Trailing by 10 points against Winnipeg at halftime of Sunday’s Grey Cup game, and having just been stopped twice at the Blue Bombers’ one-yard line, the Alouettes remained convinced they controlled their destiny.
“We knew we were the better team,” middle-linebacker Darnell Sankey said on Tuesday, as the players congregated at Olympic Stadium to gather their belongings before undergoing medicals and exit meetings with management.
“We went into the Grey Cup with the mentality that we were not going to lose,” added the articulate Sankey, 29, choosing his words carefully. “We don’t care what happens; we’re not going to lose. We were down at halftime? Oh well. We’re not going to lose. Losing was never an option. I’m being straight with you. None of us thought we were going to lose this game.
“As a defence, we didn’t feel like we played to the best of our abilities in the first half. We came together and said ‘that’s not our game. We’re going to go and bring it to them.’ ”
Sankey proved prescient. Not only did Montreal’s defence limit the powerful Bombers to seven points after the break, the Als rallied in the final two minutes. Quarterback Cody Fajardo directed a seven-play, 83-yard touchdown drive for the come-from-behind 28-24 victory — the franchise’s eighth CFL title, but first since 2010.
During their post-season run to a championship, Montreal’s defence held quarterbacks Matthew Shiltz, Bo Levi Mitchell, Chad Kelly and Zach Collaros to a total of 632 passing yards and one touchdown while intercepting seven passes. Toronto’s Kelly was named the league’s most outstanding player, an award Collaros captured the previous two years.
While Collaros completed 19 of 23 passes on Sunday, he was limited to 236 yards. He also threw a critical interception in the third quarter with the ball on the Als’ nine-yard line. His pass for Kenny Lawler was intercepted in the end zone by rookie cornerback Kabion Ento, who went airborne, making a spectacular, athletic play.
Winnipeg was leading 17-14 at the time.
Veteran rush-end Shawn Lemon, a part of every CFL organization except Hamilton, called the Als’ defence the best he has played on. Lemon, a free agent who signed with Montreal in late July, undoubtedly carried the unit over the top — with the assistance of Sankey, who signed on Sept. 11 after winning an XFL title.
“Just the fight that we had,” Lemon said. “Like I’ve been saying all year (defensive co-ordinator Noel) Thorpe doesn’t get a lot of respect in this league as far as the game-planning and the work he puts in. He ignites the fire for us and puts in that good plan for us to go out and execute.
“I just tried to lead by example,” added Lemon, 35, who had one quarterback sack and a tackle for a loss against Winnipeg. “This championship ranks (first) off anything I’ve achieved in my career, just because of the adversity that went into it, individually and as a team. Everyone was here for a reason.”
Leading that list was Fajardo, benched by Saskatchewan late in 2022 and exiled to free agency following the addition of Trevor Harris from Montreal. Fajardo had few options in a nine-team league, especially if he wanted to remain a starter. Fortunately for him, Als general manager Danny Maciocia believed in the 31-year-old. And Maciocia hired Jason Maas, the Roughriders’ former offensive co-ordinator, as his head coach.
“It puts a smile on your face, just because there’s been a lot of dark days,” Fajardo said. “This off-season was extremely dark for me, going into free agency. It’s guys like Danny, coach Maas … who believed in me. It’s the teammates in there. I felt like that team was behind me. No matter what happened in that game, I felt like they were going to be behind me. I wanted to go out there and do it for them.”
On the game-winning drive and faced with second-and-18, Fajardo scrambled for 13 yards, the distance for a first down now more manageable. But then Maas called an unexpected play, Fajardo connecting with Cole Spieker for a 31-yard reception. Fajardo then passed 19 yards to Tyson Philpot for a touchdown with 13 seconds remaining in regulation time.
With Als’ leading receiver Austin Mack lined up in the slot and Spieker outside, Montreal correctly gambled the Bombers wouldn’t be paying as much attention to Spieker on the key third-down play.
“The stones coach Maas has for calling that play,” Fajardo said, laughing. “I knew there was a possibility for a deep shot, but didn’t want to pass up an easy first down if it was there.
“If that’s the way we’re going out, we’re going out swinging,” added Fajardo, who passed for 290 yards, three touchdowns and was named the most valuable player. “I saved my best game for the biggest stage.”
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