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Canada West Quick Six: Midway Report

Photo by Dave Mahussier, 1812 Photography

After two massive fourth quarter comebacks, the standings in the Canada West conference have once again been shaken up at the midway mark of the regular season. Alone in first and second, respectively are the No. 4 ranked Manitoba Bisons – who are 3-0 for the first time since winning the Vanier Cup in 2007 – and the No. 6 ranked Saskatchewan Huskies, who’ve started the season 2-1 for a fourth consecutive year. Calgary, Regina, Alberta and UBC are all log-jammed in third at 1-2, making for a drama-filled last three weeks of the 2021 campaign. Below is a small report on each team in the lead-up to the back half of the schedule this weekend.

Team: Manitoba Bisons

Record: 3-0

Remaining schedule:at UBC, vs Saskatchewan, at Regina

Key stats:Under long-time defensive coordinator Stan Pierre, Manitoba is allowing just 18 points per game, a full six points ahead of Regina for second in the conference and ninth overall in the nation. Every starting defensive back has at least two pass breakups, while the Bisons are tied with Regina for the most sacks in the conference, at ten.

Key players: Fourth-year linebacker Stefan Conway (15 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, one interception, three pass breakups), fifth-year defensive end Brock Gowanlock (15.5 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries)

Storyline to follow in week four: The Bisons are looking to host a home playoff game for the first time since 2013, and can do so with a victory over the T-Birds. Last week, they came back from an 18-point deficit in the second half against defending champion Calgary en route to a 28-20 win. It was their second in a row over the Dinos after losing their previous nine contests.

In order to sustain a monumental win, the Herd’s versatile defence will need to contain dynamic UBC pivot Garrett Rooker. The 6’3”, 205-pound quarterback out of Texas has a knack for extending plays with his feet and is dangerous throwing in the pocket and on the run.

Look for Manitoba’s front four to establish their presence early in this one. They’re coming off a season-high four sacks (five total), which included Gowanlock’s first two of the season. The Herd didn’t surrender a second half touchdown for the second time in three games last week, and their defensive line was a huge reason why, as they got sustained pressure on Dinos pivot Josiah Joseph while dropping eight players back in coverage. It’s a veteran group that includes two CFL Draft picks in Gowanlock and Samson Abbott (Ottawa) – who also tallied his first sack of the season last week – on the edge, as well as long-time starter Cole Adamson and fourth-year veteran Collin Kornelson in the middle, both of whom have at least half a sack. Connor Kyliuk also has 1.5 sacks on the year, while Jack Shaffer got his first start in week three.

Team: Saskatchewan Huskies

Record: 2-1

Remaining schedule:vs Regina, at Manitoba, vs Calgary

Key stats:The Huskies are second in the country with 510.3 yards per game. It’s a well-rounded attack that can break opposing defences down in a variety of different ways, including on the ground, where 2019 Canada West Player of the Year Adam Machart is averaging 8.3 yards per carry, the best in the nation.

Key players: Fourth-year running back Adam Machart (36 carries, 297 yards, two touchdowns, 491 all-purpose yards), fourth-year pivot Mason Nyhus (57-of-92 for 986 yards, nine touchdowns)

Storyline to follow in week four: Mason Nyhus is coming off of a career-high 385 passing yards in a 54-27 win over Alberta, and will look to add to those numbers against a Rams defence that had three of the conference’s six interceptions entering week three play. They lead Canada West with four overall and are a physical group that reaps the rewards of a pass rush that comes at the opposition from all angles.

Nyhus completed a pass to eight different Huskies last week and will have plenty of options to counter Regina’s secondary, including leading receiver Sam ‘the touchdown maker’ Baker, a Toronto Argonauts draft pick who has 230 yards and three scores on the year. Saskatchewan is also the conference’s most efficient team in the red zone, cashing in on ten of their 11 attempts, including six touchdowns. A number of those majors have come from two-time Canada West all-star and CFL Draft pick Colten Klassen, who leads the team with four scores through the air.

Team: Calgary Dinos

Record: 1-2

Remaining schedule:vs Alberta, vs UBC, at Saskatchewan

Key stats:The Dinos lead the nation in passing yards per game, at 356.3, but have also seen the emergence of their run game recently, which is fourth in the nation at 176.7 yards per game. They amassed a season-high 215 of those yards last week against Manitoba, where fourth-year running back Alessandro Mollnar had a career day with 131 yards. He now has 223 yards on the season, good for third in Canada West. That number is just 195 yards shy of his career totals over the last three years.

