WINNIPEG -- The Edmonton Eskimos and Winnipeg Blue Bombers put perfection on the line, Thursday night in Winnipeg as a battle of undefeated teams unfolds at Investors Group Field.
It’s a scenario few could have envisioned when the schedule was released last winter, as the newly-acquainted West Division rivals are a combined 6-0 after combining for seven wins last season.
With new head coaches in Mike O’Shea and Chris Jones heading the Bombers and Esks respectively, it’s clear that last year bears no relevance for these teams moving forward – something O’Shea wanted to accentuate for his new club right away.
“I said it right from the start, we need to win and win early to get started, to get this buy-in and feeling to be able to exhale and let stuff go from the prior year,” O’Shea told BlueBombers.com. “The idea that it’s not ‘here we go again’ – I think with some teams you can sense the attitude changes to ‘here we go again’, and it was important that we got rid of that very quickly.”
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‘Here we go again’ certainly wouldn’t have led to back-to-back fourth quarter comeback wins over the REDBLACKS and Alouettes. After coming back from two scores down to spoil Ottawa’s return to the league, last weekend the Bombers truly tested their strength as a team with a stunning last-minute win on the road in Montreal.
Down 33-28 with 2:18 to go, the Bombers took over possession at their own 35-yard-line facing one of the league’s most imposing defences. Yet Drew Willy went to work, rushing for a 15-yard first down to get things started before settling in for completions to Rory Kohlert, Nic Grigsby, and Nick Moore to put the Bombers down to the 18.
After two incomplete passes and just half a minute remaining on the clock it was down to just half a minute left and one final play for the Bombers to win the game, which saw Willy thread the needle and National receiver Julian Feoli-Gudino haul in an over-the-shoulder grab to give the Bombers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
For Willy it was another big step in the maturation of a young quarterback, and for Feoli-Gudino it was some late-game heroics in the very same stadium he spent hours watching the Alouettes play as a kid. While for the Bombers, it once again helped extinguish some of the ghosts of Winnipeg’s football past.
“This isn’t ‘here we go again’, this is something completely different and I think we should be past that stage now,” O’Shea said after being asked about any doubt creeping in on the sidelines as a result of last year’s season gone awry. “With these past two wins, coming from behind, I think we’re past that now.”
“Whatever the next challenge is that gets revealed in a tight game, we need to be able to conquer that too.”
Willy meanwhile gave the Bombers the kind of quarterbacking that’s eluded them over the years, throwing for 256 yards and a touchdown goi 24-for-38 against a defence that’s been known to cause young pivots nightmares. More impressive than those numbers though was the 27-year-old’s composure and never-say-die attitude, something that undoubtedly spread to the rest of his offence.
“We really just wanted to do anything we could to get the ball in the end zone there,” Willy said. ”A lot of guys made big plays on that series.”
He added that the result wasn’t just a win, but an experience the team can draw from in any future games that come down to the wire.
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“It definitely gives you confidence if you get in that same situation throughout the season that you’ve done it before,” said Willy. “Let’s just go out here and take our reads, make sure we’re running the right routes, right protections and then go from there and try to be successful and get the ball in the end zone.”
Perhaps an even greater challenge looms this Thursday for Willy and the Bombers’ offence, as the high-flying Eskimos come to town boasting both the stingiest and most opportune defence in the league through three weeks.
The Eskimos allowed a 65-yard touchdown run by Chevon Walker in last week’s 27-11 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS, but that was about their only blemish as the REDBLACKS, aside from Walker's touchdown run, managed just 27 yards on nine carries. Burris meanwhile completed barely over 50 per cent of his passes, going 13-25 for a meager 134 yards.
So far that’s been the theme for the 2014 Eskimos, as Jones has helped turn around a sixth-ranked defence that surrendered an average of 369 yards in 2013, and made it one of the biggest contributors to the team’s 3-0 start.
This season the Green and Gold are allowing a league-best 281 yards, while creating 13 takeaways – a number they didn’t reach last year until halfway through the season. Aside from giving the Esks a league-best turnover differential of plus-nine, it’s also provided a huge edge in field position and time of possession.
“It’s a great spark, offensively when you’re standing on the sideline and you’re watching our defence go to work, whether they’re creating turnovers, sacking the quarterback, getting us great field position – it gets you excited, it gets you fired
Reilly and his offence have been able to start 11 drives in opposition territory – five more than any other team – while winning the time of possession battle in all three games they’ve played.
On Thursday however they’ll truly meet their match against the Bombers’ league-leading offence. Winnipeg leads the CFL with 115 points through three games, a total they didn’t reach last year until the fifth game of the season.
For as much as the Eskimos have seemingly transformed on defence, they’re well aware that the Bombers are a different team on offence.
“I think that they’ve done an outstanding job if you look at where they were a year ago to where they are right now, they’ve come strides,” Jones said.
Last year Winnipeg finished with 20.1 points per game, marking the league’s worst-ranked offence. It’s early, but the Bombers remain on pace to break their club record of 36.2 points per game over the span of a season, set back in 1994 when Matt Dunigan was under centre.
“They have a great belief system in what O’Shea and his staff have put in, their quarterback is playing at a very high level, their running back is productive so again we have our hands completely full.”
On top of that the Eskimos should also be prepared for a hostile crowd. With both teams now in the West and looking to get an early jump over the competition, Thursday’s showdown is a marquee CFL matchup and will be energized by an eager Bomber fan base.
“The way the noise echoes in and from the time I’ve been in this league, I’ve known Winnipeg as a rowdy place to play in,” Reilly said. “With the success that they’ve had we’re obviously prepared for an incredibly loud environment, we’ve practised for it so it really shouldn’t have that much of an effect on us.”
Kickoff is at 8:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via CFL Gamecast.
- With files from BlueBombers.com/Esks.com