NOVEMBER 29, 2018 — The Winnipeg Rifles have dipped back into the northwest Ontario talent pool for their latest recruit.
Former Fort Frances Muskies running back Sekina Scheibler has committed to join the Canadian Junior Football League's Prairie Football Conference squad ahead of the 2019 regular season.
He was the Winnipeg High School Football League's Currie Division offensive player of the year in 2017, in which he led the division in rushing attempts (180), yards (1,787) and touchdowns (14) to go along with an average of 9.9 yards per carry.
Scheibler also set the single-game Currie Division record for rushing yards (397) in against the Tec Voc Hornets on Sept. 27, 2017, and tied the single-game touchdown record (six) versus the Maples Marauders on Sept. 8, 2017.
His eligibility expired after the 2017 campaign and he appealed but lost the appeal.
"He is a physical one-cut runner," Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson said. "Great addition to our team."
OCTOBER 21, 2018 — The Winnipeg Rifles were no match for the host Saskatoon Hilltops in Sunday’s Prairie Football Conference semifinal.
Saskatoon quarterback Jordan Walls completed 18-of-29 passes for 465 yards and four touchdowns in leading his team to a convincing 58-5 victory at SMF Field and a berth in the league final against the Edmonton Huskies.
The big-play offensive strikes started early for the Hilltops when Josh Ewanchyna scored the first of his two rushing majors with a 24-yard scamper into the end zone.
The Rifles responded with a Barrett Mueller field goal, which came off of an Ewanchyna fumble, but the Hilltops added a field goal and a punt single to make it 11-3.
Before the opening quarter ended, Walls hooked up with his favourite target Jordan Price for an 81-yard catch and run for a TD. Walls then found Tanner Rhode for a 24-yard major on the final play, which made it 25-3.
Rhode — with five catches — and Walls — with eight catches — both finished with 193 yards receiving.
Scoring in the second frame was limited to the Hilltops conceding a safety and adding a rouge off of a missed field goal, making it 26-5 at halftime.
It didn’t take the Hilltops long to add to their lead when Walls found Price for a 45-yard TD early in the third.
Ewanchyna bulldozed his way through the Rifles defence for his second TD on the opening play of the fourth quarter, from 34 yards out, to make it 40-5.
He finished with 157 yards on 18 carries as the Hilltops amassed 600-plus yards of offence.
The Saskatoon defence got into the act in the fourth as Logan Kelsey-Stern picked off Riley Naujoks and returned it 120 yards into the end zone returned an interception the length of the field for a touchdown.
Connor Delehey capped the scoring with a 41-yard scoop and score after Naujoks fumbled the ball away.
OCTOBER 19, 2018 — The Winnipeg Rifles featured five different quarterbacks during regular-season play in the Prairie Football Conference.
No other team in the PFC faced more week-to-week inconsistency at the most critical position on the field than the Rifles.
Opening-day starter Riley Naujoks suffered a deep nerve bruise in his leg during a Week 2 loss to the host Regina Thunder, which forced fifth-year backup and Canadian Junior Football League rookie Drenin Busch under centre for a Week 3 matchup against the visiting Saskatoon Hilltops.
Following a bye, Busch and Naujoks split game action the next two weeks when the Rifles split road games against the two Edmonton squads.
Naujoks had a breakout game in Week 6 versus the hapless Calgary Colts at Investors Group Field, but he was knocked out of the home finale seven days later with a high ankle sprain against Regina.
With Busch on the shelf, third-stringer Kyle Logan replaced him for the remainder of the game, which saw the Thunder score 35 unanswered points to stun the Rifles.
Logan was unable to go in practice in the days leading up to final game of the regular season against the Saskatoon Hilltops, which meant receiver Gabe Grenier served as the primary quarterback, with defensive back Troy Wilson also playing a few snaps under centre.
Despite the shuffling deck of quarterbacks, the Rifles finished with a 3-5 record and they secured the fourth and final spot in the PFC post-season.
And just in time for the playoff rematch with Saskatoon — the Hilltops ousted the Rifles 28-21 in last year’s semifinal en route to a fourth straight Canadian Bowl championship — Naujoks is back under centre.
The second-year pivot didn’t see any snaps against the Hilltops and their league-leading defence, but he did complete one of three throws in the playoffs for 14 yards. He can’t wait to get back on the gridiron knowing it’s a win-or-go-home game.
“I definitely feel like before I went down the second time that I finally got it going and finally felt like I was comfortable and I could lead the offence and the team to the best of my ability,” Naujoks said. “The Calgary game only boosted my morale a little bit. I definitely think I can enter this game strong and rolling with what I did against Calgary.
“I really think I can play to the standards that my coaches expect of me and that I expect of myself.”
In the six games he played this season, Naujoks completed 53 of 116 passes (49.2 per cent) for 666 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
Naujoks and the Rifles offence will face a Saskatoon defensive unit that surrendered just 70 total points in backstopping the Hilltops to an 8-0 regular-season mark.
Saskatoon's defence starts with its pass rush, which had a conference-high 27 sacks — 10 more than Winnipeg’s second-best total of 17 — and included a stout secondary that picked off 11 passes. Only Winnipeg had more interceptions with 18.
The Hilltops also led the PFC in recovered fumbles with nine.
“I think the biggest thing with Saskatoon is they play their scheme very, very well and they have great athletes on the defensive side of the ball,” Naujoks said. “They just execute and they don’t shoot themselves in the foot.
“You’ve got to execute and you can’t have a lot of penalties, and I think one of the biggest things is … we’ve got to take what they give us. If they give you underneath stuff you’ve got to make 12- or 15-play drives happen to score on them — maybe pop off a big play here or there — but when it comes down to it it’s got to be really sound football.”
Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson was pleased with the effort Grenier turned in last week in Saskatoon — 12-of-27 passing for 145 yards, plus eight carries for 118 yards and a TD — but he’s stoked to have Naujoks back in even if he’s not 100 per cent.
“He really understands our offence, whereas with Gabe it was kind of like, ‘Alright Gabe, we are calling this play. You throw to Johnny and if it’s not there tuck the ball and run.’
“The kid played with tremendous guts, he did a great job for us.”
“We’ve had a tough time on offence, we haven’t had any continuity at quarterback all year,” Wilson continued. “We’ve had five quarterbacks play this season, which that doesn’t happen. Now the fact that we have back our first-strong guy should put us in a good spot so that we’ll be ready to go.”
Winnipeg will need strong, turnover-free performances from its tailback tandem of Mathe Mitayango and Brandon Urciuoli if it’s able to pull the upset.
Mitayango was fifth in the PFC in rushing yards (335), while Urciuoli was seventh with 267 yards in just five games. They combined for three touchdowns.
Naujoks’ older brother Brendan was the top Rifles receiver in the regular season, and in addition to winding up third in the PFC in receptions (27) and fifth in receiving yards (359) with two TD passes, he also returned a pair of punts for scores.
The Hilltops would be wise not to leave him open on Sunday.
“Offensively we’ve got a few wrinkles that we’ve put in for this week that we are pretty confident will put us in a better position to score points,” Wilson said.
Just like the Rifles would be wise not to allow Hilltops quarterback Jordan Walls to have too much time in the pocket.
The pivot led the PFC in passing completions (122), attempts (197), yards (2,010) and touchdowns (18), and his favourite target Jason Price paced the conference in receiving yards (709) with four TD receptions — tied for first with teammate Keegan Dicks and Sam Clayton of the Edmonton Huskies.
While Saskatoon boasts a productive passing attack, Walls also has the support of a strong ground game.
Josh Ewanchyna led the PFC in rushing attempts (134), yards (1,007) and touchdowns (14), while teammate Ben Abrook finished third in all three categories: 83 carries on 503 yards and six TDs.
Wilson knows his defence, led by middle linebacker Donovan Hillary — third in the PFC with 31 defensive tackles, while adding 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and one TD, plus 11 tackles on special teams — and safety Andrew Ricard — picked off a league-high four passes and recovered a pair of fumbles, while making 23 tackles — has to play smart, disciplined football if the Rifles are going to have a chance come the fourth quarter.
“We have to have gap integrity with our D-line and our linebackers have to do a better job this week against (Ewanchyna),” Wilson said. “The problem we’ve had all year is we cannot give up coverage busts. Our safety cannot be occupied by the decoy route, so he’s got to a better job of that this week and if we dod a good job there we are going to be right there.”
The Rifles haven’t knocked off the Hilltops in more than five years and not a lot of pundits are giving Winnipeg much of a chance this time around.
Don’t tell that to Riley Naujoks and his teammates, who can’t wait to put their best effort forward in Saskatchewan.
“I go into every game thinking the same thing that we are going to win, regardless of how good the team is or what place they ended up in because now everyone is 0-0,” Naujoks said.
“I don’t think there’s anything special I have to do, I just have to do my job and hope all my teammates around me do their job too, and if we all just do out jobs things are going to end up in our favour.
“Hopefully this is the week where we pop off and shock everyone in the league.”
Sunday’s game kicks off at 2 p.m. CT, and can be watched by visiting saskatoonhilltops.com.
OCTOBER 14, 2018 — The Winnipeg Rifles will close out the Canadian Junior Football League regular season with a playoff preview in Saskatoon against the host Hilltops this afternoon at 2 o'clock CT.
The Prairie Football Conference foes are teams are locked into a semifinal matchup, which will take place back in Saskatoon on Oct. 21. It will be a rematch of last year's semifinal contest won by the Hilltops, 28-21, on their way to a fourth straight national championship.
Saskatoon also knocked off Winnipeg 38-8 on Sept. 2 at Mustangs Field.
Led by quarterback Jordan Walls and the two-headedtailback tandem of Evan Ewanchyna and Ben Abrook, Saskatoon (7-0) leads the PFC in virtually every offensive category: Passing yards (2,036), completion percentage (62.0), yards per attempt (9.9), TD passes (20), rushing yards (1,653), rush attempts (245), yards per rush (6.7) and TD runs (20).
Winnipeg's stout defence, which has allowed just 24 points per game this year, will be in tough versus the most explosive offence in the conference.
With the Rifles (3-4) down to their fifth option at quarterback in defensive back Troy Wilson — starter Riley Naujoks was knocked out of last week's home loss to the Regina Thunder, while backup Drenin Busch has remains out and third-stringer Kyle Logan also suffering an injury versus the Thunder — points will be at a premium in the Bridge City. The Rifles defence will look to carry the team to an improbable upset victory.
The game will be broadcast via saskatoonhilltops.com.
OCTOBER 10, 2018 — The Winnipeg Rifles are bound for the Prairie Football Conference playoffs, backing in after a disappointing 38-17 loss to the rival Regina Thunder on senior day.
Winnipeg, which had starting quarterback Riley Naujoks get knocked out of the game in the first 15 minutes, was up 17-3 late in the second quarter when Regina Thunder backup quarterback Blake Scherle connected with Tristan Lockman for a 23-yard touchdown strike. It was the first of Scherle's three TD passes as the Thunder scored 35 unanswered points at Investors Group Field on Oct. 7, sweeping the regular-season series and securing the post-season's third seed.
