The Blue Bombers have been the CFL’s early surprise, but now quarterback Drew Willy and his high-scoring Winnipeg team will take their show on the road.
The Bombers (2-0) face the hard-charging Montreal Alouettes (1-1) defence when the teams meet Friday night at Percival Molson Stadium.
Winnipeg opened the season with home wins over Toronto and Ottawa, piling up a league-leading 81 points in two games. They face a team than has allowed fewer than 20 points per game, including last week’s 24-9 win at home over British Columbia.
“They’ve had a good defence for a long time,” Willy said Thursday. “They’ve got a lot of good veterans.
“You can tell they’ve played together a long time. This week we were preparing, looking at the different looks they’ve given in the last few games and the past few years, so we’ll be ready to go. I’m looking forward to going against them.”
The Alouettes offence has yet to find its stride under new starting quarterback Troy Smith, although he was better against the Lions than in the season opener in Calgary, a 29-8 loss. Smith has yet to pass for more than 200 yards in a game or throw a touchdown pass, but his execution improved and the Alouettes hope the offence takes another step the third time out.
Willy has had no such problems so far in his first CFL season as a starter. He played eight games over the past two seasons with Saskatchewan as Darian Durant’s backup. The 27-year-old was traded to Winnipeg on Feb. 6 for receiver Jade Etienne.
In his two games, Willy has passed for 615 yards, second only to Toronto’s Ricky Ray, and four TDs. He completed two-third of his throws, 40 for 60. Smith has completed only half of his passes, 35 for 70, for 341 yards.
The Bombers have also been successful on the ground, where newcomer Nate Grigsby has rushed for 184 yards and three TDs on 35 carries.
“He’s made some huge plays for us,” said Willy. “He’s been able to get the tough yards we need late in games near the goal-line.”
Montreal’s aggressive, ball-hungry defence will be a test, however. Last week, they sacked B.C.’s Kevin Glenn five times and caused three turnovers.
“We’ve just got to play assignment football,” said defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash. “They do have a good running back, but we pride ourselves on stopping the run, so it’ll be a good match.”
The defence also produced an early TD for the Alouettes, when defensive lineman Scott Paxson picked off a pass and pitched it to linebacker Chip Cox for an easy jaunt into the end zone.
Cox said the challenge will be to slow down a Winnipeg offence that has early-season momentum.
“Big plays man, they’re getting a lot of big plays,” he said. “If we can eliminate them, I think we’ll be fine.”
Few expected such a strong start from the Bombers, who went 3-15 last season. Winnipeg has missed the playoffs in four of the last five years, with a 30-60 record over that span.
So far, they look to be a better, more disciplined club under new head coach Mike O’Shea.
“Two games, we’ve been successful twice,” cautioned O’Shea. “The players are doing what the coaches ask of them and the effort is there and they’re doing what’s needed to win, so far.”
Still, the wins have not only given them points, but a much-needed morale boost as well.
“It’s very important, as I stressed through training camp, that this team tasted winning early, especially the veteran players who had experienced more than their fair share of losing,” said O’Shea. “They’ve got that taste in the mouth now and they like it, so I believe they’ll continue to do the things they needed to do to win those two games.”
They also haven’t been tested on the road. Home teams went 7-1 in the first two weeks.
“Being on the road, from my recollection, can be good,” said O’Shea, a former standout linebacker for Toronto. “You get more time to sit with your teammates and watch film together and talk football because there’s not the distractions (of home). It’s a business trip.”