Roughly six weeks ago, the Alouettes were 6-7 and on a four-game losing streak. Undaunted, Canadian receiver Tyson Philpot made the bold prediction his team would win its remaining five games.
Well, Philpot might consider purchasing a lottery ticket sometime soon. The Als did go on a five-game streak — recording wins against Calgary, Ottawa twice, Edmonton and Hamilton — reaching 11 victories in a season for the first time since 2012.
While the teams they beat all ended with losing records, slightly tainting the achievement, three of Montreal’s wins came on the road. The Als fell behind 21-3 in the second-quarter in Edmonton, but didn’t allow another point en route to a comeback win.
With the Als’ season teetering at 6-7, and their hold on second place in the East Division tenuous, Philpot said the feeling of confidence in the dressing room never wavered.
“The sense in the room was that we were on that losing streak but knew we were a streaky team,” Philpot told the Montreal Gazette by telephone. “We were just confident.
“Obviously the pressure of losing the season was always there, seeing what Toronto was doing and knowing we had to (try) to keep up with them. It wasn’t desperation, but more confidence. We had been in tight games — the ones we lost to Toronto; B.C. as well. We knew what we had in the locker room if we could put it together.”
The Als started practising Tuesday for Saturday afternoon’s division semifinal at Molson Stadium against the Tiger-Cats — a team they’ve already defeated three times this season. While Montreal’s offence remains inconsistent at times, it has been the defence that has largely carried the team. And now James Letcher Jr. has emerged as a special-teams dynamo, returning a field goal 125 yards against Edmonton and a punt 99 yards against Hamilton for touchdowns.
There’s no denying the Als have some solid offensive pieces, including rookie Austin Mack, their leading receiver, and veteran tailback William Stanback. Mack caught 78 passes for 1,154 yards and four touchdowns, although his production tailed off late in the season. Stanback gained 800 yards (5.4-yard average) in 14 games and should have fresh legs entering the post-season.
But Montreal also scored a league-low 31 offensive touchdowns and allowed 61 quarterback sacks, the second-most in the CFL.
The team’s 11-7 record is especially impressive considering the number of impact players Montreal lost to free-agency last winter — including starting quarterback Trevor Harris and leading receiver Eugene Lewis — due to the ownership uncertainty.
Many in the media predicted the Als wouldn’t make the playoffs and would be fortunate to win six games.
“That was something we talked about at training camp,” Philpot admitted. “That was something we prided ourselves on, showing everyone, all the doubters that said we weren’t going to make the playoffs or be a last-place team because of all the players we lost. Even I had some questions as well.
“But the rookies stepped up, all the people that didn’t have big names. Now they do. They had brilliant seasons. We tapped into what we had and became tight because of it.”
The Als knew what they had in Philpot, selected ninth overall in 2022 out of the University of Calgary.
He was the division nominee as outstanding rookie after catching 39 passes for 459 yards in 18 games. Hampered by a hamstring injury suffered in training camp, the 23-year-old didn’t make his debut this season until the end of July, but still caught 47 passes for 532 yards and five touchdowns in only 13 games.
Philpot, 6-feet and 195 pounds, got stronger as the season progressed. He had nine catches for 105 yards and a touchdown against the Argonauts, Sept. 15, along with 87- and 90-yard efforts against the Stampeders and Redblacks, respectively. He scored Montreal’s first touchdown last Saturday, against Hamilton.
“I’m getting a feel for the CFL,” Philpot said. “It comes with experience. Playing fearless, understanding what kind of impact I can have. Being able to play faster but slowing it down mentally is something I’ve worked on.”
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