Regina (4-3) collected a 29-21 win over the Rifles (3-4) in late August.
While the Thunder were on the comeback trail at IGF, the Edmonton Wildcats were being steamrolled by the four-time defending Canadian Junior Football League champion Saskatoon Hilltops. Saskatoon (7-0) blanked Edmonton 53-0, dropping the Wildcats to 2-5.
With the Rifles having already beaten the Wildcats twice this season — 19-3 in a season-opening matchup in August and 29-10 in September in the Alberta capital — Winnipeg clinched the fourth and final PFC playoff spot.
As a result, the Rifles will travel to Saskatoon to take on the Hilltops in one of two PFC semifinals on Sunday, Oct. 21, with the Thunder battling the Edmonton Huskies (5-2) in the other. Winnipeg dropped a 28-21 decision to Saskatoon in last year's semis.
Despite clinching a berth in the PFC playoffs, Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson was left pondering what could have been for his graduating players had Naujoks not suffered a lower-leg injury.
“It’s terribly disappointing for those guys and you feel really badly for them,” Wilson said. “This should have been a day that if Riley doesn’t get knocked out of the game maybe it’s a completely different result.”
Even after Naujoks left in the first quarter with Regina up 3-0, it was the Rifles that owned all of the momentum because of their strong defensive play.
Led by defensive back Jake Richardson's two interceptions and forced fumble — Winnipeg forced five turnovers in the first half — the Rifles grinded out a 17-3 advantage.
“The whole bench gets excited when we get turnovers so it’s for sure a momentum changer and definitely something we want to have often to win games,” Richardson said.
Brandon Urciuoli found pay dirt on a lengthy TD run two plays after Naujoks exited and third-stringer Kyle Logan entered — backup Drenin Busch was inactive — late in the first.
And just 1:09 into the second quarter, defensive back Troy Wilson sacked Scherle, the ball popped loose and was recovered by linebacker Donovan Hillary for the major. Hillary finished with 10 solo tackles and a forced fumble to go with his recovery and the resulting TD.
“We watched a lot of film, prepared a lot during the week and they basically gave us exactly what we were looking for, so it wasn’t too hard of a read,” Richardson said. “The coaches really prepared us for the week to go out and make some plays.”
Barrett Mueller later booted a 29-yard field goal to extend the Rifles lead to 17-3.
Scherle's connection with Lockman late in the half made it a 17-10 game and the Thunder passing attack continued to roll in the third quarter with three scoring drives that quickly made it 31-17.
The Regina pivot found Greg Lamb and Ethan Douglas on TD passes before Dani Boudnikov plunged into the end zone from one yard out.
Winnipeg briefly snatched the momentum back when it forced its sixth turnover on the final play of the third, but tailback Mathe Mitayango coughed it up on the opening play of the fourth.
Mitayango's fumble led to another one-yard TD run by Regina, with Braxton Turnbull capping the scoring drive.
The Rifles' offence was in a rut all throughout the second half and try as they might with Logan, it struggled to muster much yardage. Winnipeg wound up punting a season-high 14 times.
The rookie pivot finished 9-of-17 passing for 82 yards, with his biggest strike a 37-yard hookup with Griffin Shillingford.
“It’s a big league, everybody is fast, everybody is big and everybody hits hard and it’s fun,” Logan said. “They’re all good football players.”
Brendan Naujoks, who, like Shillingford, played his last home game in a Rifles uniform admitted it was difficult after his little brother exited and Logan took over under centre.
“It’s tough but we’ve got to trust him and you live with the cards you’re dealt,” Naujoks said. “He played well in relief and it’s tough to come in against a good team like Regina and play well and be expected to perform well.”
Despite a tough finish to his final home game, Naujoks is proud of his tenure in Winnipeg threads and knows there’s still time to make an impression on the field.
“It hit me as I was coming out, as I talked to all my parents and my friends that came,” he said of the magnitude of senior day. “It’s bittersweet because it’s a new beginning but it just sucks because I’ll miss everybody here and I’ll miss the program. I’ve had so much fun playing for the last five years.
“It’s been unreal and I’ve met so many nice people. It’s been turbulent at times but I’ve learned to overcome it.”
The Rifles will close out their regular season with a playoff preview against the Hilltops in Saskatoon on Sunday, Oct. 14.
OCTOBER 7, 2018 — Hostilities will be renewed this afternoon when the Winnipeg Rifles host the Regina Thunder at Investors Group Field.
Both teams enter the Prairie Football Conference clash sporting 3-3 records, with the victor earning the inside track to secure the third seed in the playoffs with only one week left in the regular season.
Winnipeg, which will celebrate its 12 seniors during a pre-game ceremony, enters the Canadian Junior Football League clash fresh off of a 39-6 thrashing of the hapless Calgary Colts, while the Thunder arrive in the Manitoba capital following a hard-fought 27-26 triumph over the Edmonton Huskies.
Regina held off the Rifles for a 29-21 win in the Queen City back on Aug. 25 and it will look to garner the season sweep when the contest kicks off at 1 o'clock CT.
Tickets can be purchased at the door or by visiting Ticketmaster at https://www1.ticketmaster.ca/event/11005539AEBA5CEB …, and the game can be streamed live via the Manitoba Sports Network at https://m.youtube.com/channel/UC6nXJ-pqi_ahfdcP9z315DA ….
SEPTEMBER 30, 2018 — Riley Naujoks threw a career-high four touchdown passes and the Winnipeg Rifles defence suffocated the Calgary Colts offence with a bevy of interceptions and sacks en route to a 39-6 victory in their Canadian Junior Football League clash at Investors Group Field on Sunday afternoon.
With the win, the Rifles improved to 3-3 and remain in a tie for third in the Prairie Football Conference standings with the Regina Thunder. Regina eked out a 27-26 triumph over the Edmonton Wildcats on Sunday and visits Winnipeg on Sunday, Oct. 7.
The Colts, who broke the Rifles' shutout bid with 18 seconds to play when Dylan Pyle found Brandon MacIsaac for a 29-yard major on a trick play, dropped to 0-6 and were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
Despite Calgary's last touchdown, Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson commended another strong effort from his defensive unit.
"They had six interceptions today and I think the other thing that was good is they pressured their quarterback (Cole Belway) relentlessly," Wilson said.
Noah Wilson led the push from the defensive line with a trio of sacks, while Keenan Onyebuchi snared a couple of picks from his defensive back position.
Nonetheless, the biggest question entering Sunday was whether or not the Rifles passing game, which had only mustered 691 yards and five touchdowns through five games, could get on track.
Naujoks didn't start off torching a Calgary defence that had surrendered an average of 60 points per game entering the contest, but he did lead the offence to a couple of scoring drives early.
Barrett Mueller opened the scoring with a chip-shot field goal and Brandon Urciuoli added to Winnipeg's advantage with a short touchdown run in the final minute of the first quarter. Mueller's extra point made it 10-0.
The Colts found themselves deep in Rifles territory in the second quarter but instead of trying to kick field goals, gambled on third down twice and they were stopped both times.
Winnipeg's passing game started to show signs of life late in the half and Tyler Hodgson capped a drive with an outstanding leaping eight-yard catch over his shoulder on a pass from Naujoks to extend the lead, with Mueller's extra point making it a 17-0 cushion.
"In practice we were running 80 per cent pass offence because that's really what we needed to work on going into this game," Hodgson said. "It was definitely an area we were trying to attack through."
Despite both teams forcing turnovers, there was no scoring in the third stanza.
However, the Rifles were quick to strike in the fourth when Naujoks ran a naked bootleg and found Hodgson wide open in the corner of the end zone for his second touchdown of the afternoon to make it 24-0 after Mueller's convert sailed through the uprights.
"It was great for our offence," Hodgson said. "We needed to get some sort of mojo because we've been having trouble connecting, but this game is a big step in the right direction in order to keep getting into the end zone."
Less than two minutes later, and after the Colts surrendered a safety, Naujoks found his older brother Brendan, who outmuscled a Calgary defender for the ball, and scampered down the sideline for a 68-yard major that put the Rifles up 33-0.
"It was a little shaky in the first half," Naujoks said. "I was upset because we could do way better than what we were doing and I was just getting hit a lot, and I guess it just clicked coming out of halftime.
"Coming out for the second half I think we were relaxed and just started to play football like how we know we can."
After Onyebuchi had a punt return touchdown wiped out due to a penalty, Naujoks found Griffin Shillingford twice on the ensuing drive, both times the big-bodied receiver came away with tough catches. The second one resulted in a score that made it 39-0 and gave Naujoks a career-best four touchdown passes.
"It's really exciting to come away with four touchdown passes but I'm onto next week already," Naujoks said. "I've got to start watching film on Regina."
The Rifles were beaten 29-21 by the Thunder in late August and Wilson knows his team has to be more disciplined — Winnipeg had more than a dozen penalties against the Colts — and bring more intensity for next week's third-place showdown at IGF.
"We have to jack up our intensity," he said. "We have to be a belt to match their intensity and be ready to go."
SEPTEMBER 29, 2018 — Stephen Hart wasn't even supposed to travel with the Winnipeg Rifles for last week's Canadian Junior Football League road game against the Edmonton Huskies.
Positioned behind fifth-year starting linebacker Donovan Hillary on the depth chart, Hart drew into the lineup less than 36 hours before the Rifles flew to the Alberta capital after a doctor ruled out Hillary due to swollen lymph nodes.
"It was more of a roller coaster," Hart said at practice leading into this week's contest. "I went from being told, 'We don't have room for you,' to getting the call right before I was about to leave saying, 'Come back we need to have a talk,' to being told I'd be starting.
"I was super nervous but as soon as I got on the field it was lovely to be able to play again and make an impact."
Hillary will return to his familiar role in the middle of the Rifles defence when they entertain the Calgary Colts at Investors Group Field on Sunday at 1 p.m., but Hart is grateful for the opportunity to play in Edmonton.
Hart registered two tackles in a 44-18 loss to to the Huskies that dropped the Rifles to 2-3 and into a three-way tie for third in the Prairie Football Conference with the Edmonton Wildcats and Regina Thunder. He tried to remember what he's learned from Hillary and his older brother Mike, who is also among the Rifles' starting linebackers, during the contest.
"Dono is very smart and he does every it gets right," Hart said. "He's a guy I want to model my game after. He's always calm, he doesn't worry about anything within the game that's not football and he's always about getting control of the huddle and that's what I want to try and do during the game.
"Mikey teaches me that I have to have that energy, I have to have that passion because he's a fiery guy."
Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson was pleased with Hart's play against the Huskies.
"He acquitted himself quite well," Wilson said. "He's a good player, a good kid and a smart guy so he knows what's going on."
Hart hopes to be able to see the field again against the Colts and beyond.
"It's really exciting that I'll probably get the opportunity to play this weekend and it really motivates me for next year," he said. "It's a long ride waiting for your chance but I'm craving it and I'm going to work that much harder for it."
Calgary's offence has only mustered 17 points en route to an 0-5 record and it needs a win over Winnipeg just to stay in the PFC playoff conversation with three games left in the regular season. The top four teams in the standings qualify for the post-season.
