Keeping cards close to chest

WES GILBERTSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

It almost sounded like Tim Johnson was auditioning for a job as a sports talk radio host in Regina.

Asked yesterday to provide an assessment of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Stamps linebacker served up a string of compliments sure to leave Gang Green's watermelon-wearing faithful nodding their collective approval.

"Great quarterback, great receivers, great coaching staff," Johnson said. "It's a great bunch we're playing."

No need to staple those comments to the bulletin board at Mosaic Stadium.

Truth is, you're unlikely to overhear any of the Stampeders talking smack about the Riders, the only West Division opponent they've been unable to beat so far this season.

"They just do things right," said defensive halfback John Eubanks. "There's no denying it. Look at the place they're in -- we're in first place and they're also fighting for first place, as well. That says a lot."

That battle will be decided Saturday, when the Stamps (10-6-1) and Riders (9-7-1) renew hostilities in Regina. The winner will earn a first-round playoff bye and the right to host the West Final.

If recent history is any indication, you can expect a barn-burner.

During their first meeting of the season, the Riders silenced the McMahon Stadium faithful with less than 90 seconds remaining on the clock, when quarterback Darian Durant and slotback Chris Getzlaf hooked up for a 65-yard major to lift the visitors to a 24-23 victory.

Three weeks ago, the rematch ended in a rare stalemate. The host Stamps were within 61 seconds of registering a wire-to-wire victory, but Saskatchewan's star signal-caller showed off some more late-game heroics, erasing an eight-point deficit with a touchdown strike to receiver Andy Fantuz and a two-point conversion.

Durant engineered two more scoring drives in overtime, but Henry Burris and the rest of the Stamps' offensive guns were equal to the task and the wild West shootout ended in a 44-44 tie.

That's the most points the Red & White have surrendered in a single game this year. Even though the Riders had two overtime drives to pad those numbers, Johnson and his defensive cohorts insist it's a lesson learned.

"No doubt about it, that's too many points that we gave up, but we have to take our hats to their offence for the execution" Johnson said. "We went back to the drawing board and saw some things we can change. We want to tackle better, play more smart and more sound. We've got a lot of work to do and little time to do it, but I think we'll be prepared come Saturday."

They'd better be.

After all, it's the biggest game of the season so far, and this time, they're playing on Saskatchewan's home turf.

"They've got a lot of weapons, and that caused some problems for us the last time we played 'em," said Stamps linebacker Shannon James. "We understand that and respect them as an opponent, but at the end of the day, we have to win this game to win the West.

"It's a playoff game. This game means a first-round bye and home field in the West Final. That's the bigger picture. Never mind shutting them down because of what they did to us last time."

WES.GILBERTSON@SUNMEDIA.CA


Photos