WINNIPEG – Drew Willy did not pull another rabbit out of his hat.
A Terrell Maze pick-six with 2:16 remaining stunned a sold-out Investors Group Field crowd as the Saskatchewan Roughriders defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23-17 Thursday night to kickoff Week 7 in the CFL.
Willy entered the game as the talk of the CFL but two late interceptions, a fumble and a special teams turnover opened the door for a Riders win in what became a Thursday night thriller. The Bombers QB finished 23 of 39 for 304 yards, 1 TD and 3 INTs.
Undoubtedly the most anticipated game between these two clubs in recent memory, the Bombers entered tops in the West while the Riders were coming off two blowout wins over Toronto and Ottawa respectively.
It was also meeting of teacher versus student as Willy took on his former mentor, Darian Durant, for the first time since becoming arguably the most impressive player early in the CFL season.
Willy and the Bombers took to the field first, looking to build off a remarkable come-from-behind win in Hamilton; one that saw the Blue and Gold march down the field with 1:40 remaining and top the Tiger-Cats by a point after Willy completed a pass to Nic Grigsby with no time left on the clock.
Winnipeg’s first drive didn’t end anywhere near where their previous one in Hamilton ended. After taking the Blue Bombers into Riders territory, Willy looked for slotback Clarence Denmark on a hook but the ball was a bit high and tipped off of the receiver’s hands. First-year defensive back Mark LeGree nabbed the airborne pigskin and returned it to midfield.
A trio of completions and a pair of handoffs to RB Will Ford later, and the Riders posted the game’s first points off the foot of kicker Chris Milo who hit from 42 yards out.
Perhaps overshadowed by the rivalry and the storyline that followed Willy, was Ford who made his return to Winnipeg after emerging as the Riders’ latest weapon in the backfield. Ford generated 727 yards on the ground with the Bombers in two seasons but has been a force in three games with Saskatchewan to the tune of 187 yards and 5 touchdowns entering the contest.
He would become a story in this one but not in the manner in which he expected. After just putting 29 yards rushing on the stats sheet in the first half, he was replaced by veteran Canadian Jerome Messam in the second in what has been a revolving door in the Riders backfield all year long.
Messam finished with an impressive 19 carries for 129 yards in two quarters of work.
A strong hold by the Winnipeg defence and a decent return from Aaron Woods and the Bombers were set up at the Riders 50 yard line on their next meaningful offensive series. Willy found a pair of receivers for first downs and then went deep to Denmark but missed the fourth-year receiver by a stride on a corner route. After conceding a sack, Lirim Hajullahu hit a 41-yard field goal to tie the game at 3 in the first quarter.
There was a consistent theme in the first half: Both offences moved the ball well and maintained decent field position, but once they moved past midfield, the defences turned up the heat. The Bombers continued to send blitz packages at Durant, while John Chick led a fierce Roughriders defensive line that held Willy in check.
With 5:27 remaining in the second quarter however, Willy finally solved Chick and the Riders ‘D’. Backed up deep in Bomber territory, Willy completed passes to Denmark for 21 yards and Romby Bryant for 10 more before being aided by a pass interference call on Riders DB Weldon Brown. All of this, part of a 13-play, 99-yard touchdown drive that was capped off by a 7-yard Willy scamper on a quarterback draw.
Willy’s first rushing touchdown of the year placed a seven-point cushion between the Bombers and their rival as they headed to halftime shortly thereafter with a 10-3 lead.
The third quarter almost mirrored the play in the second, with the exception of the touchdown. Both defences made adjustments and forced the opposing kicker to work a bit more in the punting game.
The aforementioned defensive line of the Saskatchewan Roughriders ensured that despite the sluggish inconsistencies on offence, there would be a touchdown in the third quarter. With the Bombers scrimmaging inside their own 20, defensive end Tay George got after Willy as the pocket collapsed and forced a fumble. Third-year lineman David Lee scooped up the ball and rumbled into the end zone for his first career major.
The Toronto native, who was signed away from the Argonauts this past off-season, tied the contest at 10s before the Riders quickly added more points.
On the ensuing kickoff, veteran National DB Paul Woldu forced another fumble, this one out of the hands of Demond Washington, and the Riders recovered with great field position. Durant promptly handed off to Messam and completed a pass to Rob Bagg to set up a 10-yard Chris Milo field goal to give Saskatchewan a 13-10 advantage.
With momentum sitting with the Riders, Durant and the offence road their running backs, led by Messam and spelled by Ford. The two backs lumbered down into Winnipeg territory to set up another Milo boot, this one from 40-yards out, to give the Riders a 16-11 lead.
As he has done all year, Willy answered in dramatic fashion just when the opposing defence thought they had him figured out. The University of Buffalo product stood tall in the pocket and delivered a strike down field to Denmark who fought his way inside Riders territory off a 59-yard gain. On the next play, Willy found Kohlert in the back of the endzone as he out-waited DB Macho Harris to haul in a 12-yard touchdown pass. The Bombers attempted a two-point conversion but failed and held a 17-16 lead with 5 minutes left on the clock.
The Bombers defence, led by an almost-pick-six, by Ejiro Kuale held Durant in check on the ensuing possession but Willy made two key errors late that would seal the Bombers fate.
Up by a point, Willy looked for Julian Feoli Gudino in the flat with 2:16 remaining but had his pass picked off by veteran Maze. The Riders cover-man high-stepped untouched to the end zone for what would prove to be the game-winning score.
A Riders two-point conversion failed and the Bombers got the ball back with just over two minutes remaining and down by five. Willy got a completion but threw another ill-advised pass over the middle which fell into the arms of LeGree for his second interception of the game.
Messam then barreled down field to set up a Milo field goal but he pushed it wide for a single point. The Bombers took over with just over 30 seconds remaining but couldn’t push the ball down field in time to get a score.
The Bombers have a short turnaround as they quickly prepare to play the Toronto Argonauts on Tuesday. The Riders on the other hand, get some rest as they don’t play until next Saturday when they host the Montreal Alouettes.