It could take a performance for the ages from the Alouettes’ defence for Montreal to reach the Grey Cup, and the players on that side of the ball seem prepared to carry the load.
“I like those odds,” veteran rush-end Shawn Lemon said after Saturday’s 27-12 victory against Hamilton in the East Division semifinal.
The Als held the Tiger-Cats to four field goals and intercepted two passes. Lemon had two of the team’s five sacks. And while the performance was impressive, Montreal followed a similar start to the playoffs last season.
The Als defeated Hamilton 28-17 in the 2022 semifinal, holding the Ticats to one touchdown and three field goals, but were unable to keep Toronto out of the end zone a week later in the division final, won 34-27 by the Argonauts. Montreal squandered a brilliant game by starting quarterback Trevor Harris, who passed for 362 yards.
The Argos went on to win the Grey Cup, upsetting Winnipeg. Toronto has shown this season that victory was no fluke, producing a league-best 16-2 record, including 9-0 at home. Coming off a bye week, the Argos will host Montreal in the division final Saturday (3 p.m.) at BMO Field.
Toronto beat the Als three times this season, including a dominating 39-10 win at home on Sept. 9. The two games in Montreal were more competitive, the Als losing 35-27 and 23-20.
Since the CFL went to an 18-game schedule in 1986, only one team — Edmonton in 1989 — went 16-2. After a bye week, that team was upset 32-21 by (9-9) Saskatchewan in the division final.
“We’ll have our hands full and our work cut out for us,” starting quarterback Cody Fajardo admitted on Saturday. “16-2 has only been done once in the CFL, especially with them coming off a bye and being healthy. But sometimes, when you play the week before, you have momentum and high energy going into a final as opposed to being on a bye week.
“One thing I’m excited about, when a team beats you three times in a season, all you want is to have one more opportunity.”
The Als had one of the league’s stingiest defences this season, allowing 392 points (21.8 average) overall, 37 offensive touchdowns and 380 offensive points (21.1 average). In a league that stresses offence, the Als surrendered 347 first downs on the year and an average of 331.8 yards a game. Montreal was among the CFL leaders in all these categories.
Defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe has built a unit predicated on speed and physicality; a relentless group that gets after the quarterback and relishes producing turnovers. The Als scored nine defensive touchdowns this season.
“Everybody runs to the ball,” Thorpe said. “They know that’s a requirement and they believe in it.”
Thorpe also has given them a purpose on each possession — have it end in a kick and keep teams out of the end zone. While the defence has had its share of early-game struggles, it produced more good efforts than bad. It was led by veterans like Lemon and middle-linebacker Darnell Sankey, who have been overlooked by other teams, and newcomers such as rookie linebacker Reggie Stubblefield, cornerback Kabion Ento and first-round draft choice Lwal Uguak, whose play improved the more he was on the field.
“Our defence is a group of hard-nosed players,” Sankey said. “We come out every single game with something to prove. We want to be the No. 1 defence in the league — that has ever played. In order to do that, we have to bring our ‘A’ game every single game. If we want to win the Grey Cup, we’re going to have to be the best.”
Something else hasn’t changed from last season; the Als’ offence struggles for points at times and relies on David Côté’s field goals far too often.
“When you turn the ball over in the red zone, those are the ones that hurt me and frustrate you the most,” head coach Jason Maas said. “It’s not kicking field goals. That at least ends in a positive.”
Zurkowsky: Alouettes ride trusty defence for playoff win over Hamilton
Lemon records 100th career sack as Als’ defence dominates Redblacks
Alouettes’ Marc-Antoine Dequoy is East Division’s nominee for top Canadian