Alouettes stun Argos and punch their ticket to Grey Cup

Montreal’s suffocating defence exposes Toronto QB Chad Kelly’s warts as he throws four interceptions.

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While it’s a phrase that’s thrown around far too often in professional sports, perhaps the time has come to suggest the 2023 Alouettes might be a team of destiny? One that found a way to get hot at the right time.

They might be doing it with smoke and mirrors — not to mention a defence that has carried this team throughout the season — but the Alouettes are going to the Grey Cup for the first time since 2010. Is Montreal the best team in the CFL? That’s open for debate. But it might be the best team as of now, and that’s all that matters.

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The Als, as has been their mantra all season, rode a suffocating defence to an improbable, yet convincing, 38-17 victory over the Toronto Argonauts in the East Division final Saturday afternoon before 26,620 stunned spectators at BMO Field.

It marked the first time this season Montreal defeated a team with a winning record. It also marked the Alouettes’ seventh consecutive victory, including a five-game winning streak to end the regular season.

Not only won’t the Argos have the opportunity to defend their title next Sunday at Hamilton, their 16-2 record — including 9-0 at home — now appears moot. Toronto was only the second team in CFL history to go 16-2, and some in the media had anointed the club the greatest in franchise history.

Edmonton also went 16-2 in 1989 only to be upset by Saskatchewan in the West Division final.

“I don’t think anybody was surprised by the result in this locker room,” an emotional Jason Maas, the Alouettes’ head coach, said during a televised post-game interview. “We’ve continued to believe in each other all year and played for one another. It feels tremendous. I know we’re not done. I’m very proud of our guys. I’ve been proud of them all season long.

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“Work is what we do on this team. Now we have a chance to be great and we love it.”

Toronto quarterback Chad Kelly might have come off the bench in the fourth quarter last season, when the Argos came from behind to upset Winnipeg in the Grey Cup. But in his first playoff start on Saturday, he was absolutely brutal, all of his warts exposed by Montreal’s defence. Kelly happens to be the division nominee as most outstanding player.

While Kelly completed 21 of 36 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown, he was intercepted four times. The most critical, and the play that established the tone of this match, occurred barely more than three minutes following the opening kickoff.

With the Argos primed to score on their opening possession, Kelly’s pass for Tommy Nield was intercepted by safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy and returned 101 yards for a touchdown. It was the third time this season Dequoy, the division nominee as outstanding Canadian, returned an interception to the end zone.

“It was simple. It was just man-to-man and I think (Kelly) made a bad read,” Dequoy said during a televised halftime interview. “He threw me the ball right into my chest and I ran to the end zone. It was as simple as that.”

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The Als, as the visiting team, couldn’t have picked a better elixir. Indeed, the Argos, somewhat rattled, failed to generate a first down on their next two series.

Rookie cornerback Kabion Ento returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, providing the Alouettes with a 24-3 lead. Montreal now has scored 11 defensive touchdowns this season.

Reggie Stubblefield and Darnell Sankey also intercepted Kelly in the same quarter, when the Als outscored Toronto 14-0 and took control. Stubblefield’s interception set up Montreal’s first offensive touchdown — an eight-yard pass to Tyler Snead. Even at that, it took a rough play penalty against Shawn Oakman to keep the drive alive after David Côté kicked a 22-yard field goal.

Along with Kelly’s four interceptions, the Argos turned the ball over a mind-boggling four times on downs, including once at the Montreal four-yard line. A fifth turnover occurred after Kelly was hit by Shawn Lemon and  the fumble was recovered by Sankey.

Lemon and Sankey, as everyone knows by now, were on the street as free agents this season before being signed by general manager Danny Maciocia. Sankey didn’t join the team until September.

The diminutive, but spectacular James Letcher Jr., returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown — his third score in limited playing time — after Toronto had reduced the deficit to 14 points in the fourth quarter. Canadian tailback Jeshrun Antwi also scored on a late 12-yard run following an Argos turnover on downs.

In other words, the 38 points were somewhat deceiving and the Alouettes continue to struggle on offence. Quarterback Cody Fajardo, going to his first Grey Cup as a starter, completed 18 of 25 passes for 175 yards, but also was intercepted once. And, in a recurring theme, he was sacked seven times.

The Alouettes were held to 15 first downs and 197 yards’ net offence. While Fajardo gained 38 yards on five carries, William Stanback could generate only 15 yards on nine carries. Montreal has some issues moving forward.

But Montreal is going to the Grey Cup and will be seeking their eighth CFL title in franchise history. At this point, nothing else matters.

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