The Colts offence isn't the only area of struggle to this point in the campaign. Their defence has surrendered an average of 60 points per game, most recently falling 50-9 to the Wildcats. As such, Wilson would like to see his offence, which has only mustered 20-plus points twice this season, find its groove, especially though the air.
Starting quarterback Riley Naujoks led the Rifles to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Huskies, and Wilson hopes that builds confidence in the former St. Paul's Crusader ahead of the matchup with Calgary.
In four games this year, Naujoks has completed 41.2% of his 80 pass attempts for 351 yards, 3 TD and 4 INT. He didn't play against the Hilltops.
"We've got to put the throttle down and start accelerating toward the playoffs," Wilson said. "This is a big week for us because we need to gain some offensive confidence — that's the biggest piece we're missing right now."
"Our receivers and Riley need to step up," Wilson added. "We're going to throw the ball a lot this week in the game. If we can get our passing game going we can make something happen."
The Rifles defence — led by Hillary, defensive back Andrew Ricard, who leads the PFC with three interceptions and defensive lineman Machuor Akau's conference-leading 4.5 sacks — has allowed 24.8 points per game, fourth-best in the PFC, is looking for a shutdown performance after giving up 44 points last weekend.
Wilson knows they have to be ready to go against the Colts despite their offensive struggles.
"Every team in this league is a decent team," said Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson. "We tell all of our guys to respect your opponent and expect to win. It's no different this week than it is any over week."
Tickets for adults ($15 each) and youth ($7.50 each) can be purchased at the IGF gate or by visiting https://www.ticketmaster.ca/Winnipeg-Rifles-tickets/artist/1037578. All kids age 12 and under, and any Manitoba Minor Football Association players wearing their jerseys will get in for free.
SEPTEMBER 24, 2018 — Second-year quarterback Riley Naujoks threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns but it was too little too late for the Winnipeg Rifles as they dropped a 44-18 decision to the host Edmonton Huskies at Clarke Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
With the loss, Winnipeg falls into a three-way tie for third in the Prairie Football Conference with a 2-3 record alongside the Edmonton Wildcats and the Regina Thunder. All three teams have three games remaining on their respective Canadian Junior Football League regular-season calendars.
The Huskies, meanwhile, improved to 4-1 on the campaign and all but assured themselves of hosting a PFC semifinal contest in late October.
Once again, Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson admitted it was a case of his team making way too many costly mistakes.
"We made so many mental errors, we blew a couple of coverages and had way too many penalties," Wilson said. "From a physical perspective our guys have to do a better job of getting prepared."
"Some of our guys have to do a better job when we travel," he continued.
Winnipeg was without stout middle linebacker Donovan Hillary, who was scratched less than 36 hours before the team jetted off to the Alberta capital with swollen lymph nods.
Fellow defensive starter Machuor Akau didn't travel with the team (coach's decision) and starting receiver Cole Chowen suffered a hamstring injury during practice leading up to the game and he was left at home to rest up.
Cole Sabourin opened the scoring by booting field goals from 32 and 42 yards — the second one following a roughing the punter penalty on the Rifles that extended the drive for the Huskies — while Drenin Busch replied with a 53-yard punt single that left the score 6-1 in favour of the home side after the opening quarter.
After recovering his own punt in the opening minute of the second stanza, Busch kicked a 26-yard field goal of his own to cut the Edmonton lead to 6-4.
Early-season addition Keenan Onyebuchi picked off Huskies rookie Brendan Guy's pass but on the very next play Justin Hodinsky returned the favour with an interception of Naujoks.
The Huskies immediately turned that into the game's first touchdown as Harrison Canel hauled in a 57-yarder, and the extra point made it 13-4.
Winnipeg responded with a clock-eating drive that approached the Huskies goal-line. Unfortunately the drive stalled and Busch returned to the field to try making it a one-possession game one more time.
Th Rifles only had 11 players on the field and Oshane Samuels came up with a huge block on Busch's 24-yard attempt.
Edmonton tacked on another touchdown nine seconds before halftime with the help of a couple of penalties Wilson thought were questionable. Tommy Yanchuk found Sam Clayton in the end zone for a five-yard major.
"We took a roughing the passer penalty from across the field ... and they punched one in before half to make it 20-4," Wilson said.
After forcing a quick two-and-out, the Huskies added to their lead on a lengthy touchdown run by Brandt Burzuk.
Another special teams catastrophe followed for the Rifles as Samuel blocked Busch again, this time on a punt, and four plays later Taylor Rempel hit pay dirt with a two-yard plunge that made it 34-4.
Sabourin tacked on his third field goal on the final play of the third quarter, stretching Edmonton's lead to 33 points.
Naujoks found running back Mathe Mitayango for a touchdown hookup on a bubble screen to cut the Rifles' deficit to 37-10 — the two-point convert attempt failed — but halfway through the fourth Guy responded for the Huskies by connecting with Adner St. Hilaire for a 13-yard scoring strike.
Naujoks delivered a one-yard TD pass to Griffin Shillingford on the final play of the game, with Tyler Hodgson securing the two-point convert to cap the scoring.
Wilson hopes the two majors his offence was able to score last against the Huskies will serve as momentum entering the Rifles' next contest against the Calgary Colts on Sept. 30, which kicks off at Investors Group Field at 1 p.m.
"Riley felt pretty good in the second half and got it going," Wilson said. "Hopefully that bodes well because at the end of the day we should be in the playoffs and we should be getting better."
SEPTEMBER 23, 2018 — The Winnipeg Rifles will look to start the second half of their Canadian Junior Football League campaign the way they ended the first half, by scoring a win in Edmonton.
The Rifles (2-2) return to the Alberta capital eight days after recording a 29-10 victory over the Wildcats. Winnipeg also bested the Wildcats 19-3 in the Prairie Football Conference opener for both squads on Aug. 18 at Mustangs Field.
However, the Huskies (3-1) pose a different challenge for Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson.
Led by quarterback Tommy Yanchuk (67-of-124 passing for 939 yards and seven touchdowns), tailback Brandt Burzuk (58 carries, league-best 426 yards rushing and four TDs), and receiver Sam Clayton (15 receptions, 242 yards and a league-high three TDs), the Huskies can beat opposing defences through the air or on the ground.
With temperatures at Clarke Stadium expected to be around the freezing mark throughout the contest, which kicks off at 2 p.m. CT, slowing down Burzuk will be a big priority for the Rifles defence.
Winnipeg's defence has shown strides of improvement this season, having allowed an average of 20 points per game, which includes losses to the Saskatoon Hilltops and Regina Thunder, and led by linebacker Donovan Hillary and his team-leading 17 tackles that unit has to make plays to support the offence.
The turnover battle will be key and the more chances the Rifles offence has to score the greater their chance of winning.
Fifth-year rookie quarterback Drenin Busch has completed only 51 per cent of his passes this season — Riley Naujoks has started Reed of the four games so far this season — for Winnipeg, but he has shown flashes of brilliance as he has accumulated 313 yards passing plus a pair of TD tosses.
Busch and the three-headed running monster of Mathe Mitayango (50 carries, 245 yards, one TD), Austin Klein (27 carries, 129 yards) and Brandon Urciuoli (13 carries for 54 yards in his season debut last week) will look to lead a breakout offensive effort against a Huskies defence that has surrendered just 14.3 points per game.
If the Rifles want any chance of hosting a playoff game next month they need to return home with a victory over the Huskies.
Due to technical difficulties, today’s game will not be broadcast on the CJFL website.
SEPTEMBER 17, 2018 — If only the Winnipeg Rifles could line up against the Edmonton Wildcats for every Prairie Football Conference game.
Fifth-year receiver Brendan Naujoks scored his second punt return touchdown of the season, rookie defensive lineman Devyn Turner recorded a pick-six and running back Mathe Mitayango plunged into the end zone for his first Canadian Junior Football League touchdown as the Rifles snapped a two-game skid with a 29-10 triumph at Edmonton's Clarke Stadium on Saturday evening.
Winnipeg (2-2), which entered the PFC clash off of a bye, opened the regular season with a 19-3 home victory over the Wildcats (1-3) on Aug. 18.
Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson was quick to credit his defence for the outstanding effort it had in less-than-ideal conditions as a mixture of rain and snow fell throughout the contest.
"The defence was spectacular, they were dominant and very forceful," Wilson said. "Our DBs had their best game of the year and didn't have any blown coverages like versus Saskatoon or Regina.
"Our guys stuffed everything out and did a fantastic job."
Drenin Busch, who turned the starting quarterback duties back over to Riley Naujoks after a one-game absence, booted a pair of field goals in the first quarter to give the Rifles a 6-0 advantage.
Jake Withrow responded with a field goal for Edmonton with 8:14 to play in the second quarter, which came after the Rifles had knocked out Wildcats starting quarterback Justin Swedish.
However, just like in the season opener when he returned a punt 76 yards for a major, Brendan Naujoks changed the tide with a 57-yard punt return touchdown before halftime. Busch's extra point made it 13-3 for the visitors.
"We had turned the ball over on offence but when Brendan Naujoks returned a punt for a touchdown that seemed to really change the momentum," Wilson said.
With Swedish having exited the game and Olson taking over under centre the Edmonton offence struggled to move the ball as the game entered the second half.
The Rifles offence wasn't much better but Mitayango found pay dirt with a touchdown run less than five minutes into the third stanza to extend the lead to 20-3.
Second-year running back Brandon Urciuoli made his season debut for Winnipeg after suffering a shoulder injury during main camp and Wilson is looking forward to deploying more two tailback sets featuring him, Mitayango and Austin Klein in the back half of the season.
"We have three running backs now that Urciuoli is back so we can use some two-back sets like we used last year," Wilson said.
Turner and fellow defensive lineman Justin Kwiatkowski, who also had a pick in the season opener, intercepted Olson, with Turner rumbling into the end zone from about 40 yards out to boost the Rifles' lead to 27-3 in the final minute of the third.
The Rifles added a pair of singles and the Wildcats tallied their first touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter to round out the scoring.
Winnipeg heads back to the Alberta capital for a meeting with the Edmonton Huskies (3-1), who are coming off their bye week, on Sept. 23. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. CT.
SEPTEMBER 14, 2018 — Winnipeg Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson has been less-than-impressed with the play of his wide receivers this season.
"Fifty-fifty balls, jump balls, we have to get them and for whatever reason right now we aren't going up to get them." Wilson said in late August. "We need more effort and productivity from our receiving core otherwise we might need to bring in others to come do the job."
His frustration isn't without warrant.
Three games into the Canadian Junior Football League season, fifth-year standout Brendan Naujoks leads the group in receptions (13) and receiving yards (138) to go with one touchdown.
Fellow Winnipegger Tyler Hodgson has six catches for 98 yards, while Cole Chowen of Melfort, Sask., has hauled in nine receptions for 70 yards and Montreal product Griffin Shillingford has added four catches for 73 yards and one major.
Luke McMillan, Sheycoy Selent and Dallas Opiola have combined for seven receptions for 94 yards and and one TD.
Shillingford, who amassed 11 catches, 152 yards and one TD reception last season with the Rifles, admitted it's been a tough to this point in the season, one which he hoped would be a breakout campaign.
