Winnipeg puts the best record in the CFL on the line Thursday night when the Blue Bombers entertain the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a West Division showdown at Investors Group Field.
Unlike the East Division where Toronto sits atop the standings with a dismal 2-4 mark after six weeks of action, every team in the West Division is playing at least .500 football and leading the way is Winnipeg, while the Riders are sitting in fourth place at 3-2.
Winnipeg appeared to be well on the way to a comfortable victory against Hamilton on Thursday night, ahead by a score of 20-3, but the team then surrendered 23 unanswered points and had to scramble in the final minutes to pull out the 27-26 triumph, thanks to a two-yard scoring strike from Drew Willy to Nic Grigsby on the final play of regulation.
Willy engineered a 10-play, 94-yard drive in less than two minutes to keep the Bombers undefeated on the road through three games in 2014. The quarterback converted 31-of-43 for 361 yards and the one score, while Grigsby caught six passes for 63 yards and also carried the ball 13 times for 56 yards and a major as well. Willy was named the Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
Robert Marve pitched in with a three-yard scoring run in the second quarter for Winnipeg, while kicker Lirim Hajrullahu knocked through both of his field goal tries and finished with nine points.
As a team, the Bombers rolled up an impressive 444 yards, while holding the Tiger-Cats to 236 yards and watching the hosts commit an unsightly 19 penalties for a loss of 114 yards throughout the meeting.
As for the Roughriders, they marched out to a 32-0 lead in the second quarter versus expansion Ottawa over the weekend and never looked back, although they did take their foot off the gas en route to the 38-14 road victory. Saskatchewan, which has won two straight since bowing in back-to-back contests versus Toronto and British Columbia, scored at least 31 points for the third time in five tries thanks to running back Will Ford who turned 20 carries into 74 yards and a pair of majors.
In just two games Ford, who was signed just a couple weeks ago, has as many rushing touchdowns (five) as he did in his two previous seasons combined, suiting up for Winnipeg coincidentally.
Quarterback Darian Durant hit on 19-of-25 passes for 294 yards and a score, shaking off a couple of sacks along the way. Rob Bagg caught six passes for a game-high 123 yards. Also working in favor of Saskatchewan was the fact that Ottawa pinned itself in with a staggering 19 penalties for a loss of 168 yards.
Adding even more excitement to the rout for the Riders was Tristan Jackson who was credited with a 111-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown.
However, there was one play during the game that caught the Riders off guard. In the second quarter Ottawa opted to punt away, but because Dobson Collins was behind backup quarterback Thomas DeMarco when he connected on the punt, Collins was eligible to recover the ball in the end zone for a touchdown, the first play of its kind since 1999 when Scott McKenzie scored for the Calgary Stampeders.
Assuming the Riders can put that fluke play behind them, they certainly have the fire power to keep up with Winnipeg this week. Saskatchewan is second in the league, behind only the Bombers (28.0 ppg) in scoring with 26.8 ppg. Ford has been a huge spark for the club with his trips to the end zone, which is why the program is tied with Winnipeg for the top spot in the CFL with seven rushing TDs entering play this week.
On the defensive side of the ball, John Chick continues to lead the league in sacks with six, and that in turn has brought the team's total to 21, one more than Winnipeg. However, as strong as Chick and his teammates have been when fighting their way into the backfield, the fact remains that Saskatchewan is still second-to-last in yards allowed with 341.0 per game.
Chick and Co. will have to keep an eye out for Grigsby during their pursuit of Willy because the running back is now second with 343 rushing yards and is second with four rushing TDs. Grigsby is also second in yards from scrimmage with 566, opening himself up for the ball from any and all angles these days.
The relationship between the clubs is a long and storied one, with the series history favoring the Blue Bombers, 114-88-3, when considering just regular- season clashes dating back to 1936. Saskatchewan had won five in a row over the Bombers, but Winnipeg put an end to the slide with a 25-13 victory at home last September.
In just over three weeks the teams will be back on the field together in Saskatchewan and a week after that will complete back-to-back gatherings in Manitoba.