They’re the talk of the CFL and easily the league’s biggest early season surprises.
The Edmonton Eskimos visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Thursday night (8:30 pm on TSN) with both clubs sporting 3-0 records. And that’s stunning, given they were the league’s worst teams last season – combining for just seven wins – and are led by rookie head coaches Chris Jones and Mike O’Shea, respectively.
But a big part of both teams success has hinged on their young quarterbacks.
Winnipeg’s Drew Willy – after serving as the backup in Saskatchewan – has emerged as a bona fide star in his first season as a league starter. The former Buffalo star is the CFL’s second-ranked passer with 871 yards and has completed over 65 per cent of his passes with five TDs against two interceptions.
And it was Willy’s 18-yard TD pass to Julian Feoli-Gudino on third down with 29 seconds remaining that rallied Winnipeg to a thrilling 34-33 road victory over the Montreal Alouettes last week. The toss capped an impressive 13-play, 75-yard march engineered by Willy with the game on the line.
Edmonton’s Mike Reilly didn’t need the late-game heroics. The Eskimos’ second-year starter was 22-of-33 passing for 256 yards and three TD passes to Adarius Bowman in a 27-11 win over the expansion Ottawa Redblacks. He also added 48 yards rushing on eight carries.
Reilly is ranked third among CFL quarterbacks with 738 yards. He’s also thrown a league-high seven TD passes with just two interceptions and his 67.6 per cent completion average is second only to Toronto’s Ricky Ray (75.7 per cent) among starters.
Winnipeg and Edmonton have taken different routes to their 3-0 records. Winnipeg has scored a league-high 115 points while Edmonton has allowed just 55 points, second only to Calgary (23 points from two games).
But Edmonton will present Winnipeg with its toughest opponent this season. Not only do the Eskimos boast a rugged defence, but they have a potent receiving corps that features Bowman – second among league receivers with 21 catches for 284 yards and four TDs – and veteran slotback Fred Stamps.
Edmonton’s defence also has 13 sacks – second only to Saskatchewan (14) – while Winnipeg has allowed 10 sacks. Willy took several big hits against Montreal, the second straight week he received solid pressure. The Eskimos have also forced a league-high 13 turnovers, including eight interceptions.
Toronto Argonauts at Ottawa Redblacks (7 p.m. ET on Friday night on TSN)
It’s expected to be a wild night in the Canadian capital as the Redblacks (0-2) play their much-anticipated home opener at TD Place. Ottawa has been competitive in its opening two games and will definitely have home-field advantage with a sellout crowd behind it but has just scored just 39 points, second-last in the CFL. Offensively, Toronto (1-2) has scored 89 points, second only to Winnipeg, but was forced to settle for five field goals in last weekend’s 34-15 home loss to Calgary. And with Chad Owens (foot) sidelined at least three weeks, the Argos not only lose the league’s top receiver but also it’s leading punt returner. Once again, Toronto will have to rally from a disappointing loss, much like it did after opening the season with a 45-21 defeat to Winnipeg. The following week, Ray threw for over 400 yards and three TDs in a 48-15 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Calgary Stampeders (10 p.m. ET on Friday night on TSN)
Calgary starter Bo Levi Mitchell looks to improve to 6-0 and move closer to the CFL record for consecutive wins to begin a career, which is seven held by former Stampeder Jeff Garcia. Mitchell was an efficient 16-of-24 passing for 267 yards and four TDs in last weekend’s win in Toronto despite the absence of running back Jon Cornish and slotback Nik Lewis (both concussion symptoms). Defensively, the Stampeders were solid even after losing linebacker Deron Mayo and defensive back Keon Raymond to injuries. If a veteran like Ray has trouble getting the ball into the end zone against Calgary’s defence, how will youngster Jeremiah Masoli fare? Masoli gets the start for Hamilton with incumbent Zach Collaros ailing.
Montreal Alouettes at B.C. Lions (10 p.m. ET on Saturday night on TSN)
B.C. (1-2) earned its first win last week in large part thanks to Andrew Harris. The Winnipeg native accumulated 203 offensive yards and scored a TD in leading the Lions past Saskatchewan 26-13. Harris ran for 138 yards and added five catches for 65 yards against the defending Grey Cup champions. Quarterback Kevin Glenn, who had thrown six interceptions in B.C.’s opening two losses, had none versus Saskatchewan, completing 16-of-27 passes for 170 yards and a TD. Montreal quarterback Troy Smith looked better in his club’s 34-33 loss to Winnipeg, throwing his first three TD passes of the season. But Smith also had an interception returned for a touchdown. The Alouettes (1-2) won the first meeting 24-9 in Montreal but have historically struggled in Vancouver.