"There's been a little bit of frustration not getting the ball thrown my way as much," Shillingford said. "But I was talking to coach Wilson and a couple of other coaches too and whenever the ball comes you have to take advantage of opportunities.
"I would like more balls ... but I have to do my job when I'm not catching the ball."
The six-foot-one, 180-pounder is looking to find his mojo during Saturday's road game against the Edmonton Wildcats in a battle of 1-2 teams, even if that means recording a big tackle or blocking a kick on special teams.
Shillingford is hoping for another big game versus the Wildcats — he tallied three catches for 66 yards and a major in a 19-3 season-opening Winnipeg win on Aug. 18 — snowballs into a big back half of the Prairie Football Conference regular season.
"I've found over the years I need to get myself into a groove and I need the ball thrown my way early on to get warmed up," Shillingford said. "By him (Wilson) telling us that we need to play better that resonates with me but at the same time we all need to play better all the time."
Shillingford is optimistic another matchup with the Edmonton secondary will serve him and his style of play as the Rifles try to snap a two-game slide following their bye week.
"They play a lot of man coverage and me personally I think that caters to my game a little because I'm more of a man coverage-beater," he said. "I'm a speed guy and I'm going to beat you with technique ... and if I can have another big game versus Edmonton it's going to set the ball rolling for the rest of the season."
However, the question of who will start at quarterback for the Rifles will be a game-day decision.
First-year starter Riley Naujoks, who suffered a leg injury against the Regina Thunder on Aug. 25 and missed the Rifles' last contest against the Saskatoon Hilltops, is healthy and could return under centre.
Fifth-year pivot Drenin Busch, in his first year with the PFC club, completed 16 of 27 passes for 181 yards and an interception against the Hilltops, while rushing for 40 yards on six carries, and he could make his second consecutive start.
All-star defensive back Andrew Ricard fractured his right wrist against Saskatoon will be in a cast but start in Edmonton, while defensive lineman Machuor Akau will also be good to go after leaving the last game with a knee injury.
Starting running back Brandon Urciuoli still hasn't played a game this season due to a shoulder injury, but he is travelling with the Rifles and is expected to garner a few touches on the ground in addition to Mathe Mitayango and Austin Klein.
"Everyone on our team is healthy enough to play right now, minus two early season-ending injuries," Wilson said.
The Rifles also welcomed back defensive back Jonny Bennett to practice this past week and he is travelling to the Alberta capital with the team.
"He doesn't make mental errors," Wilson said of Bennett. "The biggest thing we've had with our defensive backs is they've been selfish in the sense that they've tried to make plays versus just them playing, and letting the game come to them and doing their job.
"If everyone does their job we're going to be better and hopefully we won't have blown coverages that we've had in the past."
SEPTEMBER 2, 2018 — All week the Winnipeg Rifles coaching staff reminded their players that they would have to play a clean game if they were going to beat the top-ranked Saskatoon Hilltops.
That didn't exactly happen.
The Rifles blew several coverages in the secondary, dropped a handful of balls that would have extended drives, failed to field a pair of Saskatoon kickoffs and had a punt blocked.
Winnipeg also turned the ball twice more on offence and it all added up to a 38-8 loss to the four-time reigning Canadian Junior Football League champions from Saskatoon.
It was the second straight loss for the Rifles after they dropped a 29-21 decision to the host Regina Thunder on Sept. 25.
"We told the kids if you make mistakes they'll punish you," Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson said. "It's death by 1,000 cuts and we were cutting ourselves. Against this team you've got to play a clean game and if you don't you lose."
The Labour Day weekend showdown between the two Prairie Football Conference rivals failed to live up to the hype that was generated in last year's post-season matchup when host Saskatoon held off Winnipeg for a 28-21 victory.
The Hilltops (3-0) had no troubles on the opening drive of the game, marching the ball into the red zone. Josh Ewanchyna bulldozed his way into the end zone from one yard out and David Solie converted the extra point to make 7-0 on a drive that lasted less than five minutes.
After forcing first-time starting quarterback Drenin Busch and the Rifles (1-2) to punt on their first offensive possession, the Hilltops' passing attack — led by pivot Jordan Walls — drove deep into Winnipeg territory only to see Solie hit the crossbar on a 16-yard field goal attempt.
Outstanding Rifles defensive back Andrew Ricard halted the next Hilltops drive by intercepting Walls. Unfortunately for the home side, they couldn't mount a drive on offence and Busch's punt was blocked after he dropped the snap to set Saskatoon up with tremendous field position inside the Rifles' 35-yard line.
The Hilltops took advantage of Busch's gaffe and extended their lead in the opening minute of the second quarter, with Ben Abrook finding pay dirt on a nine-yard run.
The extra point was good and Saskatoon added a rouge on the ensuing kickoff as the ball went through the end zone with the help of a prevailing wind from the north.
Busch led a drive the ball inside the Saskatoon 40-yard line before being picked off.
The Hilltops took the ball to the cusp of the Rifles' goal-line before being stood up on a third-down gamble but Winnipeg was quick to concede a safety to make it 17-0.
Winnipeg responded by driving the ball inside Saskatoon's 30-yard line but third-year receiver Tyler Hodgson dropped a screen pass that was set up to be blocked perfectly downfield and could've resulted in a touchdown.
Instead the Rifles settled for a Busch punt single and the Hilltops took the following possession in for a major as Walls found Solie on a 13-yard pass play that made it 24-1 with 46 seconds left prior to halftime.
"They're front-runners and you can't be trailing this team," Wilson said. "If you could get up 7-0 or 10-0, put some pressure on them ... We could've done it but we didn't because we made a couple of errors."
Those errors continued even after Busch kicked a 38-yard field goal on the Rifles' opening drive of the second half that made it a 24-4 contest and the Hilltops replied with another Solie field goal of their own.
After the Hilltops conceded a safety, which made it 27-6, the following kickoff was bobbled by a Winnipeg upman and recovered by the Hilltops. Saskatoon turned it into another touchdown as Walls connected with Tanner Rhode for a 15-yard strike, making it 34-6.
The next kickoff was also recovered by the Hilltops but didn't result in any points, however it halted the flow the Rifles' offence had started to pick up, especially on the ground with fifth-year running back Austin Klein.
"I think as a group we were right there with them," Klein said. "It's just mistakes that we keep making that we've got to tighten up and I think we can compete with these guys easy enough."
"Our offence is doing good. We were moving the ball methodically and we were staying with them," he continued. "If we had those extra chances from those mistakes who would have known what would have happened."
As to why the Rifles offence couldn't string together more first downs once they neared the red zone, Klein said they need more drive.
"I think we just need to make that extra push," he said. "We get those extra first downs in the red zone and that can help us big time."
The scoring concluded in the fourth with the Hilltops conceding another safety before Solie added a 47-yard field goal and a rouge in the dying seconds.
"It was gut-wrenching and it devours you," Wilson said. "It breaks my heart that we didn't beat these guys. We had a chance and we let it slip away."
The Rifles head into their bye at an ideal time with several players banged up.
Starting running back Brandon Urciuoli still hasn't played a game this season due to a shoulder injury, while starting quarterback Riley Naujoks is hoping to return to the field when the Rifles resume play on Saturday, Sept. 15 in Edmonton against the host Wildcats. Naujoks was hurt in Regina.
Starting defensive lineman Machuor Akau hurt a knee second half against the Hilltops, while Ricard didn't finish the second half after sustaining a wrist injury. The status of those two players is up in the air entering the bye week.
"I think it's coming at a good time," Klein said. "We've got lots of guys that are banged up and lots of guys who got hurt this game, so I think it's a well-timed rest."
AUGUST 31, 2018 — Keenan Onyebuchi has rarely seen the defensive side of the field since his Grade 12 season with the Vincent Massey Trojans.
The 20-year-old is sure to see plenty of playing time on Sunday afternoon when the Winnipeg Rifles host the four-time defending Canadian Bowl champion Saskatoon Hilltops.
It will be the first meeting between the two Prairie Football Conference clubs since last October when Saskatoon (2-0), which enters the noon showdown at St. Vital Mustangs Field as the top-ranked team in the Canadian Junior Football League, held off the visiting Rifles 28-21 in the semifinals.
At that time, Onyebuchi was suiting up for the University of Manitoba Bisons, playing a prime role on special teams.
Now he's set to make an impact with the Rifles (1-1), who are coming off a 29-21 road loss to the Regina Thunder.
"I'm pretty excited," Onyebuchi said. "It's like I've been out of football for almost three years now, so getting to play ball again, especially on a team like the Rifles ... I thought why not give it a shot."
Onyebuchi, who signed with Winnipeg on Aug. 28, redshirted as a safety during his first season under Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie and last year he transitioned into a strong-side linebacker but saw limited reps on defence.
The five-foot-10, 189-pound Onyebuchi was deemed academically ineligible this season for Manitoba so Dobie reached out to Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson on Monday.
The British Columbia Football Conference's Chilliwack Huskers were also in hot pursuit of Onyebuchi but he felt it would be best for him to keep playing football in Winnipeg.
"I'm trying to go back to the Bisons next year, so I'm just trying to get my schooling done," he said. "It's the best financial decision to stay here ... and it's a better team, better football (in the PFC) I would say."
Wilson couldn't be more thrilled to add a player like Onyebuchi's calibre to the Rifles secondary, while noting the newcomer has a chance to start at strong-side halfback against Saskatoon.
"He would've started at half for the Bisons this year," Wilson said. "He's a special player and from an athletic perspective he's a big upgrade and he can also do punt returning, so it's a big get for us."
"He has some checks he's got to go through but he should be freed up," Wilson continued. "He knows what he's doing and we expect him to be a good player for us."
Onyebuchi is "super excited" about the chance to return the ball on special teams for the first time since high school but his primary focus will be on shutting down opposing offences on the strong side.
"I'm going to shut down any run game on that side and nobody is ever going to catch a ball over there," Onyebuchi said.
Meanwhile, the Rifles offence is aiming to move the ball against a Hilltops defence that has only surrendered eight total points in two games. And they'll do so with a first-time starting quarterback.
Riley Naujoks was carted off the field with a leg injury late in the fourth quarter against the Thunder and backup Drenin Busch finished the game and tossed his first two CJFL touchdown passes in the dying minutes.
The fact that Naujoks still has a chance to dress against the Hilltops is remarkable but Busch will start at quarterback, with fellow rookie Kyle Logan likely to serve as the backup.
After coming up short in his bid to make the Rifles roster last season, Busch, who joined the Bisons out of high school, then jumped to the Manitoba Major Junior Football League where he tore his right knee with the East Side Eagles and played linebacker last year with the MMJFL's Transcona Nationals, cracked the Rifles roster this year and is making the most of his opportunity.
He has been the Rifles' punter and placekicker but is looking to make a mark at the quarterback position moving forward.
Winnipeg has only mustered six touchdowns in two contests, albeit one of those was via punt return by Brendan Naujoks in the regular-season opener versus the Edmonton Wildcats, so Wilson knows how precious the reps Busch took in Regina are heading into the matchup with the Hilltops.
