August 7, 2014 9:24 am
Updated: August 7, 2014 1:45 pm

Winnipeg Blue Bombers take on defending Grey Cup champs

Drew Willy of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers prepares to throw against the Ottawa RedBlacks on July 3 in Winnipeg.

Marianne Helm / Getty Images

Drew Willy and the surprising Winnipeg Blue Bombers can take a big step towards proving they’re for real Thursday night.

Winnipeg hosts the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Investors Group Field. The Bombers (5-1) have been the CFL’s biggest surprise this year, sitting atop the West Division standings after winning just three games all of last season.

READ MORE: Winnipeg fans believing in Blue once again

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Much of Winnipeg’s success this season has come at the expense of East Division competition. The Bombers are 4-0 versus Eastern clubs, helping anchor the West’s dominant 13-2 overall head-to-head mark.

Willy has been pivotal to Winnipeg’s resurgence. The former Buffalo varsity star has twice thrown late TD passes to rally the Bombers to victory — a 17-yard strike to Julian Feoli-Gudino for a 34-33 decision over Montreal on July 11 and a two-yard touchdown to Nic Grigsby on the final play for a 27-26 road victory in Hamilton on Friday night.

The six-foot-four, 221-pound Willy has completed 127-of-194 passes (65.5 per cent) for 1,662 yards this season and is second only to Toronto’s Ricky Ray (1,687 yards). Willy also has seven TD passes (tied for third overall) with four interceptions.

READ MORE: Blue Bombers quarterback Drew Willy named CFL player of the week

Winnipeg also leads the CFL in scoring (28 points per game) and is second overall in passing (280.2 yards). A potent offence combined with an aggressive defence — the Bombers are second in the league in sacks with 20 — have created a two-headed challenge for opponents this season.

Willy spent his first two CFL seasons in Saskatchewan, mentoring behind veteran quarterback Darian Durant. The two will square off as rivals for the first time Thursday night.

READ MORE: Bombers QB Willy to take on his former mentor, Riders

Saskatchewan (3-2) counters with the CFL’s most productive ground attack —125.6 yards per game. In two starts, former Bomber Will Ford has rushed for 187 yards and five TDs while averaging a solid 5.1 yards per carry with the defending Grey Cup champions.

The ground game is a big part of Saskatchewan’s offensive success as the unit is ranked second-last in passing (221.4 yards per game). Durant has completed 59.1 per cent of his passes with six TD strikes against five interceptions but threw for 294 yards and a touchdown in the Riders’ convincing 38-14 win over Ottawa last weekend.

But the Riders will be without receiver Taj Smith (15 catches, 227 yards, two TDs), due to off-field issues.

Saskatchewan’s defence ranks first overall in sacks (21) with defensive lineman John Chick (six sacks) leading the way. But Winnipeg must also account for Ricky Foley and Tearrius George (both with four sacks each) while David Lee had two sacks versus Ottawa.

Pick — Winnipeg.

Edmonton Eskimos at Montreal Alouettes, 7 p.m., Friday night.

Montreal (1-4) continues to look for a winning formula for its anaemic offence. Jeff Garcia, the former CFL and NFL star quarterback, joined the Alouettes’ coaching staff this week after former head coach Don Matthews and one-time NFL offensive co-ordinator Turk Schonert came aboard as consultants last week. Troy Smith, who has completed just 48.8 per cent of his passes, starts against Edmonton after platooning with Alex Brink in last weekend’s dismal 31-5 home loss to Toronto. Smith was just 5-of-10 passing for 63 yards but Brink finished 9-of-23 passing for 60 yards and an interception. Former NFL star Chad Johnson has just four catches for 78 yards and a TD with Montreal. The Eskimos (4-1) come off the bye week. Their defensive line is anchored by Odell Willis and Almondo Sewell (both five sacks each). Edmonton’s defence is ranked first in fewest yards allowed (252.4 per game) and second in fewest points allowed (16.8), a nice complement to an offence led by quarterback Mike Reilly (league-high nine TD passes, seventh overall in rushing with 221 yards, 7.9-yard average).

Pick — Edmonton.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats at B.C. Lions, 10 p.m. ET on Friday night

Travis Lulay is back following off-season shoulder surgery but veteran Kevin Glenn makes his seventh start for B.C. (3-3). Glenn threw for 277 yards in rallying the Lions past previously unbeaten Calgary 25-24 last weekend. He also moved past Tracy Ham into ninth all-time with 40,808 passing yards. Running back Andrew Harris is the league’s top rusher with 381 yards and second-leading receiver (23 catches, 341 yards, three TDs) to stand first overall in yards from scrimmage (722). Dan LeFevour makes a third straight start for Hamilton (1-4), coming off a disheartening one-point home loss to Winnipeg despite accumulating just 22 net offensive yards in the first half. Both teams struggle protecting the passer as B.C. has allowed a league-high 22 sacks, one more than Hamilton, but the Lions are riding the crest of their big win over the Stamps.

Pick — B.C.

Ottawa Redblacks at Calgary Stampeders, 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday night.

After winning his first seven CFL starts — tying Garcia’s league record — Bo Levi Mitchell is coming off his first career loss with Calgary (4-1). He’ll face an Ottawa defence ranked last in points (30.2 per game) and yards allowed (399.4 per game). Martell Mallett, in his first CFL action since ’09 when he was the league’s top rookie, ran for 116 yards on 14 carries while adding six catches for 59 yards. The Stampeders’ defence is the league’s stingiest, allowing just 15.4 points per game. That’s not good for the Redblacks (1-4), ranked eighth in scoring (18.8 points per game). Ottawa fell behind 24-0 early to Saskatchewan en route to a one-sided 24-point home loss. Quarterback Henry Burris was 17-of-33 passing for 217 yards and two interceptions while rookie kicker Brett Maher missed all four attempted field goals.

Pick — Calgary

Record — 12-12.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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