Saskatchewan quarterback Drew Willy's first CFL start won't come in the easiest of environments. His 5-5 Roughriders are on the road in Montreal Sunday, and they're facing an impressive 6-4 Alouettes team (1 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPN3). Sure, the Riders have won two straight games, but both of those came against the struggling Winnipeg Blue Bombers (now 2-9), which is a major asterisk. It's going to be interesting to see how Willy,, a former star with the NCAA's Buffalo Bulls but a CFL rookie who's only starting thanks to a hip injury to Saskatchewan pivot Darian Durant, handles his baptism under fire. Whether he comes through or falls flat will likely have a large role to play in how the Riders do.
There's room for optimism based on what Willy has done thus far. In limited CFL action this year as Durant's backup, he's completed 32 of 41 passes (78 per cent) for 342 yards and three touchdowns with a single interception. Moreover, he was reasonably effective after taking over for Durant early on in last week's Banjo Bowl, completing 17 of 23 passes (73.9 per cent) for 181 yards and a touchdown with one interception. Most impressively, he was extremely cool under fire down the stretch in that contest, leading the Riders down the field with little time left on the clock to set up Sandro DeAngelis' game-winning field goal. Sure, the Bombers' bizarre decision to punt was crucial to Saskatchewan receiving that chance, but Willy made the most of the opportunity he was granted, and that wasn't easy. If he can continue to play efficiently and make smart decisions under pressure, the Riders should have a shot Sunday. It also helps that the Montreal defence was last in the league in passing first downs allowed (146) and pass completion percentage against (68.6 per cent), so they're not exactly ironclad against aerial attacks.
Still, this would be a steep task for any quarterback, and even more so one making his first start. Experience is vital for most CFL players, but it's particularly relevant for quarterbacks. There are so many different elements of the passing game under Canadian rules, including 12 men on offence and defence (which completely changes many route and coverage schemes), a wider and longer field (which has its own effects on routes and throws), the one-yard neutral zone between the lines (which modifies the pass rush), the expanded use of motion (which plays a key role in many short routes) and three downs instead of four (which puts more emphasis on longer throws, receiver-heavy sets, not taking sacks, not throwing the ball away and more). It's not easy for a quarterback raised in the American system to learn all that, and many of the CFL's best quarterbacks spent several seasons apprenticing as a backup or third-stringer before earning a start. This is Willy's first CFL season, so he's still quite new to this league. You can't write off the chance he leads the Riders to a victory Sunday, but many of the odds are stacked against him. We'll see if he can defy them.