HAMILTON — The legend of Drew Willy grew on Thursday night, as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers pulled off an improbable last-drive comeback to stun the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 27-26 at McMaster’s Ron Joyce Stadium.
Nic Grigsby hauled in a Willy pass on the game’s final play, capping off a minute-long drive that started in Bomber territory to give the Bombers their fifth win of the season and temporarily move them into top spot in the West Division.
The Ticats overcame a 20-3 deficit after the first half, scoring 23 unanswered points in the second half to take the lead — but on this day it wasn’t enough, as they couldn’t hold off Willy’s late-game magic.
Willy finished with 361 passing yards and a touchdown on 31-43 passing, while Grigsby was a force both on the ground and through the air with a combined 119 yards on 19 touches and a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown.
In a game that started out as a defensive duel with a combined 16 points in the first half, Dan LeFevour started slow but thrived in the second half with 189 yards on 19-33 passing with one touchdown and an interception. C.J. Gable, meanwhile, was held to just 18 yards on six carries, but his 48-yard receiving touchdown sparked the Ticats’ comeback from 17 points down.
Already leading the league in big plays, the Bombers set the tone offensively on the first possession when Willy connected with Aaron Kelly on second down for a 40-yard reception, leading to a 19-yard field goal by Lirim Hajrullahu to give Winnipeg a 3-0 lead.
After forcing two quick punts by the Ticats, the Bombers took over with superb field position with hopes of adding more points on their third possession. Nic Grigsby moved the Bombers inside the red zone with a catch-and-run over the middle and some shifty moves, but again the Ticat defence tightened up and forced a 25-yard boot from Hajrullahu.
The teams swapped two and outs as the defences continued their strong play, then a punt out of bounds by Hajrullahu gave the Ticats a start at the Bomber 30 to start the second quarter. But Winnipeg’s defence continued to give nothing, as LeFevour and the Ticats went two-and-out for the fourth straight time to open the game.
Justin Medlock made good on a 32-yard field goal, as the Bombers held on to their narrow edge while the offences failed to take advantage of close opportunities.
Late in the second quarter the Bombers went driving again, starting with a 16-yard completion to Clarence Denmark to move the sticks on second down. The Ticats had Winnipeg set to punt after a stop on second down, but an unnecessary roughness penalty on Hamilton’s Delvin Breaux kept the Bomber drive alive.
The Bombers looked to take full advantage this time, moving closer on completions to Julian Feoli-Gudino and Grigsby for first downs before moving even closer on another unnecessary roughness penalty, this time on Marcellus Bowman. From the three, quarterback Robert Marve punched it into the end zone to put Winnipeg up 13-3 just before halftime.
In the second half the Ticat offence again, went two-and-out as LeFevour failed to find a groove, and the Bombers were set up with superb field position thanks to yet another 15-yard penalty by the Ticats.
Willy dissected the Ticat defence and Grigsby finished things off with a 16-yard touchdown run, extending the Bomber lead to 20-3 early in the third quarter.
The Ticats had a quick response though, finally finding some life on the offensive side of the ball. LeFevour, struggling to find any rhythm through the first half of the game, connected on four straight passes before finding a wide open Gable over the middle for a 48-yard touchdown pass. The quick and efficient scoring drive cut Hamilton’s deficit to 20-10, putting the game back within reach.
LeFevour stayed hot, again driving the Ticats into Bomber territory late in the third quarter thanks to a 30-yard completion to Luke Tasker. A short completion to Cary Koch and then a quarterback keeper on second down moved the sticks, before a 16-yard completion to Tasker and an ensuing facemask penalty put the Ticats on the doorstep.
More late-game magic for Willy
Drew Willy pulled off some more late-game heroics, adding to his impressive legacy in his first full season as a starter with the Bombers.
The young quarterback punched it in himself on the first play of the fourth quarter, cutting the Ticats’ deficit to just a field goal as they battled back to make it 20-17. That capped off an eight-play, 81-yard drive spanning just over four minutes, as the Ticats continued to creep up on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers following a 20-3 deficit.
The defence continued to sway momentum in Hamilton’s favour with a quick two-and-out, then on the ensuing punt the Ticats struck. Quincy McDuffie blew by the Bomber special teams coverage and found space down the sideline, leading to an electrifying 66-yard punt return touchdown to give the Ticats their first lead of the game.
Hamilton’s defence added to the Bombers’ frustration on the next drive, forcing another two-and-out before also adding a safety on the ensuing punt when the snap snuck past Hajrullahu, forcing the rookie to kick it through the back of the end zone.
The Bombers appeared to be threatening, but Rico Murray came through with a massive fumble recovery to temporarily suspend Winnipeg’s attempt at battling back. But Willy, used to late game heroics himself, wasn’t about to fade into the night without threatening. With under a minute left in the game Willy went to work, moving the offence near midfield on a series of short passes.
On third and three with the block running, the Ticats thought they had the game clinched when the quarterback was in the grasp. But somehow Willy spun out of the tackle and escaped from Brian Bulcke, then tossed up a jump ball for Kelly who pulled in the air ball to keep his team’s hopes alive. That marked Kelly’s seventh catch of the night and put him over the 100-yard mark for the seventh time this season, leaving the Bombers with 21 seconds left.
Finally Willy went for the end zone, connecting with Feoli-Gudino at the two. With precious seconds remaining, the Bombers were stuffed at the goal line, leaving one last play for the Bombers to punch the ball into the end zone and steal back the win.
Following a pair of impressive road wins, the Bombers return home to re-ignite a Western rivalry with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Ticats meanwhile are off to Vancouver for a date with the BC Lions, in what could be Travis Lulay’s 2014 debut.