WINNIPEG – Drew Willy says he was probably a bit of a pest the first time he and Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant had a chance to get to know each other.
The former teammates were at a mini camp in Florida when he got a ride from Durant and started peppering the veteran with questions, Willy recalled on Wednesday.
“I was in the front seat, probably annoying him, asking him all kinds of CFL questions because I didn’t know anything really about the CFL yet,” said Willy, who was traded to Winnipeg in the off-season.
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The men then started talking about people they knew in the football world, how they both liked basketball and how Willy’s dad, like Durant, lives in Atlanta.
Their friendship grew over the next two seasons, but it’ll be on hold for a few hours Thursday when Willy and his new Blue Bomber teammates host Durant and the Roughriders at Investors Group Field.
“We’ll probably have a quick handshake before the game. That’ll be it, probably,” Willy said.
It’s the first of three meetings in five weeks between the arch-rival clubs, with Willy aiming to add a victory to Winnipeg’s 5-1 record and Durant trying to keep his 3-2 team on a roll after a pair of lopsided wins against Toronto and Ottawa.
The first sellout of the season is expected as under 800 tickets were remaining Wednesday morning for the 33,500-seat stadium.
Saskatchewan has won 10 of the past 12 games between the teams. Willy could help turn that tide if he keeps playing the way he has for a club that went 3-15 last season.
The 27-year-old native of New Jersey goes into the game after claiming his second CFL offensive player of the week honour. Willy threw for 361 yards and one touchdown in the dying seconds of a 27-26 victory over Hamilton last Thursday.
It was the second late-game winning drive Willy has put together this season. He’s thrown seven touchdowns and four interceptions for 1,662 yards, second behind Ricky Ray’s 1,687 yards, eight TDs and four picks with Toronto.
Durant, who’s passed for 1,071 yards with six TDs and five interceptions, said he was happy to mentor Willy.
“He’s a good friend of mine,” Durant said in a conference call Tuesday before the team travelled to Winnipeg.
“We’ve shared some battles together. I like to think that I taught him a lot about the game and I’m happy to see him succeed.”
But “obviously not” on Thursday, Durant added.
Willy credited Durant with teaching him about the CFL game, and how to keep his cool in a football-crazy market.
“He was always kind of the same, level-headed,” Willy said. “He kind of taught me that kind of stuff, the mental part.”
“And then his friendship, obviously we could talk about quarterback stuff or we could talk about anything going on in our lives.”
“He’s been very good to me. The starter doesn’t always have to be good to the backups. I mean, in some places it isn’t like that.”
Thursday’s tilt could also be a battle between the running backs.
Saskatchewan’s Will Ford was released by the Bombers in mid-July without playing a game and was signed by the Riders a week later.
Winnipeg let him go after newcomer Nic Grigsby began making a big impact on the ground.
Grigsby is second in the league in rushing yards with 343 and four TDs, behind B.C.’s Andrew Harris, who has 381 yards and one TD.
Ford caught on fire with the Riders and has a league-leading five TDs off 187 yards in two games, but the new starter downplayed any significance of going up against his former club.
“It’s just another game, no matter if it’s Winnipeg or any other team,” Ford said. “You just prepare each week to dominate the team that’s in front of us.”
Grigsby, a free-agent signing by the Bombers in April, said he doesn’t feel challenged to have a better game than Ford.
“Not at all. There’s no challenge,” Grigsby said. “I challenge myself every game to come and do what I’m supposed to do.”
“The yards take care of itself. You can’t make a big run happen. You’ve just got to execute and do what you do and if it comes out, it comes out.”
Durant predicted one thing about the game – it should be a battle.
“We know that going into the game it’s going to be a 60-minute dog fight,” Durant said.
“They’ve won some tough games, some games that have gone down to the wire, and our mentality is it’s going to take all 60 minutes to get it done.”
Notes – Bombers receiver Cory Watson will play for the first time since injuring a hamstring in Week 1 … Saskatchewan will be without receiver Taj Smith, who allegedly breached a condition of release on the weekend related to an assault charge he’s facing from a bar fight last August … Winnipeg rookie offensive lineman Matthias Goossen will get his first pro start in place of injured Patrick Neufeld … Veteran Riders O-lineman Brendan Labatte is expected to play after injuring his ankle in the opening drive of his team’s win over Ottawa.