REGINA – The moment Brendon Labatte waited his entire life for did not disappoint.
Born and raised in Weyburn, Sask., Labatte played his university football with the Regina Rams before beginning a four-year stint with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Friday, for the first time, the new Saskatchewan Roughriders guard ran onto the Mosaic Stadium field for a game in the home team’s colours.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Labatte said, grinning widely, after the game. “The fans are unbelievable. It gives you goosebumps and you’re so fired up before the start of the game.
“It was unlike anything else I’ve felt anywhere I’ve played football.”
Dampening the mood somewhat was the final result: A 33-31 win for the visiting Calgary Stampeders (2-0) to conclude the CFL’s exhibition schedule — a pre-season the Roughriders finished at 0-2.
But there were plenty of bright spots for Labatte and his fellow offensive linemen to carry into the regular season too.
They gave Saskatchewan’s quarterbacking trio of Darian Durant, Drew Willy and J.T. O’Sullivan plenty of time to throw through most of the game. And the 81 yards amassed by the Riders’ leading rusher — rookie slotback Kory Sheets — nearly eclipsed the 84 posted by all five Calgary running backs.
“It was kind of the benchmark for the season,” said Labatte. “We’re going to go nowhere but up, but when you have guys that haven’t been playing together that long and you can come out and move the ball early, especially on the ground, I think that’s where it all starts.
“When you can run the ball efficiently it’s going to open up the pass.”
The biggest beneficiary of a wide-open passing game — on both sides — was Calgary’s Nik Lewis, who caught for a game-high 121 yards.
Lewis shook off a late hit from the Roughriders’ Lance Frazier late in the second quarter to catch a 14-yard touchdown pass from Drew Tate and put Calgary up 17-13 at the half.
Stampeders kicker Rene Paredes was flawless on all six field goal attempts, including the game-winner from 42 yards out with no time remaining.
Paredes’ decisive kick was forced after O’Sullivan, Saskatchewan’s third-string quarterback, connected with Ismael Bamba on a desperation third-down throw late in the fourth to take a 31-30 lead. But an illegal ensuing kickoff gave Calgary the field position it needed to capitalize.
“There were some good things out there tonight,” said Roughriders head coach Corey Chamblin. “There were some guys that, when the lights came on, they really turned it on and I’m proud to see that there were some players that helped contribute Game 1.
“The biggest thing was penalties. Whether it was young guys or veteran guys making those we have to cut down on those to give ourselves a chance to win every game.”
The final exhibition game for both teams was a kickers’ showcase through most of the first half, with the first 16 points scored by field goal or single, before Sheets ran 13 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
One of Chris Getzlaf’s six catches, from four yards out, opened the second-half scoring on a TD toss from Riders backup QB Willy. But Calgary’s Matt Walter scored on a four-yard run less than two minutes later.
Saskatchewan’s Chris Milo was 3-for-3 placekicking, and he and the Stamps Rob Maver each punted for singles to round out the scoring.
“Tonight let us know that we’re on the right track,” said Chamblin. “Defensively we’ll still look at some cover guys … but offensively and special teams I think we did some good things so we’re close to where we want to be.”
Both teams used three quarterbacks in the game. Tate was 13-for-21 for 174 yards for Calgary with a touchdown and an interception. Kevin Glenn went 7-for-9 and Bo Levi Mitchell was 3-for-5 in relief.
The Riders started Durant, who completed nine of 12 throws for 92 yards and a touchdown. Willy entered the game in the second half and went 9-for-12 for 96 yards, while O’Sullivan was 5-for-10 for 70 yards.
“I was pretty happy with the quarterback play,” said Chamblin. “I think they’re still learning, but I think they’re doing a good job learning everything that Khari (Jones, Saskatchewan’s quarterback coach) is teaching them.
“And they did make some big plays. I was impressed with Drew Willy. Like I said he throws a good deep ball and he showed up.”
Saskatchewan opens its 2012 regular season June 29 in Hamilton against the Tiger-Cats while Calgary opens at home July 1 against the Montreal Alouettes.