Don't look now, but the Vancouver Island Raiders are back in contention for first overall in the B.C. Football Conference.
The Raiders smoked the Okanagan Sun 45-17 at Caledonia Park, avenging a 17-3 loss in Week 2 in Kelowna.
The win gives puts the Raiders into a tie for second in the league with the Sun, but they now hold the point-spread tie-breaker over their rivals. They are now just two-points behind the Langley Rams for first place, with a showdown between the two teams in Nanaimo on the books for Saturday.
Almost more importantly, the win was a statement by the Raiders coaches and their players that they need to be taken seriously by the rest of the league. "We were pissed off and if you're going to be anything as a football team, you've got to take losing as death," said Raiders head coach Matt "Snoop" Blokker. "We embarrassed ourselves in Week 2 and we've been waiting for this game and this challenge to prove to ourselves that we're a hell of a lot better football team and we deserved to be looked at and viewed as a top-ranked team."
Blokker says he was out coached in Kelowna the first time these two teams met by the Okanagan Sun's Wayne Beatty and co. But they were determined not to let that happen again.
They put the bye week to good use and installed a new offensive system, keyed by the running game to take advantage of the two-deep system employed by the Sun safeties.
V.I. ran 40 rushing plays for 286 yards, mostly out of various option formations and just 15 passing plays for 146 yards.
"(Running backs) coach (Gavin) Lake pretty much went to town on film and analysis all this week, with that it made it pretty easy for us," said rookie quarterback Jamie Ybarra, of the former Sun's coach. "Without coach Lake I don't think we would have won this game. He really pushed things, even after practice getting us all together, reading holes. .. he was fired up."
Even top receiver Whitman Tomusiak got in on the act with two carries for 34 yards and two touchdowns.
One of the big benefactors of this shift in offence was fullback Ashton Galloway, who rushed for 61 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, but was also featured in the return game, racking up another 60 combined yards on five punts and kickoffs.
"I'm a little sore, but I was running hard today," he said. "I felt it this morning, I knew this was going to be a good day and I just brought it today. Kudos to the offensive line, they did a hell of a job. We just outworked them."
It was by far Galloway's best game of the year, and his continued strong play will be key for the Raiders to make that run at first place.
"It's about time," said Blokker. "I didn't like the way Galloway's been playing and. .. if he is going to come and play with that kind of effort, he's going to play more, he's going to get more carries."
Ybarra finished the game 9-for-15 for 146 yards and one touchdown and an interception. He also rushed for 60 yards on seven carries and another touchdown. The big thing is, he became the first Raiders quarterback to play an entire game this season, with fellow rookie Jaeden Marwick getting in for just one snap in the second quarter. But Blokker was not ready to anoint him the starter for the rest of the season.
"Right now it is helping, ," said Ybarra. "It's putting a fire under both our butts to play the best we can in practice, outside of practice and in the film room."
The defence also had a big game, holding a potent Okanagan offence to 258 yards, and made life terrible for Sun quarterback Theo Deezer, who went 17-for-33 with three interceptions, one touchdown and three sacks - two of those courtesy of Ash Gayat. Cam Bedore also came in but finished 1-for-3 for 11 yards and an interception.
Cole Bishop had two of those interceptions, Jaxxen Wylie had one, and Andrew Rowe returned one 88 yards for a touchdown that sealed the victory for the Raiders in the fourth quarter, stopping a late Sun rally.
"Tristan Koronkiewicz made a good play, got his hands up and tipped and it landed right in my hands and I had an escort down the sidelines to the end zone," said Rowe.
All is not perfect for the Raiders. Their punting game was an adventure every time they stepped on the field, including a couple shanks and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown off a bad snap in the fourth quarter that brought Okanagan back to within two scores with about nine minutes to go.
"It's a concern about personnel knowing when they're supposed to be on," said Blokker. "We're going to address that and practice the (expletive) out of it this week."
This was V.I.'s third win in a row after starting the season 1-2. If they can make it four in a row with a win over the Rams at Caledonia on Saturday at 2 p.m., it would put the Raiders in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed and home field advantage through the BCFC playoffs.
"We want to win out, we want playoffs at home," said Rowe. "Winning the BCFC is big, but we want to go on to the national championship game."
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