CALGARY — In order to beat the Montreal Alouettes in Sunday’s Grey Cup, the Saskatchewan Roughriders will have to get continued offensive production from their talented receiving corps.
Dubbed as the Canadian Air Force, receivers Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaf and Rob Bagg all hauled in touchdown catches as the Riders qualified for the CFL final by downing the Calgary Stampeders 27-17 in Regina last Sunday.
“It wasn’t a surprise to us,” Bagg said about the trio’s production in the West final. “It would have been more disappointing if we hadn’t performed.”
With the Alouettes hungry to erase last season’s Grey Cup loss to the Stamps at home in Montreal, Bagg said the Riders will have to be at their best to emerge with a victory.
“They’re obviously a veteran group that’s incredibly talented and experienced,” said the 24-year-old, who hails from Kingston, Ont. “We’re going to have to play our best game, but I think we’ll be able to do that and it’s going to be an exciting one.”
Getzlaf, who led the Riders with six receiving touchdowns in the regular season, gave a lot of credit to Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant for being able to hit open receivers with precise passes on a consistent basis.
“Darian does a great job of reading defences and finding who’s open and we’re able to create mismatches wherever need be and he’s able to pick teams apart,” said the 26-year-old Regina native.
In his fourth campaign with the Riders, Fantuz rebounded from a broken leg he suffered last season to finish second behind Weston Dressler on the squad with 882 receiving yards to go with four touchdowns.
With Dressler out of the lineup since Oct. 10 with a broken leg and fractured ankle, the likes of Fantuz, Getzlaf and Bagg were called upon to elevate their play did so to earn their Canadian Air Force nickname.
“It’s cool,” said Fantuz of the moniker, while also pointing to the contributions of veteran Canadian slotback Jason Clermont and import wide receiver Jerran Walker, who hails from Atlanta.
“You definitely can’t forget about Jerran Walker, he’s a key component. We wouldn’t be here without him, so we need to add him in that nickname somewhere.”
Signed as a free agent in December of 2008 after seven productive seasons with the B.C. Lions, Clermont had just 23 catches for 317 yards and went without a touchdown for the first time in his career.
“I haven’t had a ton of opportunities this season,” Clermont said. “I’ve just got to be ready if the opportunity presents itself.”
Despite being relegated to a back-up role, Clermont has enjoyed seeing Fantuz, Getzlaf and Bagg have breakout seasons.
“I know that those three guys will have opportunities to make plays and I’m proud of what they’ve been able to do this season,” said the 31-year-old Regina native.
Like Clermont, Getzlaf attended high school at Robert Usher Collegiate in his home town before moving on to attend the University of Regina and play for the Rams.
“Jason Clermont is obviously a guy that I looked up to for a long time,” Getzlaf said. “He gets smashed and holds onto the ball and gets up and just goes back to the huddle like it’s his job. That’s a character guy. He’s a great player and it’s great to be playing with him.
You learn so much from a guy like that since he’s come here this year. It’s just great to have him in the locker room.”
Offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice described his receivers this year as “opportunistic” and pointed to their work ethic as a main reason for their success.
“Why they’ve been successful is firstly they are good football players and secondly they work tremendously hard at getting better every day,” LaPolice said. “The thing this group does is they capitalize. They always get us in a position to score and they score touchdowns, so they’ve done a really tremendous job.”
While Fantuz, Getzlaf and Bagg all mentioned Clermont and Montreal receiver Ben Cahoon as players they looked up to during their quest to become CFLers, they all hope that their play might encourage other young Canadian football players to pursue their dreams.
“I hope it’s inspiring to young football players growing up in this country that they can work hard and they can someday play for their favourite team in the Grey Cup also,” summed up Fantuz.