CFL’s top two quarterbacks set to go head-to-head this week when Bombers visit Lions

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When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers meet the B.C. Lions in Vancouver on Friday night, the game will feature a heavyweight battle of the two top quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League so far this season.

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In one corner, you have Lions quarterback Michael Reilly, who has a CFL most outstanding player award and a Grey Cup MVP award on his resume, and is having another strong season, at age 36, despite dealing with some soreness in his throwing elbow.

In the other corner, you have Zach Collaros of the Bombers, who has a 10-1 overall record as the quarterback of the 2019 Grey Cup champions and has been a picture of consistency so far this year, at age 33.

“It just so happens that both of our teams have good records this year so I know it’s exciting for you guys to write about and for the fans to look forward to, but it’s just another game for us,” Collaros said after the Bombers practised at the University of Manitoba on Tuesday.

“I do have a lot of respect for (Reilly) and I always have. He plays the game the right way, so it’s always exciting to go up against him, even though we’re not actually playing each other.

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“I think Mike has been a great player for a long time. He’s a great person too. I always look forward to watching him play.”

Here’s a sampling from the tale of the tape for this marquee QB matchup:

– Reilly leads the CFL with 1,860 passing yards in seven games, while Collaros is second with 1,731 yards.

– Reilly is first in passing efficiency (117.8), while Collaros is third at (105.3).

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– Collaros leads in completions over 30 yards, with 14, while Reilly is second, with 12.

– They both have 10 touchdown passes, tied for second behind Vernon Adams of the Montreal Alouettes.

– Reilly has thrown just one interception, tops in the CFL, while Collaros has thrown four, which is, you guessed it, second best.

– Most importantly, Collaros leads in wins (six), good for first place in the West Division, while Reilly has the Lions in third place at 4-3.

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It should be a tantalizing matchup in the closed confines of B.C. Place, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an air show develop, with receivers the likes of Lucky Whitehead, Bryan Burnham (Lions), Kenny Lawler and Nic Demski (Bombers) displaying their tricks.

“You don’t think about it when you’re in that moment, or in that game, you’re just really focused on the next play call and what your responsibility is to get your team in the right situation,” Collaros said of the head-to-head quarterback battle. “When you are in those games, maybe you can look back and reflect on them after the season is done, but I’m sure (Reilly) will say the same thing — in those moments you’re really just focused on whatever it takes to win for your team.”

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While Reilly is no stranger to leading the CFL in passing, seeing Collaros so high up on the yardage list this year is a bit of a surprise to some observers. In the past, including when they won the Grey Cup in 2019, the Bombers were a run-first team that managed to get by through the air, but their passing game has been very consistent this year with Collaros at the controls.

“I would think that’s the way he’s always been,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. “He’s a consistent competitor, he always wants to be better and he sees the game well. It looks like him and (offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce) have a very good working relationship in how they talk the game.

“But, you know, I think Zach IS a consistent quarterback. I don’t know that there’s anything special he’s done different. I think this is who he is.”

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Collaros is never one to take the credit for how the Bombers’ offence is operating. He sees the success of the passing game to be a combination of great work by the offensive line, blocking from the running backs and sure-handed catches by the receivers.

“It’s just paying attention to the details, making sure that we’re aligned properly, making sure know what concept we have called and communicating up front,” Collaros said. “All those little things make it easy for the quarterback to see where to go with the football and then it’s my job to get the ball out on time and the receivers have to catch the ball. They’ve done a great job with that.”

On the other side, you’ve got Reilly, a quarterback who loves to go for the home run and has regularly executed this season, in combination with Whitehead, Burnham and others.

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“You know Reilly’s gonna throw deep shots,” O’Shea said. “He always does. He’s got a good arm.”

The Bombers have been one of the best teams in the CFL against the big play this season, allowing only eight completions of 30 yards or more. They’ve also allowed a league-low two passing touchdowns, which suggests this defence should match up well against Reilly.

“Big plays, whether they’re throwing the ball down the field or just screen plays,” said Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall, whose team has allowed a league-low 14 points against per game this season. “You know, Mike Reilly, he’s got the arm and he wants to throw the ball downfield, so we have a big challenge for ourselves on Friday night.”

No doubt, the Lions will have their hands full as well with a Bombers offence that leads the league in touchdowns. They’ll have to contend with Collaros, who is similar to Reilly in the sense that he can extend plays with his feet and make deep throws while on the run.

Collaros doesn’t like to compare himself to Reilly, but he certainly reveres his counterpart and emulates him when possible.

“First and foremost with Mike it’s just his attitude, his demeanour and his toughness that he brings to a football team that always shines through,” Collaros said. “It’s his ‘whatever-it-takes mentality’ to win a football game. That’s something I’ve always admired about Mike. He’s accurate, he can throw the ball a mile and he understands what defences are trying to do to him.

“Throw all that together and you get a great quarterback.”

Twyman@postmedia.com

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