"He's not new to everything going on around him," Wilson said of Busch. "He understands coverages and where to go with the ball, so his ability to process what's going on in front of him is faster than Riley's is at this point. He's probably more decisive although not as big and doesn't have as big an arm as Riley.
"Still, we expect him to do well for us."
AUGUST 26, 2018 — The Winnipeg Rifles rallied with two touchdown passes from backup quarterback Drenin Busch in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter but Greg Lamb recovered an onside kick attempt with 24 seconds left to preserve a 29-21 win for the host Regina Thunder on Saturday.
The Rifles turned the ball over six times against their Prairie Football Conference rival but after the final kneel down the biggest concern was for starting pivot Riley Naujoks.
With 4:56 to play, the second-year Canadian Junior Football League player and first-year starter scrambled to his left, turned up the field and started to slide when Regina's Brandyn Martin delivered a thunderous hit to Naujoks' head and was flagged for a 25-yard unnecessary roughness targeting penalty.
Naujoks remained down on the field for several minutes and a cart was needed to take him off, his left leg in an air cast.
"They thought he had a broken leg ... but his dad took him to the hospital and he has a badly bruised leg," Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson said. "I thought he was done for the year, fortunately he's not."
It's unclear at this point how long the former St. Paul's product will be sidelined, or if he will be able to suit up for next week's game against the Saskatoon Hilltops.
The start wasn't kind to the Rifles as Brock Sich plunged into the end zone for a Thunder rushing TD and they made it 8-0 on a two-point conversion.
Following a David Put blocked punt, Regina drove the ball to the edge of Winnipeg's goal-line and defensive lineman Dani Boudnikov scored from one yard out to make it 15-0 with 5:40 left in the first quarter.
Regina moved the ball in large chunks as Sich was able to find open receivers in the flats and downfield.
"Our defence was really flat at the start of the game and the offence was moving the ball a bit but they were far from good either," Wilson said.
However, the Rifles, following a third-down conversion and a 15-yard facemasking penalty against the Thunder, were able to find the end zone early in the second quarter. Naujoks dove across the goal-line from one yard out and Busch kicked the extra point to make it a 15-7 contest.
Regina responded with an Eric Maximuik field goal from 42 yards out, and it tried some trickery on its next drive with a fake punt that failed.
The Thunder added to their lead on their next offensive series, taking advantage of a pass interference penalty against Rifles defensive back Troy Wilson and a pair of objectionable conduct infractions applied to Winnipeg, when Sich found Lee Brown for a short TD pass to make it 25-7 with just under two minutes before halftime.
A Mathe Mitayango fumble near midfield killed the Rifles' final drive of the half and it was another fumble halfway through the third quarter, this time by Cole Chowen after catching a pass from Busch and taking it to the Regina two-yard line before he was popped, that wiped out another Winnipeg drive.
"If he (Chowen) scores there then all of a sudden it's a two-score game, but it kind of unravelled from there," Wilson said.
Maximuik missed a couple of field goals 2018 — his 34-yard attempt with 10 minutes left in the fourth netted a rouge to make it 29-7 — as Winnipeg's offence struggled to hold onto the football and changed quarterbacks again as Naujoks returned to the field.
Winnipeg receivers were pointed to after the game by Wilson for their struggles.
"What's frustrating for our receivers collectively as a group is they have to go attack the ball in the air," Wilson said. "Fifty-fifty balls, jump balls, we have to get them and for whatever reason right now we aren't going up to get them. We need more effort and productivity from our receiving core otherwise we might need to bring in others to come do the job."
The Rifles wound up committing six turnovers, three of which were scooped up by Regina defensive back Finn Marcotte-Cribb (two interceptions and one fumble recovery).
The hit Naujoks received brought Busch back into the game and even though he only completed half of his 18 passes for 114 yards and tossed a couple of interceptions, he gave the Rifles life with 1:46 to play when fourth-year American receiver Dallas Opiola hauled in a 31-yard major to make it 29-13.
After Busch's ensuing inside kick was recovered by Brendan Naujoks, Busch found Naujoks for a 10-yard score. The two also hooked up on the two-point try, with Naujoks, who finished with a team-best 49 yards receiving on five catches, corralling the ball after it bounced off of his helmet.
"Drenin played well," Wilson said. "He gave us a spark and was decisive with his decisions."
Unfortunately for the Rifles, Busch's second onside kick attempt was recovered by Lamb to end the late-game push.
The defensive tandem of linebacker Donovan Hillary and safety Andrew Ricard led the Rifles in solo tackles, finish with five and six, respectively. Defensive lineman Machuor Akau tallied 1.5 sacks, while defensive Jake Richardson came down with an interception.
The Rifles return to action Sunday, Sept. 2 when the reigning Canadian Bowl champion Hilltops pay a visit to St. Vital Mustangs Field for a noon kickoff.
AUGUST 25, 2018 — Expect things to get physical today in the Queen City.
Fresh off a season-opening 19-3 victory over the visiting Edmonton Wildcats, the Winnipeg Rifles look to start a winning streak as they head east to take on the rival Regina Thunder.
Regina gave up 34 unanswered points in its first game of the Canadian Junior Football League campaign in dropping a 41-7 decision at home to the four-time defending national champion Saskatoon Hilltops.
During practice this week Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson told his players to bring their big-boy pads to Regina for what he expects will be a nasty and smash mouth-like Prairie Football Conference showdown.
"This will be the most physical game we play all year," Wilson said. "This will be a very intense, hard-fought game and there's no love lost between the two teams."
Winnipeg and Regina split their two regular-season contests last year.
The Thunder earned a 29-24 victory in September behind 382 passing yards from Sawyer Buettner and Victor St. Pierre Laviolette's 214 yards on the ground, but the Rifles returned the favour in October at Investors Group Field with a 35-22 win on the strength of 169 yards rushing from Michael Ritchott and an Andrew Ricard pick-six.
The Rifles will host the Thunder at IFG on Oct. 7, but the focus is on today's contest.
Last week, Winnipeg's defensive line limited the Wildcats to 37 rushing yards while recording 2.5 sacks and an interception.
Second-year Rifles offensive lineman Jaden Lakie expects that group to ball out again, especially with the Thunder having added a pair of new starting guards.
"As far as our D-line, I have no doubt that they are going to light them up and expose their weaknesses," said the six-foot-two, 275-pound former Westwood Warrior.
Might that mean calls for more inside pressure from defensive co-ordinator Justin Kasak?
"Justin is pretty aggressive, he picks his poison when he's going to go but we think even if we play them straight up I think we will be fine," Wilson said.
"I would've said last year their offensive line was one of the best in the country ... and their two tackles are back and they're very good players," he continued.
Meanwhile, Wilson's own offensive line continues to mesh together.
Winnipeg returned four starters from last season's squad — Lakie, guards Spencer Filmon and Kenneth Whittaker, and centre Brody Jones — and second-year tackle Cole Dimitroff started a pair of games late in 2017.
"I always think that the O-line is one of the tightest groups," Lakie said. "We have a lot of the same personnel as we did last year ... so we're as tight as we were last year and we added a few new guys and they're great."
The Rifles O-line held their own against the Wildcats, paving the way for running back Mathe Mitayango to carry the rock 24 times for 122 yards and giving new starting quarterback Riley Naujoks plenty of time to find his receivers on passing plays. Then again there are always things for them to clean up.
"I think we've just got to do our thing," Lakie said. "We didn't have a bad game last week, just a few little things here and there and we'll be at the same level as the D-line. Having a great D-line like that pushes us to be better."
Wilson, who spends lots of time with the offensive line and its coach Dennis Radlinsky, agreed.
"They're a pretty good unit and they were meshing well together," Wilson said. "They have a pretty good understanding of what we're doing that they correct themselves pretty good if they do make mistakes."
It also helps that they go up against a stout defensive line and linebacking core in practice.
"I think our front seven has the potential to be one of the best in the country," Wilson added. "So when our guys (offensive line) have to go against them it's a bit of a nightmare every night hammering away, so it does make them better."
AUGUST 19, 2018 — Defence and special teams carried the Winnipeg Rifles to victory in their season-opening Canadian Junior Football League matchup with the visiting Edmonton Wildcats on Saturday evening.
Fifth-year receiver Brendan Naujoks returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter to ignite the swarm of hometown fans at St. Vital Mustangs Field, while third-year defensive tackle Justin Kwiatkowski was a menace in the Edmonton backfield all night. His interception of Justin Swedish in the first minute of the fourth quarter all but sealed what turned out to be a 19-3 win for the Rifles.
"We battled hard. It was a good, hard-fought win," Naujoks said. "It was a team game — special teams for me, I guess."
After the game, Kwiatkowski was recognized by Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson as the team's player of the game.
"Hayden Nellis actually had a great pass rush and the quarterback just threw it right at me and I just got the ball" Kwiatkowski said.
Both teams were on the safe side when it came to offensive play calling early, electing to focus on establishing the ground game.
Winnipeg got a mini spark with four-plus minutes left in the first quarter when fifth-year defensive back Andrew Ricard raced around the outside of a Wildcats punt formation and got a partial block on Rosario Cammarata's boot. Domenic Horvath caught the short punt and returned it more than 40 yards to the Edmonton 17-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Rifles, fifth-year rookie Drenin Busch's 28-yard field goal attempt was blocked and the end result was a scoreless opening 15 minutes.
The Rifles special teams unit put the offence in another position to put points on the scoreboard near the midway mark of the second stanza.
Cammarata couldn't squeeze the ball from a snap on a punt attempt, fumbled it and it was a turnover on downs by the Wildcats, with the Rifles taking control of the ball at Edmonton's 41-yard line.
Second-year quarterback Riley Naujoks drove the Rifles down to Edmonton's 15-yard line but Ty Smith picked him off just outside of the end zone to thwart the drive.
However, the Winnipeg defence forced a quick two-and-out and the Wildcats elected to concede a safety to make it 2-0 for the home side with 3:21 remaining in the first half.
The Wildcats got the ball back to their offence and Swedish, with the help of strong running by Carlos Phelan and a handful of Winnipeg penalties, and pushed it to the edge of the Rifles' goal-line.
That's when fifth-year linebacker and captain Donovan Hillary made two outstanding run stuffs to force Edmonton to attempt a field goal.
Cammarata's 12-yard field goal gave the Wildcats a 3-2 lead with 90 seconds left in the half.
They wouldn't reach the locker room still owning the lead.
On the ensuing Rifles drive, Riley Naujoks threw the ball to the outside where fifth-year receiver Griffin Shillingford caught it, made a couple of would-be tacklers miss and scampered into the end zone for a 50-yard major.
Busch tacked on the extra point to give the Rifles a 9-3 advantage.
Wilson said Shillingford's touchdown was a key turning point for the Rifles.
"It was massive because we hadn't done anything and they were up 3-2," Wilson said. "It was a huge momentum swing ... Unless 33 (Phelan) broke loose they didn't have a lot of real scary guys so I thought they'd be very hard pressed to score on us."
Winnipeg's defence continued to smother the Wildcats offence early in the second half but it was an unexpected special teams score that left the visitors in shock.
