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Riders coach Dickenson still unsure who’ll back up Fajardo in West semifinal

Cody Fajardo will make his 14th start of the season when Saskatchewan hosts the Calgary Stampeders in the playoff opener for both teams. The Canadian Press / Kayle Neis

Craig Dickenson knows who his starter will be for the West Division semifinal Sunday, but the Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach will need a bit more time to determine who’ll back up Cody Fajardo.

Fajardo will make his 14th start of the season when Saskatchewan hosts the Calgary Stampeders in the playoff opener for both teams. However, Dickenson said expects it will be a game-time decision whether sophomore Isaac Harker or rookie Mason Fine will serve as Fajardo’s backup.

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Harker started Saskatchewan’s season-ending 24-3 road loss in Hamilton last weekend. He was replaced by Fine in the second half after suffering an apparent shoulder injury but returned to finish the contest.

“We still haven’t decided,” Dickenson said during a video conference Friday. “They both got some reps (Friday).

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“I’ll let (media) know when we set the roster but it’s going to be a game-time decision.”

Calgary comes in having won three straight and six-of-seven overall. The Stampeders’ lone loss over that stretch was a 20-17 home decision to Saskatchewan on Oct. 23.

Calgary won the season series 2-1 after sweeping a home-and-home Oct. 2-9 (23-17, then 22-19, respectively). The Stampeders are in the playoffs for a 16th straight year despite losing five of their first seven games.

Dave Dickenson, Craig’s younger brother, is completing his fifth season as Calgary’s head coach. Craig Dickenson said Sunday’s game has nothing to do about family bragging rights.

“It’s an important game,” he said. “It’s an important game for all of us here in this building and it’s an important game for the province and our guys know that.

“I do believe if we don’t play well we won’t win this game. That’s an obvious statement but you’re not going to luck into it just because you’re home or because the crowd is loud. You’ve got to play well, be sharp, execute across the board and even then you may not win. The challenge is on us to rise to the occasion, that’s for sure.”

And family bias notwithstanding, Craig Dickenson said the Riders can expect Calgary to well prepared Sunday.

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“When I say this, not because my brother is the coach, it’s just the way it’s been for 20-plus years,” Craig Dickenson said. “They’re extremely well coached, they’re an outfit that comes prepared every week.

“They do the little things right so when you play them, they’re not going to beat themselves and that’s one thing you know going in. They’re not going to make silly mistakes and they’re going to force you to make plays.”

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The ’21 campaign has been a very different one for Calgary starter Bo Levi Mitchell. The two-time winner of the CFL’s outstanding player award did win seven-of-11 starts but had more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (10).

Mitchell, 31, did miss time recovering from a broken fibula. Rookie Jake Maier went 1-2 in Levi Mitchell’s place and has completed 95-of-148 passes (64.2 per cent) for 1,211 yards with five TDs and three interceptions.

“The quarterbacks can’t do it by themselves,” Craig Dickenson said. “If you have good people around the quarterback, boy that quarterback can really make things happen.

“But when he’s forced to do it all himself, things happen and sometimes not for the best. I don’t think Bo has lost a step. He never has been a scramble quarterback anyways. He’s getting a little older, yeah, but he can still sling it and he’s as smart as ever.”

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Mitchell has a solid supporting cast.

The offensive line has allowed just 20 sacks (second-fewest in CFL) while running back Ka’Deem Carey was the CFL’s second-leading rusher this season with 869 yards (5.3-yard average, seven TDs). Earlier this month, the unit was bolstered by the return of receiver Reggie Begelton (102 catches, 1,444 yards, 10 TDs in 2019) following a stint with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

But Dickenson feels it’s Carey who makes the offence go.

“Knowing my brother the way I do, I think Dave’s going to try to use him heavily and basically have the offence go through him in this game,” Dickenson said. “We’re going to have to do a good job of making plays on first down, holding them to short-yardage runs and trying to get Calgary into a second-and-long game.

“That’s the goal every week but he’s the straw that stirs that drink over there, I believe. When they’re playing best is when they’re running the football and he’s chewing up some yards.”

Saskatchewan (9-5) finished second in the West Division to secure home field for the opening playoff game. But the Riders’ offence was seventh overall in offensive points (19.6 per game), tied for seventh in most sacks allowed (40) and eight overall, both in net offence (307.6 yards per game) and second-down conversion (40.9 per cent).

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The Riders also accumulated 1,250 penalty yards, second-most in the CFL.

“I haven’t been happy with our discipline,” he said. “I think we’ve got to score more, I’d like to see more touchdowns.

“I think defensively while we’ve played well, we’ve had a chance to put teams away and we haven’t done that. Am I happy with the team because we found a way to win? Absolutely. But we haven’t played our best game and me as a coach I always want us to just play our best win, lose or draw and I don’t think we’ve done that yet. I’m hoping we can do it this week.”

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