The Riders packed their bags for a long stay and now they’ll get at least another week in Ontario.
Saskatchewan defeated the Ottawa Redblacks in the eastern semi-final 31-20 and will move on to face Toronto next Sunday in the eastern final.
The Riders win marks just the fourth time a western team has won the eastern semi-final since the crossover began in 1996.
“It’s amazing, man, this is what we’ve been working for all season for the city of Regina and for the whole Riderville organization,” said defensive lineman Willie Jefferson.
The Roughriders started the game off right with a six play 79-yard drive down the field, capped by a 29-yard touchdown pass to Bakari Grant to give the green and white an early lead.
But the Redblacks responded right back with a touchdown of their own. After a 37 yard return, quarterback Trevor Harris found Diontae Spencer for a 56-yard touchdown. Harris went on to complete a two-point conversion to Juron Criner to put Ottawa up 8-7.
Not to be outdone, the Roughriders offence lit up again marching 82 yards downfield, hitting Kienan LaFrance twice and ending with Kevin Glenn plunging into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. The Riders retook the lead 14-8 with 5:38 left in the first.
It seemed as the Redblacks were poised to respond with their second touchdown of the quarter, but Samuel Eguavoen snuck past Juron Criner and intercepted Harris to give the Riders the ball back on their own 27-yard line.
It was Eguavoen’s first interception of his career.
“It was long overdue,” said Eguavoen with a smile at his locker after the game.
“I didn’t care what route was out there, I was just going to get it,” he added.
The Riders ended the first quarter with a two and out and a 14-8 lead.
After all the early scoring in the first, it took until late in the second for more points to be put on the board.
A 44-yard catch by Bakari Grant with 6:10 left in the quarter and a six-yard rush, set up a 1-yard run into the end zone by Vernon Adams, which he got on the second try.
The green and white went up 21-8 with 4:47 left in the half and held on to it into halftime.
It looked bad for the Riders early in the third when Christion Jones fumbled the punt return, coughing the ball up for on their own 19. But the defence was able to hold the Redblacks to a 22-yard field goal.
Glenn, who went 18 of 28 for 252 yards, a rushing touchdown, and a passing touchdown, said even with some mistakes on all sides of the football, no one panicked, instead, the team lifted each other up.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we had the type of game we had today. Everybody on that sideline — the whole game — was picking each other up,” Glenn said. “They (were) basically saying ‘don’t worry about it defence, don’t worry about it offence, we got you’ special teams, vice versa. It was one of those afternoons were on the sideline you knew my brother next time had my back.”
With the ball back on the 35-yard line, Glenn handed it off to Marcus Thigpen who found a hole and broke loose for a 75-yard touchdown to put the Riders up 28-11. Many of his teammates said that was the turning point in the game for them.
“That was definitely the spark and I knew that Ottawa didn’t want to play with us after that,” Eguavoen said.
Thigpen finished the game with 15 carries for 169 yards and that 75-yard touchdown, something that was a little overwhelming given earlier this year he was sitting on his couch at home without a team.
“Very very emotional day for me just being back out here,” Thigpen said. “Offensive line did great today and the coaches trusted in me, gave me the opportunity to be the starting back and I’m just very thankful for the opportunity.”
“Everything just kind of slowed down when I got out there … it worked out just like we practiced,” he added.
Eddie Steel stalled the Redblacks next drive in the red zone after sacking Harris, and Ottawa settled for a 29-yard field goal to bring the score to 28-14 with 7:10 left in the third quarter.
The Riders responded with a field goal of their own after a razzle-dazzle play by Saskatchewan’s special teams. Chad Owens caught the return and pitched it to Jones who ran it back 43 yards. Crapigna closed the third quarter with a 31-yard field goal to take the Riders lead up to 31-14.
Ottawa’s offensive struggles continued early in the fourth quarter when Jovon Johnson picked off Harris after they chose to go for it on third and 10, but the Riders weren’t able to capitalize.
The Redblacks were able to find the end zone once more before the end of the game but missed the convert making it 31-20, a score that held to the end of the game.
The Roughriders will have a few days off in Ottawa before they begin practicing again midweek.
The eastern final against the Toronto Argonauts will take place at BMO Field next Sunday at noon.
“They’re another tough team and (winning as the crossover team is) the impossible. Something that has never been done in this league and for us to be on the verge of doing that, making history is exciting but we got to get ready,” Glenn said.
Rider fans react at home
Dozens of fans flocked to Regina’s Lancaster Taphouse Sunday afternoon to witness the Rider victory.
When the Green and White won, most jolted to their feet, howling with excitement.
Some said it was the best the team’s played all season.
“They were focused, they knew what the goal was,” said Lisa Anderson.
Meanwhile, Jim Kirko said it was nice to see the Riders play strong through until the end.
“They spread it out over four quarters, and the defense played great,” he said.
With the Roughriders now moving into the eastern final, Heather Smail described the feeling as “surreal.”
“Oh my god. I’m so excited,” she said with a smile. “Everybody’s happy. This is what Rider pride is all about.”
Moving into next Sunday’s game against the Argonauts, Anderson believes the Riders have it in them to win.
“Toronto’s an excellent team, but I think we can take them,” she said.
—With files from 980 CJME’s Jessie Anton