Jason Hills, Canada West Communications
EDMONTON - The playoff picture has been set, and the two Canada West semifinals have all the makings to be classics.
The Regina Rams secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and host the defending Vanier Cup champion UBC Thunderbirds, while the Calgary Dinos host a playoff game for the ninth straight year, when they battle the Saskatchewan Huskies.
No. 9 Saskatchewan (5-3) @ No. 6 Calgary (6-2)
Saturday, November 5
12 p.m. MT
Shaw TV / Access /canadawest.tv
Can the Saskatchewan Huskies pull off the unthinkable and beat the Calgary Dinos on their home turf for a second straight time this season?
Huskies head coach Brian Towriss believes they can.
“It was certainly nice to finally come away from Calgary with a victory. We’ve played them tough the last few years, and haven’t been able to pull a victory away, but the win a couple weeks backs gives the kids confidence that they can go in there and beat them,” said Towriss.
“We’ve played pretty well the last few weeks. We had come off a rough part of our schedule and we’ve got healthy at the right time… as a result, we’ve been more consistent.”
The Huskies offence is rolling with the return of standout wide receiver Mitch Hillis. He’s quarterback Kyle Siemens' favourite target, and with the veteran receiver in the lineup, the Huskies are a perfect 5-0.
“He’s a big factor in Kyle's (Siemens) improved play,” said Towriss.
“It’s no secret, he’s a catalyst for us. He’s led the conference in receptions. He gets between six and 10 catches a game, and he does so many things when he has the ball in his hands.”
What’s the game plan in beating the Dinos stingy defence that led the Canada West conference with just 167 points against?
“We’re going to have to protect Kyle and give him tim to throw the ball. Our offensive line is really key to our production and scheme,” said Towriss.
The Dinos head into the playoffs riding high after a come-from-behind victory in the final regular season game against UBC.
The 6-2 Dinos are playing a home playoff game for a ninth straight year and certainly have experience on their side.
The Dinos will have backup Adam Sinagra as their starting pivot. The second-year QB has filled in nicely for Calgary after starter Jimmy Underdahl injured his leg on Oct. 22.
“Getting game experience is critical to development and to play in two key games for us has helped with his development. He’s making his reads better every week and we’ve been very pleased with the way he’s stepped in,” said Dinos head coach Wayne Harris.
The Dinos boast a dynamic duo in the backfield with fifh-year running back Bryce Harper and second-year running back Jeshrun Antwi. Harper has emerged as the Dinos tailback late in the season.
Last week in the victory over UBC, Harper ran for 145 yards and three TDs on 23 carries.
“We’ve known about Bryce for a long time in our program now. He gives you every ounce of energy he has. Pound for pound, he’s the toughest guy in our league,” said Harris.
Calgary will have their hands full against the Huskies who are riding momentum with three straight wins. Their offence is rolling having scored 40, 38 and 48 points respectively.
“We’re going to have to execute much better, especially in the pass game,” said Harris.
“Saskatchewan has their full complement of players back and Hillis has been one of the top receivers in Canada the past few years.
“They’re a big physical team, and we’re going to have to match their intensity.”
UBC (3-5) @ No. 4 Regina (6-2)
Saturday, November 5
3:30 p.m. MT
Shaw TV/ Access / canadawest.tv
You clinch first-place in the Canada West conference for the first time in school history — your reward? Playing the defending Vanier Cup champion UBC Thunderbirds.
But that suits the Regina Rams just fine.
“You have to set your goals this lofty, You can’t have mediocre goals,” said Rams head coach Steve Bryce.
“My very first day, I wrote down Nov.26 (Vanier Cup date) in our locker room. I believed we had what it took to go all the way, and I wanted to make sure they believed they could go all the way, and that I had the confidence in them.”
The Rams offence is explosive. Led by veteran QB Noah Picton, who will no doubt be considered for the Hec Crighton award, the Rams offence is arguably the best in the country after breaking the Canada West record for most yards in a single season with 3,186.
Regina’s group of receivers are deep, led by another Picton. Mitch Picton led the conference in receptions (58), touchdowns (11) and yards (834).
“It will be a challenge,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill.
“Regina’s offence has been consistent since my tenure in the Canada West. They have a high pass content and quick timing routes. You have to play with a good cognitive approach… try to limit their offence, by making them work for every inch down the field, and hopefully bend, but not break on defence.”
The T-Birds have endured an up and down year in defence of their Hardy Cup and national championship. One week, they look dominant and the next week, they look like a team that is still trying to find their identity, but Nill believes that his team is turning the corner at the right time of the year.
“It’s been a year of growth for us. I genuinely thought we’d have more of a carry over from our 2015 year into this current edition, but we’ve been learning from moment one,” said Nill.
“Right now, we’ve played tough football three of our last four games, and I’ve got to be optimistic this week."
Nill will no doubt be counting on the 25 players that helped the T-Birds win the national championship to help UBC go on another deep playoff run.
One thing UBC has the edge in in this game is playoff experience. Regina went from worst to first this year. After suffering an 0-8 season last year, the Rams vaulted up the standings with a 6-2 record, but don’t have as much big game playoff experience like the T-Birds.
“We talk about it. We know what has to happen. I talk to the kids almost daily about drawing something from last year’s experience,” said Nill.
“We talk about the win (last year) in Calgary, the Uteck Bowl win… the Vanier Cup win. We have experience to draw on.”
The Rams lack playoff experience, but they’re a team that doesn’t lack confidence. Other than a disappointing late season loss to Alberta, the Rams have been strong on both sides of the ball.
They aren’t afraid of UBC — a team the Rams have beaten twice this year.
“We got a good taste of what they can bring,” said Bryce.
“If you told us we had to beat the defending CIS champions to go deep into the playoffs at the beginning of the year…we know it’s a daunting task, but we know we can do it.”