WINNIPEG -- One of the CFL’s fiercest rivalries is renewed on Thursday night, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders visit Investors Group Field for a clash with the first-place Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Even when they only played twice a year the Bombers and Riders and their fans found ways to hate each other, and now set to face three times in the next five games they’ll take it to a whole new level.
Yet in a rivalry game that highlights so many compelling storylines, including the defending Grey Cup Champs facing the league’s top-ranked team and, of course, the understudy vs. the master in Drew Willy vs. Darian Durant, the Bombers are putting all of that aside to focus on how they can play their best football.
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After all, the Bombers are the talk of the league through six games, and now that they’ve acquired a taste for success they won’t get caught admiring it.
“I think they’re pretty content on continuing the course we’re on and not too interested in creating that extraneous fluff that has no bearing on us winning or losing,” rookie head coach Mike O’Shea told BlueBombers.com of his players ahead of Thursday’s game.
“Our guys are confident, I’m not going to say they’re not – they’re confident in what they can do,” he continued. “But outside the room I don’t think their egos take over at all, and that’s just a credit to the type of guys we have in the locker-room and the leadership we have in the locker-room.”
Winnipeg’s story out of the gate is undoubtedly a captivating one, considering the team has already eclipsed last year’s win total of three games despite being led by a first-year head coach and first-time starting quarterback.
It’s not just that they’re winning games, but equally how they’re doing it. In last weekend’s visit to Hamilton the Bombers trailed through most of the fourth quarter, until Drew Willy led an improbable last-minute drive to score a touchdown on the game’s final play.
On a drive that included a desperation scramble and completion to Aaron Kelly on a third down inside midfield, Willy finished it off with what looked like a two-yard Hail Mary that was caught by running back Nic Grigsby just inside the goal line, giving Winnipeg a stunning 27-26 win.
“It’s kind of something you grow up as a kid wanting to do, take over in the fourth quarter with your teammates and score a touchdown,” Willy said. “Every one of the 12 guys out there had a big part in that drive and as you watch the film you can tell the big plays guys make, and it was just fun to be a part of.”
It marked the second time this season late-game heroics powered the Bombers to victory, but perhaps more importantly as O’Shea explained it lifted the team’s confidence in Willy to an all-time high.
“He knows he can do it,” O’Shea said of the first-time starting quarterback. “It starts with taking the field and knowing he can get that done, then the football part just takes over.”
“But as he takes the field, his belief in himself and his knowledge that he can get the job done spills over to his teammates, they recognize that he believes they’re gonna get it done and so far they’ve gone out and done it twice.”
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Willy finished with 361 passing yards on 31-43 with a touchdown, but more importantly kept his team composed in a game that witnessed several dramatic shifts in momentum. After he guided the Bombers to a 20-3 lead, the Ticats came storming back to an eventual 26-20 lead.
But with momentum favouring Hamilton, Willy twisted fate by leading the Bombers on a marvelous final scoring drive to earn their fifth win of the season.
“He’s just calm, he keeps everyone even-keel and lets us know that we’re gonna win,” Aaron Kelly said of his quarterback’s never-say-die mentality. “He calls a play and you can tell there’s more of a sense of urgency when it gets into that part of the game but everyone is tuned in like that – everyone is focused and Drew’s just the leader of all that.”
Perhaps now Willy and the Bombers face their biggest test of the season, as the Riders enter Thursday as one of the league’s hottest teams coming off a pair of big wins where they've outscored their oppoenents 75-14. Set to face his former team in what’s become a dynamic CFL rivalry, Willy sounds like a quarterback who’s up to the task.
“This is very special, being from the states I didn’t know about it until I got up here but the first Labour Day Classic I could see the passion from both fans and the rivalry between the players,” Willy told the team’s official website.
“So it’s definitely something special that both provinces should be proud of and we’re looking forward to going out there and giving everything we can for our province, and I’m sure they’re trying to do the same for theirs.”
While the Bombers are flying high and looking to send a message in a rivalry game against the defending Grey Cup Champs, they shouldn’t expect the Roughriders to hold any punches. The Riders, too, appear to have plenty to prove, as they get their shot at the league’s highest-ranked team following a pair of blowout wins.
Much has changed since the team’s early-season woes, marked by a lopsided loss in Toronto followed by an uncharacteristic home loss to the Lions. The Riders went into the bye week after that looking for answers, returning with a 37-9 win over the Argos and then just last weekend a 38-14 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
Surrendering just one touchdown on defence in those two games, it appears as though the Green and White have recaptured last November’s dominant form.
“The guys came out and played fast,” Riders Head Coach Corey Chamblin told the Canadian Press after the win in Ottawa. “We adjusted to everything they did quickly. The guys just played fast.”
“The defence is starting to understand what it will take to be a good football team,” he continued. “We'll have to be tougher than we have been in the past and they realize that.”
Even more encouraging may have been the return of Chris Getzlaf, who brings some familiarity to an offence missing many of its most important cogs from last year’s Grey Cup roster. Getzlaf had five catches for 57 yards, but despite being just third on the team in receiving seemingly brought a calming presence for Darian Durant and the offence.
“Let's be honest - Getz is one of the best receivers in the league,” said receiver Rob Bagg, who led the team with 123 yards receiving. “He slows down the game for you.”
“He makes it easier for everyone by just being on the field,” Bagg continued. “When we get all five guys together and going, we're going to be deadly.”
That bodes well for Durant, set to go head-to-head with his former understudy in Willy. The 27-year-old spent two seasons as the backup to Durant before being traded to Winnipeg to become the Bombers’ new starting quarterback.
So far Willy’s been one of the league’s success stories, leading Winnipeg to the CFL’s best record through the first third of the regular season.
“He's a good friend of mine,” Durant said in a conference call Tuesday before the team travelled to Winnipeg. “We've shared some battles together. I like to think that I taught him a lot about the game and I'm happy to see him succeed.”
But “obviously not” on Thursday, Durant added.
As friends become foes for a day in a rivalry that continues to grow, what’s certain is that Thursday’s matchup promises plenty of intensity.
“We know that going into the game it's going to be a 60-minute dog fight,” Durant said.
“They've won some tough games, some games that have gone down to the wire, and our mentality is it's going to take all 60 minutes to get it done.”
Kickoff is at 8:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from The Canadian Press and BlueBombers.com