to deal with a family medical situation.
Cole Bergquist had just taken over for Dinwiddie at QB. Bergquist had figured prominently in the Riders’ first special team miscue in the first quarter, when he bobbled the snap on a 35-yard field goal attempt by Eddie Johnson. After he recovered the ball, Bergquist panicked and tossed it to a startled Johnson, who was promptly tackled for a 10 yard loss. As one wag in my section observed “Bergquist is a quarterback! Why would he give the ball to the kicker instead of trying to make a play himself?”
It won’t be the last time this season, I suspect, that the faithful will hold their collective breath on a Rider field goal attempt. With the ultra-dependable Luca Congi still out with a knee injury, former snapper Jeremy O’Day retired, and the team’s two previous holders Andy Fantuz and Rob Bagg lost to free agency and injury, the Riders are working with a whole new field goal team. Marc Parenteau is now centre, while punter Eddie Johnson seems a lock to fill in for Congi. Bergquist and receivers Weston Dressler, Jordan Sisco and Jason Clermont have all received reps at holder at training camp. Regardless of who wins the position, it will take the trio awhile to get their timing down.
Although I only saw his first series, Bergquist, by all reports, had a solid outing at QB too. Both he and Dinwiddie were 7 for 8 for 80 and 95 yards respectively and no interceptions. Bergquist also hooked up with Patrick Brown on a 50-yard pass and run play for a Rider TD in the third quarter. Stats-wise, Chris Leak was the least impressive of the Rider QBs. He was 3 for 10 for 21 yards, but most of his playing time was against the wind in the fourth quarter. He also had to contend with more rain.
Defensively, the Riders played okay. Although like Durant, Eskimos starting QB Ricky Ray didn’t play. But with some bigger bodies up front, and some revamped defensive schemes, they kept the Edmonton running game in check. But they still gave up a big play (a 35-yard pass) with seconds remaining to set up a potential game winning field goal from mid-field. A long-shot, admittedly, but with the wind still roaring at the kicker’s back definitely makeable.
In the first half, the Riders took a number of off-side and procedure penalties, but otherwise played a reasonably decent exhibition game. On Wednesday, they close out the pre-season with a game against the Lions in Vancouver.
Heading into the season, B.C. promises to be a bit of a wild card in the CFL West. The Eskimos, I don’t think, will be a threat. Calgary, meanwhile, got hit hard on defence in the off-season and will be hard-pressed to replace DBs Brandon Browner and Dwight Anderson and DT Tom Johnson. As for the Leos, they got off to a horrendous start in 2010, but finished impressively, winning 7 out of their last 10 games to sneak into the playoffs ahead of Edmonton. Then they took the Riders to OT in the West Semi-Final before falling 41-38. If the Leos pick up where they left off in 2010, they could make it a three-team race in the West for top spot with the Riders and Stamps.
Game time on TSN is 8 p.m.