Roughriders one win away from the Grey Cup

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OTTAWA — The Saskatchewan Roughriders are a step closer to going where no West Division team has gone before in the CFL playoffs.

Sunday’s 31-20 win over the Ottawa Redblacks in the East Division semifinal moved the Riders within a win of the 2017 Grey Cup game.

The Riders are bidding to be the first West Division squad to reach the Grey Cup game via the crossover to the East Division. Nine teams have qualified — including the Riders in 2002 and 2005 — for the crossover and only three have reached the East Division final.

Saskatchewan advances to Sunday’s East Division final in Toronto against the Argonauts. The winner earns a berth in the Grey Cup game in Ottawa on Nov. 26.

“Just to be able to get into the East final is major,’’ said Riders defensive back Jovon Johnson. “We know that we have one game to win to get to the Grey Cup, which is the ultimate goal and has been the goal for every guy in the locker room. We’re going to be focused and determined to get that done.’’

The Riders are doing what they can to prepare for Sunday’s game, including remaining in Ontario until travelling to Toronto on Friday.

In 2016 and 2017, the Riders followed a similar path while playing consecutive games against the Redblacks and Argonauts. The travel plans paid off because the Riders were 4-0 in the two trips to Ontario

“We’ve already had a dress rehearsal so we know what to expect,’’ said middle linebacker Henoc Muamba. “We know how to handle being away because it’s the exact same thing as before. Hopefully we can come away with the win like we did last time.’’

This season, the Riders swept their two-game series with the Argonauts. Saskatchewan won 38-27 at Mosaic Stadium on July 29 and 27-24 at BMO Field on Oct. 7.

“They are a good team and if anything they are probably a different team from the last time that we played them,’’ Muamba said. “They have improved tremendously. They have a great head coach (Marc Trestman), who we all have a lot of respect for. They have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ricky Ray. They also have James Wilder ,who is pretty good back there too. Still I like our odds and our chances against any team in the CFL right now.’’

If the Riders can perform like they did against the Redblacks that statement may ring true. The Riders put together one of their best all-round performances of the season en route to the win over the Redblacks.

Marcus Thigpen led the Riders’ ground attack with 15 carries for 169 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that sealed the win over the Redblacks.

Kevin Glenn went the distance at quarterback for the Riders, completing 18 of 28 passes for 252 yards while throwing a touchdown pass and running for another. Glenn didn’t throw any interceptions.

Veteran slotback Bakari Grant had three receptions for a team-high 85 yards and a 29-yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring for the Riders on their first possession of the game.

Defensively, the Riders forced four Redblacks turnovers. Linebacker Samuel Eguavoen and defensive back Jovon Johnson each had an interception, Mike Edem recovered a fumble and the Redblacks turned the ball over on downs.

“It wasn’t an overly clean game, but we did a lot of really good things,’’ said Chris Jones, the Riders head coach and general manager. “Any time you can go on the road for a playoff game against a very solid opponent … that group over there won the Grey Cup last year. It’s a good group with a good organization and good coaches. To be able to come into their house and beat them like we did is a good solid win.’’

The Riders haven’t reached the Grey Cup game since 2013 when they beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 45-23 at Mosaic Stadium.

“What we’ve done so far is a blessing and at the same time we know that it’s only one step,’’ Glenn said. “We knew coming into this one that we were fighting for three games. We knew we had to take care of the first one and we did.’’

mmccormick@postmedia.com

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