Five storylines to ponder heading into today's Roughriders-Bombers clash at Investors Group Field:
1. WELCOME TO 'WILLY-PEG'
Drew Willy was around the Saskatchewan Roughriders long enough to understand the ebbs and flows of a season, as well as the hyperbole and hysteria that comes with a 5-1 run. And so all this "Willy-Peg" stuff -- especially for a guy who doesn't exactly relish the spotlight -- must be a little amusing.
Or, deep down, annoying as hell.
"I hear it," said Willy with a shrug when asked about the Willy-Peg thing. "I just want to keep winning games. I think my family and friends have a better time with it than I do. It's an honour, I guess you could say. I just want to do everything I can to help this team win and all the outside stuff will take care of itself. If we keep winning everyone will be happy. That's really what I'm trying to do."
So far, so good.
Willy has three 300-yard passing games this season, including last week's 361 -- a career high.
This town was desperate for an answer at QB and it's Willy's work in late-drive wins over Montreal and Hamilton -- he was seven of nine for 79 yards last week against the Ticats, with five of the seven completions coming on second and third down -- that has made him an instant hero.
Now he'll be compared in a head-to-head matchup with former teammate Darian Durant, the man who was so influential in introducing him to the CFL.
"He's been very good to me," Willy said of Durant. "The starter doesn't always have to be good to the backups... I mean, in some places it isn't like that. We were able to have a good friendship. I was always trying to help him any way I could throughout my two years there."
Added Durant in a conference call earlier this week: "I don't like to look at myself as a guy to withhold information because I'm worried about job security, it's all about winning. I tried to give him every tip I could."
So, who takes Round 1? Teacher or pupil?
2. FAMILIAR FACES IN NEW PLACES
Expect there to be a ton of those pre-game back slaps and bro-mance hugs between the Bombers and Riders in the moments leading up to kickoff. Willy was respected in Regina; ditto for Will Ford here. Brendan LaBatte was a mainstay along the O-line here and so was Dominic Picard.
Ex-Bombers GM Brendan Taman will also be in town for his first game since 2009 and the Rider staff features two former Winnipeg coaches in Corey Chamblin and Bob Dyce.
But this is Riders-Bombers and it isn't just an ordinary contest, it's a battle of Prairie rivals.
"It's a big rivalry game with a lot of emotions," said Bombers rookie running back Nic Grigsby. "We respect our opponent, but I heard they don't like green here."
Yeah, you could say that. The Bombers may have won the last meeting between the two clubs -- last September's Banjo Bowl -- but the Riders have owned this rivalry of late, winning 10 of the last 12 and 15 of the last 19 meetings.
3. 'RED' DOESN'T MEAN STOP
It's called the Red Zone -- that area from the 20-yard line to the goal-line -- and it's a place any championship-calibre team simply must be productive.
Through six games the Bombers have been in the red zone 23 times -- more than any other team in the CFL -- and have 11 TDs. That's a 48 per cent TD rate, but it ranks well back of the two deadliest teams in the CFL in Calgary (75 per cent) and the Riders (69 per cent).
The Bombers' Lirim Hajrullahu has connected on 93.8 per cent of his field-goal attempts, but worth noting is this: The average length of those makes is 28 yards and he's tried only four from outside the 40. That screams out missed opportunities in the red zone.
4. GROUND-GAME REVIVAL?
The Bombers rank last in the CFL in average yards rushing per game at 73.8; the Riders are first at 125.6. Interestingly, it was Nic Grigsby and Paris Cotton -- plus an injury to Will Ford during training camp -- that essentially drove the incumbent west to the Riders. Grigsby is second in the CFL with 343 yards along the ground, but his 4.3-yards-per-carry average is the worst among starters. What earned him his spot here is his effectiveness as a receiver and his ability to grind out tough yards.
Ford, meanwhile, has been dynamite in Saskatchewan with 37 carries for 187 yards and five TDs in the last two weeks. He said Tuesday in a conference call he had nothing to prove against the Bombers. Grigsby said essentially the same thing a day later.
"Not at all. There's no challenge," he said. "I mean, I challenge myself to come out every game and do what I'm supposed to do. But, the yards take care of themselves. You can't make a big run happen, you've got to execute and do what you've got to do and if it comes out, it comes out."
5. TRENCH WARFARE
The Bombers have made one change to their offensive line and it's not insignificant, with rookie Matthias Goossen stepping in for the injured Pat Neufeld. Winnipeg's offensive line has been struggling to find some cohesiveness after injuries to Chris Greaves, Dan Knapp and now Neufeld has led to a ton of shuffling. The Riders' O-line, meanwhile, remains the very backbone of everything the champs do on offence.
Defensively, both teams get to the quarterback quickly and in a bad mood -- Saskatchewan is first in the CFL with 21 sacks, Winnipeg is second at 20. John Chick, who leads the CFL with six sacks, is having the kind of monster season reminiscent of 2009, when he was voted the league's top defender. But the Riders also bring pressure from the other end in Ricky Foley and from the inside in Tearrius George, both of whom have four sacks.
Same can be said for the Bombers, who line their linemen up all over their front and have four sacks from Greg Peach and three each from Zach Anderson and Bryant Turner Jr.
It's always ugly in the trenches, and this will be no different. Ask any lineman and he'll insist every game is determined down there in the mass of humanity.
"It's not just us always saying it," said Turner, Jr. with a grin. "It's the truth."
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