And it almost didn't happen.
"I actually double clutched the ball," Brendan Naujoks admitted. "I almost dropped it but I saw a seam to the left and the guys were flowing so I cut back, cut left and there was nobody there."
His touchdown made it 15-3, with Busch adding another extra point to push the lead to 13. Busch also kicked a field goal in the fourth quarter to round out the scoring.
Feeding off of the momentum from the punt return TD, the Rifles' defence kept pressuring Swedish and causing havoc.
Nellis picked up a sack and Kwiatkowski was the beneficiary of a very poor throw by the Edmonton quarterback.
"I think we started off a little slow but we just kept working and we wore them down, I think," Kwiatkowski said. "We knew their motions, what we could key on and we had a good idea of what play was going to happen."
Without the strong play of the Rifles' defence, and in particular their front seven, a win might not have been the end result.
"We don't win the game without them," Wilson said. "I don't know how many sacks, tackles for losses and pressures they had but it was through the roof.
"I haven't seen all of the teams but I think we have the capacity to be one of the best front sevens in the country."
Riley Naujoks, who was intercepted late in the fourth quarter by Tony Savchuk, and the offence will have to be better in Winnipeg's Week 2 showdown with the host Regina Thunder on Saturday, Aug. 25.
"Riley is a 19-year-old quart back and he played like a 19-year-old at times, but he was hanging in there and made some good throws," Wilson added. "I think he was a little jumpy today."
"We've got a lot of work to do and if we play like this next week versus Regina we're going to get our butts kicked," he continued. "And we'll get better."
AUGUST 18, 2018 — If you look closely at the helmets Winnipeg Rifles players are donning this season you will see a new sticker.
Last year, assistant coach Neville Scarlett received a new heart transplant. Unfortunately a new kidney was not available for board member Darren Turner and he passed away.
Organ and tissue donation is close to the Rifles organization and we recognize its importance, which is why we are partnering with Transplant Manitoba. The back of every Rifles player's helmet will include a Sign Up for Life sticker to show our support for organ donation.
"It's really an exciting opportunity for us for sure," said Transplant Manitoba communications specialist Roberta Koscielny. "It's about starting that awareness and starting those really important conversations. That's something that we really value."
Transplant Manitoba will be at Winnipeg's Canadian Junior Football League regular-season opener against the Edmonton Wildcats today at St. Vital Mustangs Field as a game day sponsor. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
The process to sign up for organ and tissue donation is a simple one and requires only a couple of minutes of your time, three pieces of information — your name, birthdate and nine-digit Manitoba medical number — and answering a handful of questions.
"Talking to your family about your wishes is the most important thing," Koscielny said. "We really encourage all Manitobans to have that conversation and have it in a calm setting ... because when you're in a crisis situation and decisions need to be made it's very stressful.
"Organ donation is a gift for your family ... and a gift for someone you're never going to meet."
AUGUST 17, 2018 — Riley Naujoks made just one start under centre during his rookie season in the Canadian Junior Football League.
His efforts — he completed one of six passes, a 53-yard hookup with Xander Tachinski — led the Winnipeg Rifles to a 25-17 road win over the Edmonton Wildcats last August. However, Naujoks didn't earn another start as Jonathan Remple served as the starting quarterback for the remaining regular- and post-season contests.
Naujoks will once again get the start against the Wildcats on Saturday evening when the Rifles open their 2018 campaign at St. Vital Mustangs Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 o'clock.
The sophomore pivot is expecting big things of himself and is looking to improve on the numbers he put up in seven games last year. He connected on 21 of his 54 pass attempts for 324 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
"A lot of it is just getting out there and seeing what's going on. Oftentimes I felt I was thrust into a position I didn't want to be in and it was an awkward situation with a fifth-year guy," Naujoks said. "Now I definitely feel like I've got a bit more command of this team and that experience from last year is important.
"You can't just step into the fire as a 19-year-old without any experience and expect to do great. I think I can do something special this year because of what I did last year."
Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson, who guided the club to a 4-4 record last season (3-4 in Prairie Football Conference action) and a playoff berth, only to be eliminated in the semifinals with a 28-21 loss to the host Saskatoon Hilltops, is looking forward to seeing what Naujoks can do as the starting quarterback from the get go.
"When he played last year he would have good spurts and then he would tail off," Wilson said.
Churning out yardage on the ground will only help to build up Naujoks' confidence and open up whole the playbook to him.
Brandon Urciuoli and Mathe Mitayango are expected to carry the load running the ball but Urciuoli will be out against the Wildcats due to a fractured shoulder. Wilson hopes the injury only sidelines Urciuoli for one or two weeks but until he's healthy fifth-year tailback Austin Klein will see action in the backfield along with Mitayango.
"If we run the ball the way we think we can it sets up all of our RPO (run-pass-option) plays and also play action," Wilson said. "Edmonton is a team that likes to play a lot of man defence and I think their safety is one of their best players."
Defensive back Jayden Dalke, who led the Wildcats with 64 tackles last season, was named the CJFL's pre-season fourth-best player but Naujoks isn't going to shy away from him or other members of Edmonton's secondary.
"They've got a couple of pretty upper-echelon DBS and their safety is pretty talented," Naujoks said. "By no means am I scared of them but you've got to take care of the ball. You've got to make sure you're aware of those guys."
In the off-season he worked on his footwork, increasing his arm strength and improving his mindset and the way he reads defences.
Naujoks also believes he has more leadership qualities entering his second season with the Rifles.
"Since it's the quarterback position you go into the huddle and everyone is listening to you and looking at you to make the play and calm them down," he said. "I definitely feel like I have to be a leader, step in and do the job."
Donovan Hillary is the leader of Winnipeg's defence and the fifth-year linebacker, who was ranked sixth in the league's list of top-50 players, knows what is expected of him.
The third-year Rifle from Collingwood, Ont., registered a PFC-best 74 tackles last season to go along with three sacks and one forced fumble.
"When it comes to being a fifth-year player you're expected to be a leader, you're expected to know what it's all about," Hillary said. "Personally it's about self-improvement, making sure the other guys are up to the same level and just really co-ordinating that with the defence.
"I think team-wise we're really tuned in and we have a lot of people that are here to win a national championship."
An appearance and victory in November's Canadian Bowl is the goal and it's the defence that will carry the Rifles in that direction, especially early in the season.
With Hillary and 14th-ranked defensive back Andrew Ricard, who led the PFC with five interceptions last year, including two of which that were returned for touchdowns, the Rifles' defence expects to be a menace for opposing offences all year and cut down on the 28.8 points per game it surrendered last season.
"The best part of our team is our front seven so I think if they're as dominant as we think they'll be we should be really good," Wilson said. "I expect our defence will be dominant and I think they are capable of winning games but I think our offence can be very productive too."
In addition to generating quarterback pressure with the front seven, Wilson stressed a few other other factors that will be critical against the Wildcats: Running the ball effectively on offence and coming out on top in the turnover department.
Hillary wants to see the Rifles defence force their fair share of turnovers in the season opener against an Edmonton team that struggled moving the ball last season.
The Wildcats mustered offensive league-lows of 1,686 yards, two TD passes and 57 points scored on their way to a 1-7 record in 2017.
"We've been trying to focus on creating as many turnovers as possible and really getting that ball into our offence's hands as frequently as possible," he said.
"Against the Wildcats it's probably going to be a defensive game overall," Hillary continued. "I feel pretty confident in us being able to lock up their offence."
The Rifles will also play three Sunday home games against the Hilltops on Sept. 2, the Calgary Colts on Sept. 30 and the Regina Thunder on Oct. 7.
Winnipeg will head onto the road for a quartet of contests, playing the Regina Thunder on Aug. 25, the Wildcats on Sept. 15, the Edmonton Huskies on Sept. 23 and be in Saskatoon on Oct. 14.
AUGUST 16, 2018 — Jeff Fisher has trained the likes of past and present Canadian Football League stars and Doug Brown, Milt Stegall, Obby Khan and Andrew Harris.
Now Fisher, who co-founded Elite Performance with current Winnipeg Blue Bombers CEO Wade Miller, enjoys watching young athletes push themselves to be the best they can be.
"I used to be part of the team on the floor and I did that for many, many years," Fisher said. "What I like now is being able to sit back at 20,000 feet and look down and see all these youngsters push hard as our team creates that need for success.
"This isn't a regular gym, or a regular place you sit around and talk and share stories at. You come in here to do work ... and to be able to see that type of fire be carried through those long off-seasons is something that I'm proud of."
Elite has backed the Rifles for the better part of 17 years since the organization re-established Canadian Junior Football League Club in Winnipeg.
In recent years, however, the ties between Elite and Rifles players has strengthened.
"We've always trained a number of the Rifles and we've always been close to the organization," Fisher said. "We've always supported them and with any coaching ideology there's ebbs and flow with different staff members, so we like to think that we've been a solid piece of their foundation for many years."
"This year, with it being the second full year under (head coach) Geordie Wilson's belt, there's been a palpable change with regard to the direction that it's gone," Fisher continued. "Up until the last couple of years it seemed like people were hanging around jut to play football. Now there's something bigger than football and it's very interesting to be a part of because it hasn't happened that often."
Fisher noted that during this past off-season, up to as many as 50 members of the Rifles came by Elite to work out, whether it be to engage in a speed session, joga, yoga, mind classes, stretch classes or core classes.
"We got people during the middle of winter at 8 o'clock at night when it's minus-30 outside just thinking about football," he said. "That doesn't happen that regularly. That's special with how that's been woven into the team culture and it's been a great job on behalf of Geordie and how he's paved that road."
Even during the season when players are practising multiple times a week in preparation for a game on the weekend, there are still Rifles that trickle into Elite.
"We work with each individual athlete on an individual basis during the season so when they come here they get their own program, their own physiotherapy and it's kind of an a la carte service," Fisher said. "During the off-season it's more group training as per position."
The Rifles are grateful to Fisher and all of the staff and trainers at Elite who are helping us strive towards our goal of winning a national championship, and we look forward to continue to strive for more just in time for our 2018 campaign to begin on Saturday, Aug. 18 against the Edmonton Wildcats.
AUGUST 12, 2018 — Noah Wilson last suited up for the Winnipeg Rifles at the end of the 2015 season.
The 22-year-old didn't waste any time getting after the quarterback in his return to the lineup.
Wilson, a six-foot-two, 230-pound defensive lineman, sacked Team Black quarterback Riley Naujoks three times and led a stout defensive effort for Team White as it claimed a 19-4 victory in the annual intersquad game on a sweltering Sunday afternoon St. Vital Mustangs Field.
The quarters were capped at eight minutes as a result of temperatures that soared in excess of 35 degrees.
"I was ready to comeback and I've been waiting for this for a long time," Wilson said. "I'm happy with the outcome and I could've had some more."
"I decided to come back because football is where my heart is and I'm a competitor," he continued. "I thought it was a good year to come back and I like what's going on with the Rifles now."
Drenin Busch, who, like Wilson, is also entering his final year of Canadian Junior Football League eligibility, tossed a pair of second-half touchdowns for Team White as it scored 19 unanswered points.
