The road to the 102nd Grey Cup has begun. To reach the final destination of BC Place in Vancouver on November 30th, the Montreal Alouettes will have to take the scenic route.
With first place and a bye to the Eastern final on the line, the Alouettes went into a rain-soaked Tim Hortons Field this past Saturday and came up empty-handed, losing 29-15 to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The loss snaps the Alouettes’ 6 game winning streak and now cements them at 9-9 and in second place to end the 2014 regular season. Montreal will now host the BC Lions in the Eastern Semi-Final this coming Sunday at 1PM in hopes for their first playoff win since the 2010 Grey Cup championship match. The Alouettes have lost three straight playoff games (2 Eastern Semi-Finals to Hamilton, 1 Eastern Final to Toronto) since winning that game.
No Western CFL team has ever crossed over and represented the East in the Grey Cup but if BC wants to play in the very game that they are hosting later this month, they’ll have to win two crucial games in two very difficult places to play.
So what did the Alouettes in against Hamilton? Simply put, they played like a team that had already clinched a playoff spot. There didn’t seem to be the same fire or sense of desperation to clinch that extra bye week that the Tiger-Cats had. The Tabbies had their backs against the wall coming into this game and much like a caged version of their namesake, they came out with claws bared and fought for their playoff lives.
Special teams were particularly bad for the Alouettes, with several missed tackles, a fumbled punt return and for the second time in as many weeks, the opposing team recovered their own punt with an onside player. In addition to his head coaching duties, Tom Higgins also handles the special teams. Since Higgins’ services are being retained for the 2015 season, here’s hoping that he will defer the task of special teams coaching to someone else as that seems well beyond his reach.
Zach Collaros lived up to the hype and found ways to shred Montreal’s secondary while Jonathan Crompton was stymied many times by Hamilton’s defense and save for a few exceptional plays, just couldn’t get any real offense going. It almost felt like the Tiger-Cats had read my previous blog entry on how Montreal had to play and followed it to the letter. The Tiger-Cats took away the running game from Tyrell Sutton and forced plenty of two and outs.
Crompton practically gift-wrapped Hamilton’s first TD for them with a poorly-executed backwards pass that was mishandled by Chris Rainey in the end zone, allowing the Ti-Cats to dive on the loose ball and claim the first of 3 touchdowns on the day. Save for a trio of field goals and a garbage time touchdown to Duron Carter, the Alouettes forgot to pack an offense for this business trip to Southern Ontario.
When it was all said and done, Hamilton wanted this win and bye week much more than Montreal did. Much to the delight of their fans, the Tiger-Cats are undefeated since they started playing full-time at Tim Hortons Field this past Labour Day, pushing that record to 6-0 with one more game to be played there.
Now the Alouettes will have to start a new winning streak in order to claim their eighth Grey Cup in franchise history. The first hurdle they will have to clear will come in the form of the BC Lions, who limped their way to the end of the regular season with overwhelming losses to both Edmonton and Calgary.
These two teams split their season series earlier in the summer, with the home team winning handily each time. But that does not mean that this Sunday’s game will be a walk in the park for Montreal. The 2011 BC Lions started a trend that has continued for the past three years where the host city’s football team goes on to win the Grey Cup. The Lions are hoping history can repeat itself for a fourth season.
Should the Lions somehow beat both the Alouettes and Tiger-Cats on the road to be the East representative, they could actually face the possibility of NOT having access to their own facilities! But there are a number of variables in play and I will look at those later on in the week.
For now, the path to the 102nd Grey Cup will run through both Percival Molson Stadium and Tim Hortons Field.
Speaking of Tim Hortons Field, I must say that it is a vast improvement over the former Ivor Wynne Stadium. There was nothing wrong per se with the old stadium other than it was in dire need of a refreshing. Well, the city of Hamilton paid a dear price to have this newly built stadium and it was money well spent.
The stadium has a much cleaner look with plenty of great sight-lines so there’s really no bad seat in the house. A giant HD video screen lets you see the action clearly and allows you to see replays in very short order. And like in Montreal, there’s a fan zone in the southern end of the field where people can gather and socialize before and during the game.
Being there live this past Saturday, I can attest to how noisy it can get at Tim Hortons Field when the opposing team has the ball, so whomever wins between the Lions and Alouettes will have to plan accordingly for that. And to their credit, Hamilton fans don’t have to be told constantly to make noise on defense.
Every Tiger-Cats fan that I spoke with who wasn’t a drunken lout was extremely happy with how Tim Hortons Field finally turned out. After enduring a nomadic lifestyle in 2013/14 with home games being played in Guelph’s Alumni Stadium and at Ron Joyce Stadium at McMaster University, the Hamilton fans can finally settle in and make new memories at Tim Hortons Field.
Like what TD Place has done for fans in Ottawa, this refurbished stadium will be a boon for the city of Hamilton and the Tiger-Cats alike. Outgoing CFL commissioner Mark Cohon was quick to trumpet last season how great both TD Place and Tim Hortons Field were going to be when they opened and sure enough both stadiums have passed the test, albeit a tad later than expected.
Now the stage is set, Alouettes Nation. It’s time for us fans to rise up and show this team that “Strength in Numbers” isn’t merely a clever catch phrase, but something that this fanbase truly believes in. Recent history has favoured the team who hosts the Eastern Semi-Final going all the way to the big game, so perhaps that’s the route the Alouettes are destined to take in 2014.
As Alouettes special teams ace Nicolas Boulay said early Sunday morning before heading back to Montreal with his teammates, “We haven’t done anything the easy way this year, why start now?” Every team in the CFL playoffs now has an equal record of 0-0. Let the second season begin!
That’s all for now. I’ll be back later this week to preview the Lions/Alouettes Eastern Semi-Final match. This will be the last game played in 2014 at Percival Molson and I am expecting a full house. Time to show this Montreal Alouettes franchise what we fans are made of.