JONES, RIDERS KICK OFF NEW ERA IN RIDERVILLE VS. ARGOS
As though the waiting game wasn’t already hard enough, it only gets tougher for Darian Durant and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Riders say hello to a new season on Thursday night in Riderville, while at the same time begin saying goodbye to a long-time landmark in Mosaic Stadium.
After a bye week to open the 2016 schedule, waiting until 8:00 p.m. local time to face the Toronto Argonauts might be difficult.
“I’m kind of sad that it’s a night game,” Durant told Riderville.com. “Just waking up having to wait all day to come out and play. But at the same time night games are always exciting here so it’s just going to be an exciting day and I’m looking forward to it.
“I’ll just be patiently waiting all day and I’ll be ready to come out here and do whatever I can do to help this team get a win.”
With equal anticipation wait the fans in Rider Nation, and the same goes for Chris Jones. No team has overhauled its roster more than the Riders this year and no team enters the season with more uncertainty.
On Thursday night everyone will see some sort of semblance of what the 2016 Riders are all about.
“That’ll be decided [Thursday] night,” said Jones. “Like I told the team, this is for real – this is our first regular season game. We’ve talked a good game, now it’s a matter of seeing exactly where we are.”
Jones was hired as the team’s football czar – the head coach, general manager and vice-president – after the team cleaned house following a three-win season in 2015. After Jones took the Eskimos from cellar-dwellers at 4-14 to Grey Cup Champions at 14-4 in a matter of two years, Riders fans are hoping he can work his similar magic in Saskatchewan.
With a re-worked roster with the subtraction of big names like Weston Dressler and John Chick and the addition of the likes of Shawn Lemon, Justin Capicciotti and Kendial Lawrence among many, many others, there’s no doubt the Riders are already being built in Jones’s mold.
Veteran quarterback Durant is one of a handful of returning players along with veteran Rob Bagg and young receiver Nic Demski – yet with so many new faces on both sides of the ball, some patience may be required.
Durant is playing his first game in over a year after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in last year’s opener, while approximately 35 players on the team’s 46-man roster will be making their Rider debuts.
“It’s just another great opportunity to do something special this season,” said Bagg, the veteran receiver now in his ninth season with the team. “Every year it’s a fresh start and this year it’s no different – I love the pieces we have here.But with uncertainty and the unknown also comes possibility.
“It all starts Thursday, we’ll find out what we’re really made of. I’m certainly excited and optimistic about it.”
So too is Jones, who will lean on a veteran offence and a young defence that he expects to be ‘very fast’ and ‘very athletic’. Facing an angry Argos team coming off a home-opening loss is a solid first challenge.
“We’ve got to go out and we’ve got to play a solid football game against a very good football team in Toronto,” said Jones. “They’re very well-coached and they didn’t play very well last week, and we’re not the only ones that know that – they know it as well.
“You’ll see a different Toronto team roll in here.”
The Argos definitely know they weren’t themselves in Week 1. They lost 42-20 to hated arch-rival Hamilton, but it’s not just the loss that stings – it’s the fact that it came in a game they’ll never be able to get back: the first ever game at BMO Field.
“We came out and we laid an egg,” defensive tackle Bryan Hall told Argonauts.ca. “Especially on defence. We just didn’t perform when we needed to.”
The O-line couldn’t keep a clean pocket for quarterback Ricky Ray, who was sacked five times, threw an interception and fumbled once. Meanwhile, Brandon Whitaker and the Argo offence couldn’t establish anything on the ground, finishing with just one yard on seven attempts – their lowest rushing total since 2009 and the lowest by any CFL team in a game since 2011.
With a new-look O-line led by off-season addition Josh Bourke and a young defence coached by another newcomer in Defensive Coordinator Rich Stubler, the Argos are still learning but expect to be much better after seeing it all on film.
“We just weren’t ourselves,” said national defensive end Ricky Foley. “It was good to see on film; make our corrections.
“We needed to see it on film and a lot more confidence this week.”
Head Coach Scott Milanovich was particularly frustrated with the Argos’ inability to capitalize on momentum during their Week 1 loss. A slow start had them down 25-6 at one point, but two touchdowns by Vidal Hazelton within a minute made it a five-point game.
It was as though all the Ticats had to do was press down on the gas again though. Jeremiah Masoli completed 15 straight passes against the Argo defence while former Argonaut Chad Owens put the game away, and in the end the five-point third-quarter deficit was the closest the Argos could get.
On Sunday they face a stiff test against a new-look Rider team that’ll be excited to play at home, but the hostile territory coming off a loss is welcomed by the Argos’ fifth-year head coach.
“Our players love to play there. I love to play there. It’s fun,” said Milanovich. “It’s a college-type atmosphere from my perspective. Their fans are always fired up. It’s the way football should be played.
“Obviously Chris [Jones] will have them ready to play football, there’s no doubt.”
Ray will look to get the Argo offence humming again, one that’s used to finishing in the top half of the league under the offensive-minded Milanovich but last season fell to sixth overall. The veteran pivot threw for 282 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception on 26-of-36 passing in the face of a constant Ticats pass rush.
The Argos, meanwhile, will have to wait until mid-July to get another crack at it in front of their home fans, but for now they have a chance to do some early-season bonding. After playing in Regina on Thursday night, Milanovich has them heading straight to B.C. as part of a nine-day road trip.
Linebacker Marshall McFadden and receiver Kevin Elliott will not play for the Argos after each being added to the six-game injured list, opening the door for Thomas Miles to start at middle linebacker for the Boatmen and Kenny Shaw and Wallace Miles to get more touches in the receiving corps.
The Riders, meanwhile, enter their season-opener relatively unscathed but will have a pair of newcomers in the secondary in veterans and former Stampeders Buddy Jackson and Brandon McDonald, both slated to start at halfback.
Thursday’s game will also be a big matchup for Greg Jones, the former Argos linebacker who will play his first game as a Rider against his former team.