He also threw two touchdowns in the Rifles' spring scrimmage on June 3.
The rookie quarterback, who spent last season playing linebacker with the Manitoba Major Junior Football League's Transcona Nationals, said he found his rhythm after an opening half which saw him only able to lead Team White to two field goals.
"I think at halftime when (head) coach (Geordie Wilson) talked to us ... he told us to get our heads together," Busch said. "I think everyone was scrambling around at the start and not sure what they were doing, second guessing themselves. However, in the second half I think we were more just playing football and not worrying if we were going to screw up or do the wrong thing."
Adam Gottfried opened the scoring for Team Black courtesy a single point that bounced through the end zone on the opening kickoff. He added a lengthy field goal on the last play of the first quarter, which was full of penalties and several miscues — procedure, offside and too many men chief among them — on both sides of the ball by both squads.
The choppy play continued into the second quarter, but that's when running back Mathe Mitayango started to grind out yards on the ground.
He rallied off a couple of punishing runs that led to a pair of Busch field goals, the first from 39 yards out and the second from 31 in the final minute of the first half to give Team White a 6-4 advantage.
Mitayango keep his legs churning early in the third quarter, grabbing the ball after Busch juggled the snap, found a crease, bounced to the right side and galloped over 60 yards before being tackled inside Team Black's 10-yard line.
"The heat was getting to me and I don't know what happened but I had a clear lane to run," Mitayango said.
Two plays later Busch tossed a short pass to his left to Cole Chowen, who scampered into the end zone for a nine-yard major. Busch added the extra point to make it 13-4 and the score remained that way entering the final quarter.
Mitayango strung together a couple of more strong runs to eclipse the 100-yard mark as Team White kept the ball away from Naujoks and the Team Black offence.
With Brandon Urciuoli absent, Mitayango made his mark rushing the football.
"Last year I didn't really play as much as a tailback but coming into the season I was like, 'I want to be that guy, the next guy,'" Mitayango said. "I've trained my ass off and just try to do my best."
After Team Black was unable to convert two third-down conversions, Busch salted the game away with a 65-yard scramble that set up a five-yard touchdown pass to Eric Klein in the final minute to make it 19-4.
"It's good to get these games in. The last time I would've played quarterback was October 2015 ... so it's been a while since I had in-game action," Busch said. "It's definitely very valuable experience getting ready for the upcoming season in case Riley can't go for whatever reason."
His head coach liked what Busch has done in the two games he's suited up for since spring camp in May.
"He outplayed Riley both times so going into this week Riley is still our starting quarterback," Wilson said. "But in saying that it's not like Drenin is way behind him."
The Rifles open the 2018 campaign on Saturday, Aug. 18 against the visiting Edmonton Wildcats, with the game taking place at Mustangs Field at 7 p.m.
BY NATHAN LIEWICKI/FOR THE BRANDON SUN
AUGUST 4, 2018 — There was never any doubt Mason Rody wanted to continue his athletic career in the Canadian Junior Football League after graduating from high school.
The only question that remained was which organization would he wind up with.
Rody, a six-foot-two, 170-pound receiver from Dauphin who started playing the sport in Grade 5, went to Vancouver Island in May where he tried out for the Westshore Rebels of the British Columbia Football Conference.
The Rebels wanted the 18-year-old to sign a CJFL contract with them but Rody opted to stay closer to home and inked a deal with the Winnipeg Rifles.
"I like how the coaches are with us and it seems like we have a good chance to win the championship," Rody said after practice during the opening week of main camp in St. Vital.
The Rifles posted a 4-4 record last year and earned the Prairie Football Conference’s fourth and final post-season. They nearly scored a major upset in the semifinals only to fall 28-21 to the eventual PFC and Canadian Bowl champion Saskatoon Hilltops in Saskatchewan.
Winnipeg added a handful of new receivers as part of its 2018 signing class in an effort to provide more downfield weapons to its pivots and bolster the team’s long-term depth on the outside.
Unlike the vast majority of his teammates and fellow rookie receivers, Rody enters his first CJFL campaign with an added learning curve.
He was part of three consecutive Rural Manitoba Football League championships with his hometown Clippers — Dauphin downed the Moosomin Generals 48-40 last fall, blew out the Generals 34-8 in 2016 and needed overtime to upend the Neepawa Tigers 17-16 in 2015 — but that was in a nine-man circuit.
With the Rifles, Rody is learning to tackle the challenges of an expanded playbook and playing in the traditional Canadian 12-on-12 game.
"It’s quite a transition," he said. "The plays are totally different and there’s new positions I have to learn. I have to learn the routes for every position on the field just in case I have to go in.
"I’m used to knowing my one, two, or three routes but it’s definitely a big change."
In addition to perfecting the slant, corner, go, in and out routes he’s used to, Rody will have to work on crisp button hooks, out and ups and myriad other routes, as well as learning to block effectively if he’s going to make his mark on the offensive coaches.
Rifles receivers coach Jeff Anderson sees potential in Rody.
"He’s tall, he’s athletic and he’s got some good hands," Anderson said. "I think he’s showing potential and that why we kept him. The thing is you can’t teach size and I think his speed can be improved on and that’s something he can work on over the next couple of years."
The challenge for Anderson is to make sure Rody remains focused and disciplined if he is going to achieve his short- and long-term goals.
"I don’t know if I teach them, they have to be motivated," Anderson said. "I think the motivation comes from the fact that we are an elite team and he’s got a chance to continue playing football. If he realizes that he has to show it and want to study the playbook so he knows what’s going on."
"Football is a mental game so if he shows up — and knows what he’s running — he can focus on how to beat the guy that’s over him, how to read the zone, find the hole and communicate with the quarterback. These things come with repetition and he’s a good athlete who will learn this stuff over time."
There aren’t many first-year players that see a ton of game action but Rody is thinking big and hoping to learn from fellow receivers Brendan Naujoks and Griffin Shillingford in a quest to earn a prominent role on the Rifles by the end of the season.
"My goal is to be a starter always but I understand in my first year it may take a bit longer to get there," Rody said. "Eventually I want to transition into one and there’s injuries all the time and I want to make sure I get my reps in and everything is up to date."
JULY 26, 2018 — With the dawn of a new Canadian Junior Football League campaign on the horizon, the Winnipeg Rifles are eager to launch training camp.
The two-week camp and battle for positions on the depth chart begins on Monday, July 30, with practices held at Mustangs Field on weekdays from 7 to 9 p.m., which will be preceded by meetings from 6:15 to 6:45.
This will all lead up to the annual Black and White game on Sunday, Aug. 12, which is scheduled to kick off at noon.
Winnipeg opens the Canadian Junior Football League season on Saturday, Aug. 18 when the Edmonton Wildcats pay a visit to Mustangs Field. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
JUNE 3, 2018 — Drenin Busch threw a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes and Team Black's defence held Team White out of the end zone to secure a 14-6 victory in Sunday's spring scrimmage at St. Vital Mustangs Field.
Spring camp began Friday evening with current and prospective Winnipeg Rifles players battling it. The action continued in the rain on Saturday and culminated with the annual spring scrimmage.
Head coach Geordie Wilson said after the game that he hoped the offensive production would have been better but wasn't surprised the defences, with their myriad of stunts and blitzes, had strong showings.
Returning running back Mathe Mitayango started strong for Team White with a handful of piercing runs through the middle of the Team Black defence.
Mitayango's powerful running set up the opening score of the game in the first quarter as Stewart Campbell booted a 35-yard field goal through the uprights.
Mitayango and Brandon Urculoi will likely form the one-two punch at the tailback position when the Rifles open the Canadian Junior Football League campaign in mid-August, but Wilson liked the way Austin Klein performed over the weekend, including in the scrimmage for Team Black.
"Austin Klein is kind of like our Swiss Army knife," Wilson said. "If we go to five (receivers) he can go right into it and we don't have to sub him out.
"He did a great job on blitz pickup today and saved the quarterback's rear end a few times and he's a good runner too."
Overall, Wilson is quite pleased the running back depth the Rifles have, with the play of rookie Jarett Hicks also catching his eye.
The tailbacks were collectively running behind an offensive line that Wilson had questions about entering spring camp.
He leaves the weekend feeling much better about the group of big boys he has up front.
"They're getting better and actually I'm feeling very confident in them," Wilson said. "I'm confident in about eight deep ... comfortable putting them on the field."
Team Black's offensive line provided tremendous pass blocking as Riley Naujoks marched it down the field early in the second quarter, but Dominic Horvath got a hand on Naujoks' third-down pass from the five-yard line to force a turnover on downs.
However, the next offensive series for Team Black finally resulted in points.
Busch found a wide open Eric Klein in the seam for a 21-yard TD strike to put Team Black up 6-3, with Busch tacking on the extra point.
With the first half winding down and Busch driving Team Black down the field, Busch threw a perfect ball to Griffin Schillingford, who beat former Dakota Lancer and rookie Everett Lenz on an out and up, for a 30-yard major.
Busch kicked the extra point to give his squad a 14-3 advantage at halftime.
Lenz might have been beat for a long touchdown but fellow Team White defensive back Riley Tougas, a former Elmwood Giant, looked strong in the secondary during the scrimmage. So too did young Team Black defensive back Bryce Marino.
"Neither one of them were at our mini camp but they played well and had good games both of them," Wilson said.
The second half only featured one scoring play, with rookie Eric Adams of Steinbach connecting on a short field goal for Team White midway through the third quarter to trim its deficit to 14-6.
As players on both teams rotated in and out, the defences shined in the second half. Running lanes were few and far between, while neither offence was able to move the ball too much, with the slight advantage going to Team Black.
Team Black had a chance to seal the game in the final minute of the game but Lenz picked off Naujoks near the goal-line with 30.6 seconds left to keep Team White's thin hopes alive.
Rookie linebacker Thomas Moline sacked Kyle Logan on the last play to preserve the win for Team Black.
NEW RECRUITS: Stay tuned for our 2018 signing class, which will be unveiled Thursday evening.
MAY 30, 2018 — As the Winnipeg Blue Bombers continue to prepare for their pre-season opener against the Edmonton Eskimos at Investors Group Field on Friday, a trio of 22-year-old Winnipeg Rifles veterans could very well find themselves dressing for the Bombers.
Andrew Ricard, Brendan Naujoks and Hayden Nellis were invited by the Canadian Football League club to participate in rookie camp and they have continued to train with them during main camp.
Nellis, a six-foot-five, 275-pound defensive lineman, is the only one of the three who is in his first camp with the Bombers.
After the second day of rookie camp, he was pumped about the opportunity to learn from guys trying to cut their teeth in the professional ranks.
"It's a really amazing experience," Nellis said. "Just the knowledge I learned in the first 40 minutes I'm going to take that and it's going to correlate to my Rifles season.
"It's really nice to hear it from a new voice."
But he admits there were a few nerves before he stepped on the IFG turf for the opening day of rookie camp.
"I was actually terrified stepping on the field," Nellis said with a laugh. "I was super excited to get my ass whopped by the veterans ... and I'm excited to lose some refs to them and learn how to get better."
