One down, five to go.
The 2016 Canadian Football League season has entered the home stretch and the chase for the Grey Cup is well underway. The idea of the Montreal Alouettes being a part of that chase seemed rather lofty two weeks ago when they last played a football game. With a 3-9 record and inner turmoil threatening to implode this team, this looked to be yet another lost season in La Belle Province.
But in those two weeks, changes started to happen. A new head coach was summoned to salvage what he could of this season. Sunday’s game was his first test of many tests and suffice to say, he passed this one with flying colours.
Jacques Chapdelaine, long-time OC for several CFL teams, led the Alouettes to a 38-11 victory over the Toronto Argonauts in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd at Percival Molson Stadium. While not the prettiest game in terms of play, Montreal managed to accomplish two very important things; score points and let the defense play its style of game.
In addition to being the field boss, Chapdelaine took over the play-calling duties from current OC Anthony Calvillo and you were able to see a remarked difference right away. On Montreal’s first offensive drive, quarterback Rakeem Cato found Kenny Stafford for a huge 48 yard gain. On the very next play, Cato finds Samuel Giguere for the first of his FOUR touchdown passes on the day.
Cato spread the ball around to all of his receivers but was able to connect with Stafford for a pair of TDs as well as finding B.J. Cunningham for a beauty of a touchdown to end the third quarter. Along with Giguere rushing in for another TD and Anthony Fera nailing his lone field goal attempt, it was an expert display of this team’s firepower. A perfect way to pay tribute to the men & women of the Canadian Armed Forces during this Military Appreciation game.
Drew Willy is expected to be the answer at quarterback for the Argos when Ricky Ray decides to hang up his cleats. But on this day, he was simply no match for Montreal’s vaunted defense. Willy went 24 of 35 and threw for 226 yards, but he was sacked three times and also turned the ball over that many times.
The Argos simply couldn’t get anywhere near the end zone as Montreal’s D bent, but never broke. Much like when the Alouettes played the Blue Bombers in Week One, this defense read Willy like a book. Jovon Johnson continues to lead his young secondary by example and picked off the flummoxed Argo pivot while Alan-Michael Cash also managed to recover an errant ball for a turnover thanks to John Bowman’s strip sack.
The only points Toronto could muster on this misty October day was a hat trick of field goals by Lirim Hajrullahu and a conceded safety by the Alouettes’ Anthony Fera. The Alouettes came out punching and like they did in their victories versus Saskatchewan and Ottawa, didn’t stop swinging haymakers until the final whistle was blown.
The win puts Montreal just two points back of Toronto and more importantly, they were the only Eastern team to win this week so that helped bridge the gap a little. I did say that Montreal was going to need some help to reach the Grey Cup playoffs in 2016. From here on out, they need the Western teams to beat their divisional rivals while the Alouettes have to win their own games. The first week of a six-week odyssey has begun for the Birds of Prey.
So what do we make of this win? Was it really all due to the appointment of Chapdelaine as the head coach? Is he the saviour that this team needs?
Well, the biggest issue that Montreal has had all year was the lack of a cohesive offense. It’s easy to lay all the blame on Anthony Calvillo, but let’s not forget that he was thrust into this situation and he was done a tremendous disservice. Much like when Kevin Glenn took over for Rakeem Cato late last season, you can see the difference a veteran can make versus a raw rookie when it comes to leading a team.
That holds true with coaching as well. Again, this is not Chapdelaine’s first rodeo. He’s led offenses on other CFL teams and while he may not have gotten many wins, points were certainly scored. And with a defense like Montreal’s, you don’t necessarily need to score a boatload of points. But you have to put SOME on the board.
On Sunday, several points were scored. And while Rakeem Cato didn’t look perfect and even caused a few gaffes himself, throwing four touchdowns in a game is no small feat. He was given the time to make sound decisions and his coach gave him the plays needed to move the chains. I had mentioned that Chapdelaine could possibly have Cato on a short leash, but the wunderkind from Marshall answered the call in spectacular fashion when needed and made his new head coach look like a genius.
After the game Cato was quick to say that while this win was great, the work is far from complete. In a refreshing display of accountability, he also refused to throw his O-Line under the bus for the pair of QB sacks they allowed. Cato fell on the sword, saying that both sacks were his fault and that he should have thrown the ball away instead.
While not posting the greatest overall numbers on Sunday, Rakeem led his team and made the most of his opportunities. Simply put, winners find a way to win.
You can make the argument that this was simply a win versus a Toronto team that is trending downward and also going through a tough time with personnel. In a sense that’s true, but these are the games that the Alouettes would have let slip away earlier this year. Even taking it one game at a time, Montreal came together and played like a team that is still very much in the hunt.
This victory is a much-needed boost of confidence for the Alouettes as they face another tough test on Thanksgiving Monday. The defending Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos will be in town and they may very well be the biggest threat to Montreal’s playoff chances.
If the Grey Cup playoffs started today, the Eskimos would cross over to the East to play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Edmonton had been reeling of late, even losing to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. But they are back on track with a big win over Winnipeg this past Friday. Montreal can ill afford to let up against these Eskimos and their dangerous offense, led by Grey Cup MOP Mike Reilly.
This week I’ll be joining the Eskimos Empire podcast to talk more about this upcoming match. Be sure to give it a listen and don’t forget to also check out the Alouettes Flightdeck as Tim Capper and myself break down the first of hopefully many Jacques Chapdelaine-coached victories for the Alouettes.
This was a much-needed win for Montreal. And everyone took notice.
Say what you will about Jim Popp and his supposed ego, but he showed a lot of class with that post-game tweet. This was such a tough situation Montreal found itself in. The team could have given up and let Chapdelaine twist in the wind. Instead, they played for him, for each other and with purpose in order to win a crucial divisional game.
Could Chapdelaine be the long-term solution for this team? Only time will tell. But the longest journey starts with a single step. I have said numerous times that this team has the talent. On Sunday, over 23,000 people got to see the talent that this Montreal Alouettes team really has and what they can really do.
I sincerely hope this won’t be the last time we see it in 2016.