REGINA -- It was the biggest game of the year before the biggest game of the year and the Saskatchewan Roughriders delivered.

The 10-4 Riders defeated 9-6 Winnipeg 21-6 Saturday night in a slugfest. With the season series win as a bonus, the fellas in green are now two games up on the Blue Bombers in the race for a home playoff game.

You don’t notice it as much on TV, but watching live you could feel the contact, you could hear it, truly a ferocious physical match. Coach Craig very wise to hold off practice until Tuesday.

Calgary sits at 9-5, so the Roughriders are currently in first place, which is amazing given Saskatchewan’s 1-3 start. Because the Stampeders defeated the jolly green giants 37-10 back on July 6th, it is highly unlikely the Riders will win the two game season series.

Saskatchewan will have to accumulate more points than Calgary in order to host the Western Final.

The Riders play in Calgary Friday night, and the team that wins that battle could very well be in the Grey Cup.

From the Rider perspective, who would have guessed the possibility of this first place battle come the 11th of October?

Both Winnipeg and Calgary were better teams than Saskatchewan to start the season (remember, 37-10 in early July). The Bombers were the best club out of the gate in the CFL.

Somehow the Riders have closed the gap.

So how have they done it?

Saskatchewan players continue to improve as the season grinds along.

At the start of the campaign, many supporters in Rider Nation lamented the loss of star defensive end Willie Jefferson. The big bucks went instead to defensive tackle Micah Johnson.

The early returns upset the Jefferson supporters even further. Micah started slow, while Willie was running roughshod.

Then Saturday night happened. Johnson was only credited with two tackles, but the stats don't tell his story. Micah enjoyed a solid outing, he was usually around the football, and helped his mates make plays.

Willie was not a factor in the game, rarely noticed, and was goose egged on the stats sheet.

Other players who have really improved over the last month or so include Dakoda Shepley, Charbel Dabire, Lavar Edwards, Makana Henry, AC Leonard, and LJ McCray. Add Cody Fajardo to that list because his zone reads and long ball have recently improved.

The Rider organization is doing something right. The players being recruited to Riderville are being developed properly, and it’s showing on the field as each game ticks by. Corner LJ McCray was a real find by Rider GM Jeremy O’Day and Assistant GM Paul Jones. He started on the practise roster and learned the system along with the CFL style of play. Once inserted, LJ was ready. But it hasn’t stopped there. He is improving in each subsequent game. On Saturday LJ received the defensive game ball.

Defensive tackle Charbel Dabire was a fifth round draft choice out of tiny Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. In the U.S. football world, Wagner College would be the equivalent to playing in Parkbeg with Gainer.

OK, maybe not that bad. Gainer has bad hands, er, paws.

Dabire came to training camp without the strength or conditioning required, so OK, get it over with, fifth round pick, Wagner College, give him his walking papers!

Strength and conditioning trainer Clinton Spencer got Charbel into the Rider gym (training facility they call it). Spencer worked wonders with the youngster! Rider defensive coordinator Jason Shivers and defensive line coach Mike Davis took Dabire into the video room and those same wonders happened all over again.

Now, in the past, players like Charbel may never have earned a pay cheque. But this edition of the Rider braintrust is more patient and believes in development. Months later, Charbel is a respectable and credible backup.

In 2019, player development has improved immeasurably.

Another factor to the Rider rise is flat out resilience. When things are not going well, Saskatchewan seems to have the ability to weather the storm, stay composed, make adjustments, regroup, and pull through successfully.

This Roughrider team has heart. They wear it on their sleeves, and occasionally around their necks.

Don Hewitt started covering the Saskatchewan Roughriders for CKCK-TV in 1979.