Roughriders’ Jake Dolegala ready for start under centre against Lions

REGINA — Jake Dolegala is looking forward to making his first start for the Saskatchewan Roughriders under normal circumstances.

The 6-foot-7, 242-pound quarterback is set for his second career start on Sunday when the Riders host the B.C. Lions. 

His first came on July 24, 2022 against the Toronto Argonauts. The Riders were hit with a COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined several regulars, including then-starting quarterback Cody Fajardo and backup Mason Fine and lost 28-13.

Dolegala — who went 13-of-28 passing for 131 yards, one touchdown and one interception in that 2022 start — is anxious about Sunday’s start but is also trying to keep his emotions under control.

“It’s just super exciting. It means a lot. Like I said before, it’s a childhood dream just being a professional athlete, let alone starting,” said Dolegala. “I’m going to just go out there, try my best. I’m going to do what I can to help this team to win and see what happens on Sunday.”

Dolegala played in last week’s 41-12 loss to the Montreal Alouettes after Fine went down in the second quarter with a hamstring injury. Dolegala finished 11-of-20 passing for 107 yards and one interception in relief.

Riders head coach Craig Dickenson is confident that a full week of practice with the first-string offence will help Dolegala, who spent time with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins before joining the Riders last season.

“I think it’s going to make a big difference, because he’s running the plays that we’re going to call on the game, he’s getting the chance to get some chemistry with his receivers,” said Dickenson. “He’s had a good week of practice as well and I hope it pays off.”

Dolegala wasn’t the only Rider who struggled last week against the Alouettes. In addition to the offence failing to move the ball consistently, the defence had issues controlling Montreal’s offence.

Entering the game, Saskatchewan ranked second in the league in net yards allowed per game (304.8), only trailing the Lions (294.1). With backup Caleb Evans at the controls, the Alouettes committed to the run game and rolled up 186 yards rushing on the way to victory.

Dickenson felt the defence played reasonably well but is expecting a bounceback performance against the Lions.

“Yes, but a lot of that wasn’t on them. We turned the ball over, but I thought the defence actually did a decent job. We’re expecting a bounce back from all three phases,” said Dickenson. “We’ve had plenty of rest and we’ve had a good week of preparation. 

“The guys understand the importance of this game, so it should be a game where we put our best foot forward.”

The Saskatchewan offence will benefit from the return of receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker, who will be making his 2023 debut after undergoing hip surgery in the off-season.

Selected by the Riders in the fourth round of the 2020 CFL draft, Schaffer-Baker has become an integral part of the Saskatchewan offence. In 30 career games, the 25-year-old has caught 115 passes for 1,523 yards and seven touchdowns.

Schaffer-Baker admitted that it was tough watching from the sidelines while he recovered from the surgery.

“That’s been one of the hardest things to do. I’m always someone that wants to push through things and just get out there and help the team in any way,” said Schaffer-Baker. 

“You could either sit back there and just complain and talk about things or you could rise to the occasion and just keep attacking it day-by-day so you come to a point like this and now you’re back out there ready to put everything to light.”

Dickenson said he expects Schaffer-Baker to be a bit rusty and that the Riders are going to manage the number of reps he gets in the contest.

Close games at home: The last three home games for the Riders have all been close contests — a 26-24 victory over Ottawa on Aug. 6, a 33-31 loss to Calgary on July 15, and a 12-11 win over Edmonton on July 6. Six of Saskatchewan’s last seven home games have been decided by two points or less.

Roller-coaster ride: B.C.’s last three games have been a tale of extremes. The Lions beat Edmonton by 27 points on July 29, then lost by 36 points to Winnipeg on Aug. 3 before beating Calgary by 28 points on Aug. 12. Each of their last 11 games have been decided by 10 or more points.

Western Dominance: The Lions have a 6-1 record against West Division opponents this season. The .857 winning percentage is the second-high in club history and their best since 1964 when the Lions posted a 10-1-1 records (. 875 winning percentage) against Western Football Conference opponents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2023.

Jeff DeDekker, The Canadian Press

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