Still, he's trying to be a sponge and soak up everything that he sees and hears, and hopes to have the impact on his Rifles teammates that Naujoks, Ricard and former teammate Xander Tachinski had when they returned from Bombers camp last spring.
"Last year when Ricard, Jokes and Xander came back they were men amongst boys," Nellis said. "Ricard probably had the best year as a DB in the whole entire league — he got snubbed as an all-Canadian — and Xander and Jokes did unbelievable. So it was really cool to see that this small experience impacted their seasons so much."
Ricard, a six-foot-two, 195-pound defensive back, parlayed his time with the Bombers in 2017 into a monster Canadian Junior Football league season. He led the Prairie Football Conference with five interceptions — two of school he returned for touchdowns — added 27 total tackles, forced one fumble and defended three other passes, and returned to Bombers camp seeing the game better.
"I learned to slow down my game and just let the offence come to me and unfold in front of me, and not get so eager to back peddle and get into my zone," Ricard said. "I'm more patient.
"I got a bigger football IQ from being with the pros, learning and seeing stuff come faster and at a higher level. Now I can see things a lot quicker and I feel like my reaction time is a lot better."
Ricard added that keying in on his reads is the biggest thing he's trying to work on with Big Blue.
As much as he's looking forward to his fifth and final year with the Rifles, Ricard has bigger things in mind.
"The ultimate goal is I want to be here and I want to do whatever I can to make this team, but when I come back to the Rifles we're going for the natty (national championship)," he said. "Everyone on the team is hungry and there are a bunch of fifth-year vets that know it might be their last year of football.
"I'm going to bring a lot of intensity and emphasize that this is our last year."
Naujoks came into the Bombers camps with a couple of things in mind.
"I needed to prepare better and to learn the speed of the game," he said. "You've got to make friends because the more voices you have in your head and the more the vets you're talking to the better it gets."
The six-foot-two, 210 pound receiver hauled in 10 passes for 172 yards and one touchdown last season with the Rifles, and is striving to make that extra play all over the field with the Bombers.
He noted it's great having some fellow Rifles there with him.
"We're all friends and it's pretty nice to have my teammates around here," Naujoks said.
However, Naujoks expects to take on more of a leadership role with the Rifles when his time with the Bombers ends.
"I have to take the leadership role that some of the older guys taught me," he said. "Then I want teach everybody to work hard and remind them to make plays when they have the opportunity to because it doesn't come around all the time."
COACHING: The Rifles are looking for an apprentice offensive line coach to work under O-line and head coach Geordie Wilson. He is looking for someone who truly loves football & working with the big boys. The right applicant will be paid a small honorarium. Please contact Wilson at Riflescoach@gmail.com if you’re interested in the position.
Riley Naujoks will be under centre for the Winnipeg Rifles this Prairie Football Conference season.
May 16, 2018 — More than 100 players from Manitoba, northwestern Ontario and Saskatchewan will be in Winnipeg for spring camp from June 1-3, looking to earn a spot on this year's version of the Winnipeg Rifles.
The three-day camp will be held at the Rifles' facility, the home of the Manitoba Major Junior Football League's St. Vital Mustangs.
Practices will begin on the Friday (7-9 p.m.), continue into Saturday (10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m.) before culminating with a two-hour scrimmage Sunday that starts at 11 a.m.
The Rifles, which posted a 4-4 record in the Canadian Junior Football League's Prairie Football Conference last year and reached the semifinals before being handed a 28-21 loss to the host Saskatoon Hilltops, return 51 players.
Winnipeg will be led by a handful of fifth-year players, including cornerback Andrew Ricard, defensive lineman Hayden Nellis, receivers Brendan Naujoks and Griffin Schillingford, centre Brody Jones and middle linebacker Donovan Hillary.
Ricard, Nellis and Naujoks will all be participating in training camp with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, while former Rifle receiver Xander Tachinski will also be at camp.
But the most pivotal position on the field will be occupied permanently by a new quarterback as Riley Naujoks steps in under centre.
He split reps last season with Jonathan Remple.
Head coach Geordie Wilson is excited to see Naujoks take over as the team's starting quarterback.
"Riley can make all the throws necessary in our league," Wilson said. "He is developing as a leader and we expect him to develop into a top-flight starter in the league this season."
Another player to keep your eye on is second-year running back Brandon Urciuoli. He only carried the ball seven times last season but Wilson sees Urciuoli making big strides this year with the Rifles.
"Brandon has trained his butt off this off-season and he is primed and ready to do some damage in the PFC," Wilson said.
The backfield will be a three-headed monster with second-year back Mathe Mitayango and fourth-year back Austin Klein competing with Urciuoli for playing time.
On the other side of the ball, the defence has potential to build off a strong 2017 campaign, which saw it allow an average of 28.8 points per game.
Machour Akau will lead the push from his position on the defensive line.
The former Carleton University Raven is finally healthy following a complete knee reconstruction two years ago, suffering the injury while playing U Sports football in Ontario.
"When healthy he can be one of the best pass rushers in the nation," Wilson said of Akau.
Another defensive lineman who worked his tail off during the off-season is Justin Kwiatkowski.
The third-year defender has a high motor and is capable of playing any positon along the line and wrecking havoc in the backfield and at the line of scrimmage.
Other than Ricard, the Rifles secondary was a young bunch last year but played very well, especially down the stretch. Wilson expects them to blossom into great unit this year.
There are several rookies on both sides of the ball to keep tabs on.
On offence there's offensive lineman Miguel Leano from Tec Voc, receiver Luke McMilllan from Miles Macdonell, receiver Eric Adams from Steinbach, Saskatchewan-based receiver Colt Beswitheric, St. Vital quarterback Kyle Logan, Jarrett Hicks, a running back from Dryden, Ont., and running Back Rig Moulebou from Daniel McIntyre.
The defensive rookies include Dalton Grant, a defensive lineman from Moosomin, Sask., defensive lineman Devyn Turner from St. Paul's, former Dakota Lancer defensive back Nick Conway, Kadin Tayler, a defensive lineman from Dryden, Tyler Bueckert, a linebacker from Steinbach and Dryden linebacker Thomas Moline.
Wilson is looking forward to the start of spring camp and believes there's plenty of depth across the board, with rookies pushing for playing time.
"This will be the most competitive camp that I have had in the past three years," Wilson said. "Every position group is deep and a number of players are pushing for playing time."
The Rifles will set their final roster of 80 players at the conclusion of camp.
Winnipeg opens its main training camp on July 30, with the season beginning on Aug. 18 versus the Edmonton Wildcats at Mustangs Field at 7 p.m.
Offensive lineman Curtis Krahn is looking forward to trying to crack the Edmonton Eskimos roster.
MAY 15, 2018 — Former Winnipeg Rifle Curtis Krahn is getting used to wearing green and gold.
The six-foot-three, 295-pound offensive lineman from the University of Calgary was selected in the fifth round, 40th overall, by the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League draft on May 3, and he's still coming to terms with the prospect of playing professional football.
"It's crazy," Krahn said. "I never would have thought starting football at 19 that it was going to amount to this, but I'm definitely excited and looking forward to the opportunity."
The 25-year-old watched the draft at home with his parents Walter and Yvonne, plus an old high school friend, Vellan Vadivelu, and remembers the moment he heard his name called.
"I was waiting for the screen to refresh because it was live online and my mom's phone refreshed before mine and she started yelling. She was like, 'Curtis Krahn, Edmonton!'" Krahn said. "And then I started getting phone calls from Edmonton."
"It was hard to hear, there was lots of yelling going on," he added.
Krahn was a physically imposing high school athlete with the Louis Riel Voyageurs, with basketball serving as his biggest passion.
In fact, it was on the hardwood that coaches began to ask Krahn if he had ever played or might considering taking his athletic abilities onto the gridiron.
He joined the St. Vital Mustangs of the Manitoba Major Junior Football League for the 2012 campaign, learning the nuances of being a defensive lineman.
It was at that time Mustangs head coach Jeff Neville suggested he try out for the Rifles.
Krahn went to spring camp the next year and made the team but he was moved across the line of scrimmage to the offensive line.
"The second I got to the Rifles I knew absolutely nothing about offensive line," Krahn said. "Getting moved there was an eye-opener."
Although there were times where the transition from defensive to offensive line was difficult, Krahn became adjusted to his new role, playing at both guard and tackles while also receiving practise reps at centre.
He credits offensive line coach Chris Bochen and assistant O-line coach Stephen Fedus for the roles they had in his early development.
"It was nice to have coaches that knew a lot about the game and were passionate about the game help me grow as a player," Krahn said.
Following his two seasons with the Rifles, Krahn garnered lots of interest from Canadian universities but chose to head to Alberta and suit up with the Dinos in the Canada West conference.
"Part of me wanted to grow as a person so moving away from home gave me that opportunity to focus on football and also look at that as a growing experience as a player and a person," Krahn said.
He played three seasons with the Dinos, which included reaching the Vanier Cup in November 2016, only to see the Laval Rouge et Or come out on top in the national title game, 31-26 in Hamilton.
It wasn't until after the 2017 season ended, courtesy a 35-23 loss to Laval in the Mitchell Bowl, that Krahn, who started all 11 of Calgary's games at left guard, considered playing at the next level.
He received an invite to the western regional CFL combine in Winnipeg, which took place in late March, and six weeks later he became an Eskimos draft pick.
Krahn is driving to Edmonton for training camp on Tuesday, with practise sessions commencing five days later.
Although he has dreams of one day hoisting the Grey Cup, Krahn has small goals for his first foray into the CFL realm.
"I think it's just to go in there, do my best and see what happens, hopefully perform in the exhibition games and get a shot to play a little bit in those games and show what I can do," Krahn said.
He's sure the Eskimos' offensive line coaches have a few tricks up their sleeve that will be passed onto him to help him improve his technique and abilities but Krahn admits when he does get a chance to be on the field for his first game he will feel butterflies.
"It's probably going to be nerve-racking and stressful leading up to that moment," Krahn said.
But exciting all the same.
"I'm just look at it like just go out and enjoy it there and enjoy the process," Krahn said. "It's a new chapter."
The Winnipeg Rifles dominated in their 2017 season opener against the Ottawa Sooners. It was no question that the Rifles had the upper hand right from the get go and their momentum held strong throughout the entire game.
"It was historic in the sense that it was the first PFC game against Ontario so our guys were pretty excited" said head coach Geordie Wilson. "We played a hard game and we feel optimistic moving forward".
The Rifles are carrying their momentum into their game against the Saskatoon Hilltops this weekend. Returning players know they have a challenging game ahead.
"They're a very bread and butter team they stick to the same play book, same route combo, same run schemes, everything. So basically I'm just watching last year's film just basically preparing myself for a repeat of what they do over and over again" said Andrew Ricard.
The Rifles home opener takes place this Sunday August 20th at 1 PM at St. Vital Mustang's Field. Tickets will be available at the door for purchase.
Winnipeg Rifles players Xander Tachinski and Andrew Ricard each played a quarter of CFL football Saturday night as the Bombers took on the Saskatchewan Roughriders in pre-season action. Read more:
The Rifles signed their 2017 Rookies Saturday June 3rd at Investor's Group Field.