Key players: Fifth-year quarterback Josiah Joseph (60-for-94 for 975 yards, six touchdowns), fourth-year receiver Jalen Philpot (17 receptions, 390 yards, two touchdowns)

Storyline to follow in week four: Last week, fifth-year receiver Nathanel Durkan had a season-high 128 yards receiving and a touchdown on eight catches. The former SFU pass-catcher, who had 450 yards during his career playing in the NCAA, will likely be busy again against Alberta, as the opposition attempts to shut down the Philpot brothers Jalen and Tyson, who are first and second in the conference in receiving yards and are the only two players with over 300 on the year.

Team: Alberta Golden Bears

Record: 1-2

Remaining schedule:at Calgary, vs Regina, at UBC

Key stats:Alberta is just behind Regina with three interceptions on the year. Two of those have come from rangy 6’3” defensive back Tyshon Blackburn, a Team Canada alum. The second-year product of powerhouse St. Francis in Calgary played as a true freshman in 2019 and will no doubt earn a look at the pro level. East-West Bowl selection Josiah Schakel anchors an aggressive Golden Bears defence at SAM linebacker and leads the conference in total tackles, with 25.

Key players: Fourth-year linebacker Josiah Schakel (25 tackles, two sacks, one pass breakup), second-year defensive back Tyson Blackburn (14.5 tackles, two interceptions, two pass breakups)

Storyline to follow in week four: One of Alberta’s major keys to keeping pace with a high-octane Dinos offence will be consistency under centre. The team got reps from three different players at quarterback in their 54-27 loss to the Huskies last week, and will look for one of Brad Launhardt, Zac Montgomery or Luke Hornung to give the team a spark and step forward as QB1.

Launhardt, a former CJFL standout with the Edmonton Huskies, was the team’s lead man in 2019, where he threw for 2613 yards. He started the 2021 season off strong with 224 yards and three scores, but ran into a brick wall in the Bisons’ defence in week two, amassing just 85 yards. He was pulled for Montgomery, a dual-threat pivot out of Indiana, but returned to the game later on. Hornung, who’s been with the team since 2019 and didn’t leave the field as a senior for the Miller Marauders in Regina, saw the lion’s share of snaps against Saskatchewan, however it was Launhardt who had the most productive day, with 133 yards and a score while throwing just one incompletion.

Team: Regina Rams

Record: 1-2

Remaining schedule:at Saskatchewan, at Alberta, vs Manitoba

Key stats:Regina is tied for the conference lead in sacks, with ten and are just behind Laurier (14 sacks in four games) for the most sacks per contest. They’re paced by vocal leader Josh White, who’s tied for the conference lead with two. Offensively, first-year receiver D’Sean Mimbs – the son of 1990 Grey Cup champ Robert who attended Birmingham Sports Academy in 2018 – is tied for second in the conference with three touchdown receptions, and is just one off the U of R record for most touchdown grabs by a player in his first season of eligibility (Jason Clermont had four in 1999, as did Ryan Anderson in 2004).

Key players: Fourth-year linebacker Ryder Varga (24.5 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss), fourth-year running back Kyle Borsa (311 all-purpose yards, three touchdowns)

Storyline to follow in week four: Regina’s 3-4 front takes advantage of their athletic linebackers, allowing defensive coordinator Sheldon Gray to confuse the opposition with a number of different blitz packages and stunts. The handful of playmakers, which kept a potent Calgary attack at bay in week two, will need to do the same thing against a lethal Huskies offence that has been unstoppable in 2021. Ryder Varga, Cody Peters and Josh White have combined for 54.5 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup on the season, while Chopper Hippe has added 9.5 tackles and a sack.

Team: UBC Thunderbirds

Record: 1-2

Remaining schedule:vs Manitoba, at Calgary, vs Alberta

Key stats:The T-Birds are fourth in the nation with 488.3 yards per game. The catalyst has been first-year pivot Garrett Rooker, who leads the conference with 991 passing yards. First-year running back Isaiah Knight out of Ontario added a season-high 145 yards and a score last week in the team’s 23-point come-from-behind win over Regina, and is just one yard behind Saskatchewan’s Adam Machart for the CanWest lead in rushing yards.

Key players: First-year quarterback Michael Rooker (88-for-126 for 991 yards and three touchdowns, 15 carries for 76 yards, three touchdowns), first-year running back Isaiah Knight (46 carries, 296 yards, one touchdown, five receptions for 60 yards)

Storyline to follow in week four: The T-Birds have converted on just 58 percent of their opportunities from the red zone. It’s one of the reasons why they struggled to sustain consistent momentum over the first two weeks of play. The young squad was lights out in the fourth quarter and overtime in that department against the Rams, and will need to keep that momentum up against one of the nation’s most stout defensive units in Manitoba.

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