REGINA — The Saskatchewan Roughriders sit in the CFL's basement, riding a five-game losing streak. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are on the upswing, overcoming a rocky start to the season to win their last four games.
Going by history, however, the Roughriders will be the team to beat on Labour Day.
Sunday's tilt will be the 53rd time the Riders have hosted the Bombers for the September long weekend. Saskatchewan has won all but three of the last 16 Labour Day classics and all three losses date back to the Roy Shivers and Danny Barrett era in Regina. The Bombers beat the Riders in 2001, 2003 and 2004 by a combined score of 73-40.
Losing records don't seem to be a factor for the Riders on Labour Day, which might bode well for the hapless 1-8 team. Saskatchewan was 0-9 at this time last season before backup quarterback Brett Smith led the Riders to a 37-19 win over the Bombers on Labour Day.
The same goes for another abysmal losing season. The Riders finished 1999 with a 3-15 record, yet they beat Winnipeg on Labour Day 42-17.
But Saskatchewan head coach and general manager Chris Jones isn't taking anything for granted against the resurgent Bombers (5-4).
"I think they're playing with that confidence that we talked about," Jones said. "Early in the season they were struggling. And all the media was talking about (head coach Mike O'Shea) was going to get fired and all this stuff. It looked very bleak and very dim."
That changed in late July with a change at quarterback. But while Matt Nichols has won all four of his starts since taking over from Drew Willy, Jones attributes the turnaround to the coaching.
"They've got 18 interceptions, they're only giving up 6.6 yards on punt return. So there's two good stats for you to know that it's not just the (quarterback change)," he said.
After last week's loss to Edmonton, Jones said the Riders need to overcome mental hurdles to get back in the win column.
Veteran Tackle Xavier Fulton echoed similar sentiments.
"The biggest thing in terms of the mental aspect of the game is just having confidence: confidence in your technique, confidence in the plays, just confidence in your teammates," he said.
Fulton has played in five games this season, and missed four due to injury. Last week's game was his first back on the field since July.
"We're still a new team. We're still getting used to one and other. And that's the part that just takes time," he said. "That mental side of it, having confidence, it comes with that brotherhood."
New defensive back Fred Bennett played his first game for the Riders last week, after being acquired from Calgary. Like Fulton, he's been starting in the CFL for nearly five years.
"Just the talent level we have on this team, I think we can get it done," he said.
Bennett cautioned that slumps like what the Riders are in can be particularly tough mentally.
"It's just so easy for this whole team to go in the tank right now - it's so easy for guys just to say 'man, you know,' just to lay theirs heads down and quit. But that's not our mentality. Our mentality is one week at a time, keep plugging and see what happens.
"We're going to go out there, keep grinding, and put our best foot forward and hopefully we can get this thing turned around, which I believe we can."
Sunday's game may be decided by the kickers.
Winnipeg's Justin Medlock is riding a streak of 20 consecutive made field goals, which is a club record.
The Riders' Tyler Crapigna returned from injury two games ago and is 3-for-3 on field goal attempts.
He has made his last nine field goals, and his field goal success rate is now at 90.5 per cent (19/21). That's the highest percentage recorded by a first-year kicker in CFL history.
Crapigna is on pace to surpass Boris Bede's record of 90.0 per cent (36/40) set last year.