WINNIPEG – Running back Nic Grigsby rushed for a trio of touchdowns as he and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers topped Ottawa 36-28 in the REDBLACKS’ first game in franchise history Thursday night.
Ottawa officially made its return to the Canadian Football League for the first time since 2005 as the expansion REDBLACKS kicked off their regular season schedule.
Fans in the Nation’s Capital have waited 3,136 days since their city was represented in a CFL game and Burris and the REDBLACKS wanted them to wait as little as possible before seeing their first score.
After gaining a two-and-out from his defence to start the game, Burris quickly put together a 5-play, 62-yard scoring drive, capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run by Chevon Walker. Walker, who had three majors in the pre-season, rushed for 29-yards to get the drive started before recording the franchise’s first-ever touchdown.
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After an opening-drive major, Burris and Walker were just getting started. Former Toronto Argonauts defensive lineman Jonathan Williams got Ottawa’s first sack out of the way, forcing a punt and before head coach Mike O’Shea and the Blue Bombers could blink, they were down 14 points.
Walker ripped off another big run, this one from 17 yards, before Burris threaded the needle to Dobson Collins for a 25-yard catch-and-run touchdown, silencing the Investors Group Field gathering.
Looking to settle things down, Drew Willy went to work on his third possession of the game after an impressive debut against Toronto last week where he went 19 of 27 for 308 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Willy got a quick completion to Clarence Denmark for 15 yards before finding who he hopes will be his big-play receiver down the seam. Willy then aired a ball out for former BC Lions receiver Nick Moore who brought down a 51-yard pass. Willy then handed the ball off to Grigsby a pair of times before the newcomer’s 1-yard touchdown cut Ottawa’s lead to 14-7.
Lost in the hype of last week’s Bombers opener – known as “Willy-peg” by many fans and media – was the play of Grigsby who made his first career CFL start in place of incumbent starter Will Ford. Grigsby put together a solid 122 yards on the ground against an Argos defensive front that was impressive in pre-season.
Throughout the pre-season and the first quarter of their debut, Ottawa relied on big-plays and quick drives and their ensuing possession was no different.
Burris found Marcus Henry for 39 yards down the sidelines before taking off for 17 of his own on the ground. The veteran pivot then tossed a screen pass onto the back right shoulder of Walker who turned up field, broke a tackle and notched his second major of the game, this one from 8-yards out. The drive restored Ottawa’s 14-point lead as the first quarter came to a close.
In a game that was already full of Ottawa history, Burris added another key stat to his resume. His aforementioned scamper put him ahead of legendary Ottawa Rough Rider Russ Jackson on the CFL’s all-time rushing yards list for a quarterback with 5,050.
The next 10 points belonged to the Bombers however, as their defence got consecutive stops and Willy slowed down the pace on offence. The first-year starter strung together a pair of completions before a penalty aided the drive. Grigsby then capped off the possession with his second major of the game, this one from 4 yards out.
Willy then took the clock down and allowed rookie kicker Lirim Hajrullahu to nail a 47-yard field goal to cut the Ottawa lead to 21-17 heading into halftime.
The Bombers were first to get on the board in the second half, with Hajrullahu hitting a 17-yard field goal which was set up by a Grigsby 45-yard rumble off a shovel pass.
With just under seven minutes remaining in the third frame, Williams forced a fumble which put Ottawa kicker Brett Maher in position to restore the four-point lead but he pushed the 42-yard field goal attempt wide left and settled for a single point.
With under three minutes remaining in the third and Ottawa up by a deuce, the story quickly shifted to Willy who after sustaining a pair of hits, seemed to be favouring his right throwing hand on the sidelines. He came out for the next drive and almost had his first pass picked off by Jovon Johnson. The next play he wasn’t so lucky on his next attempt as rookie Ottawa DB Jerrell Gavins jumped a pass and returned it to the Winnipeg 50 yard line.
The Boise State graduate’s interception helped Maher redeem himself as his 44-yard field goal put the REDBLACKS up 25-20 as the third quarter came to a close.
Maher added yet another field goal, from 19, after Burris put together a drive that was stalled after he completed passes to Kierre Johnson, John Delehunt and Henry for first downs.
Momentum seemed to be swinging back in Ottawa’s favour until Demond Washington snatched it away on the ensuing kickoff. The third-year defensive back took a fumble recovery back for a touchdown last week vs. Toronto and topped his contribution on this night. The Auburn product fielded the kickoff, went up the right side of the field, cut back inside before bursting down the sideline for a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. A two-point conversion attempt from Willy to Moore failed and the Bombers found themselves only stuck two (28-26) with 10:52 remaining.
Ever since the second quarter, you could feel that it was just a matter of time before the Bombers took control of the game and with 2:33 left in the game, they did just that.
Willy recorded a pair of completions before handing off to Grigsby for 20 yards. Two plays later the shifty tailback bounced outside ran in a three-yard touchdown for his third major of the game and Winnipeg’s first lead, 33-28.
It was then up to the defence to get a stop which they did and put Willy and the offence back out. With 1:43 remaining and in a second down situation Willy stepped into a pass and delivered it perfectly to Aaron Kelly who hauled in the 46-yard grab. A 37-yard field goal sealed the 36-28 victory and earned the Bombers their first 2-0 start since 2011.
The REDBLACKS travel to Edmonton next week to take on the Eskimos in their second game while the Bombers open up Week 3 with a matchup against SJ Green and the Montreal Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium.