So close, yet so far for the Montreal Alouettes

This past Thursday’s game was certainly one for the ages in terms of generating excitement for the Canadian Football League.

The Montreal Alouettes were 1:40 away from claiming their third victory of the season over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. After a shaky start, this team battled tooth and nail to put up an impressive 40 points on the board. After games where they couldn’t even crack the 20 point mark, this performance was a tour de force for this beleaguered offense.

Unfortunately, Winnipeg was able to notch 41 points Thursday night; twelve of them in that 1:40 that I mentioned earlier. That was enough for the victory, as the Alouettes tried so hard but ultimately couldn’t finish the game. In a league where they tout “No Lead Is Safe” ad nauseam, the Alouettes’ defense failed to take that axiom to heart and now this team goes into its first bye week with a 2-4 record.

I normally reserve this formula for pre-season games, but this was no ordinary match. It’s time for us to take an in-depth look at The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of the Alouettes’ 41-40 defeat in Winnipeg.

The Good:

If you eliminate the second pass of his first series being intercepted, Darian Durant played his best football game as a member of the Montreal Alouettes.  His final stats read 27 of 35 with 348 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns. But Durant essentially proved that he deserves to be the leader of this football team as he continued his exceptional play from the week previous in Ottawa.

Durant made great use of his rushers Brandon Rutley, J-C Beaulieu and Stefan Logan while finding his targets in the air, including both B.J. Cunningham and Ernest Jackson for a pair of touchdowns. Durant opened up the game and took full advantage of the opposing defense’s shortcomings. He was sacked 5 times, but nearly every time he bounced back stronger as a result.  It took a few games for him to find his way, but Darian showed that bringing him in was not a mistake on the part of general manager Kavis Reed.

For weeks, I’ve been telling you all about Jean-Christophe Beaulieu and his potential. It’s been brimming on the surface for weeks and finally against the Bombers, we got to see just how incredible a football player he is. He had two rushes and both were outstanding for so many reasons. One was for that first TD, as he was finally used as a goal-line threat to plunge forward for that score. His other rush was a phenomenal 41 yard scamper that fully utilized his size and speed to great success, trucking defenders along the way.

There’s no doubt in my mind that head coach Jacques Chapdelaine realized that he had a true threat in Beaulieu and now you can’t unbreak the glass. Beaulieu has left no doubt of his ability to be a game-changer in the Canadian Football League. Opposing DCs will now have to start scheming for this still-young native of Trois-Rivieres. Alouettes Nation hasn’t seen a dominant fullback like this since the days of Kerry Carter. Best believe that J-C is ONLY getting started.

While the youngsters played great on Thursday, you can’t overlook the grizzled veterans on this squad and what they bring to the table. One of the reasons why Durant has looked so good is due to his ability to find the ageless Nik Lewis for many of his passes. Every time Thick Nik gets his paws on the ball, he becomes unstoppable. Averaging nine yards per carry, trying to stop Lewis was like trying to derail a train with a 2×4. Watching Nik hurdle over defenders never ceases to amaze me and as he enters the twilight of his sure-fire Hall of Fame career, I’ve learned to simply never doubt what this stout receiver can do on the football field.

John Bowman played with purpose and gave Bombers QB Matt Nichols plenty of fits. Bowman managed to put Nichols on his behind twice with a pair of sacks. After each sack, Nichols was wincing in pain and was fortunate that he didn’t sustain any serious injury as a result.  Despite his constant claims of being an old man, JB still manages to make people respect everything he brings to the Alouettes defense. It’s been a while since we’ve seen this John Bowman play; I know I never tire of seeing it and I don’t think I am alone.

On Thursday, in front of a huge stage on both TSN and ESPN2, B.J. Cunningham showed just outstanding a playmaker he truly is. I’ve stated on numerous occasions that only Alouette legend Brian Bratton wore #85 better as a member of the Als than Cunningham. But as he progresses through his second full season as a starter, B.J. has truly established himself as one of the premier weapons at Darian Durant’s disposal.

Not only does he score touchdowns, but his ability to get open downfield is terrific. He also understands the importance of field awareness, drawing a PI penalty that annoyed a few folks due to his perceived diving. But it’s that same heads-up awareness that led to one of the many plays in this contest that had everyone buzzing.

On the last play of the third quarter, new Alouettes receiver Eugene Lewis caught a pass and was off to the races. Until he had the ball popped out of his hands by a Taylor Loffler punch. Lewis tried to swat the ball out of bounds in order for the Als to retain possession but instead the football stayed in bounds and sat on the turf. Thinking quickly with no one else around, Cunningham immediately picked up the ball and ran towards the end zone, being tackled at the one yard line. It took a review to be certain that this was still a live ball but after what happened to Darian Durant last week in Ottawa, B.J. wasn’t taking any chances of not trying to score.

Those who know Cunningham weren’t surprised at his ability to see everything in front of him. His presence on the field cannot be denied and as I predicted early on, this will be the season where the former Michigan State Spartan will become a household name in the Canadian Football League.  Alouettes Nation still misses S.J. Green a great deal, but as far as replacements go, B.J. has been simply incredible with no signs of stopping.

The Bad:

That last sequence should have meant that a Vernon Adams plunge into the end zone should have been a mere formality. Instead, lined up at Winnipeg’s one yard line, the Alouettes tried to punch it in with a pair of Brandon Rutley hand-offs. Which this embattled Bombers defense saw coming a mile away. They stood their ground and like so many times already this season, Montreal had to settle for a Boris Bede field goal.

As has been the theme all season long, the real stars of the show that everyone comes out to see are the referees (said with tongue firmly planted in cheek). To say that Montreal lost any of their games solely because of the referees is ultimately childish; while it may feel like the zebras are against your team, that simply is not the case.

That said, some of these calls are truly questionable and relying on the CFL command centre to save your bacon is a fool’s errand at best. Despite having some truly incredible technology at their behest, calls that look easy enough are seemingly not so.

There were two immediate instances in this game where the replay failed the team challenging it; Winnipeg challenged the PI call where Cunningham appears to draw the foul from the defender by diving. B.J. may have oversold the contact a tad, but it was there and the call stood. The other had a roughing the passer call on Dominique Tovell as Matt Nichols did a bit of WWE-like selling of his own to draw the flag. Montreal challenged it with good reason, as it appeared more that Nichols got a bit tangled up and fell versus actual contact. But once again, that call stood.

This match was a true see-saw battle and despite the referees’ best attempts to overshadow things, it truly did shape up to be an instant classic. Both teams were trading scores and Montreal took hold of the match with less than three minutes to go. A Stefan Logan touchdown put them up by twelve points and in many instances this game appeared to be over for the fans at Investors Group Field.

Which now leads us into…..

The Ugly:

That last minute and forty seconds of this game were truly, truly ugly for the fans of the Montreal Alouettes. At the risk of pushing the bile to the tip of my throat, let’s break it down, step by step:

1- Down by twelve points and with less than two minutes left, the plan for the Bombers to win required two things to be done: Score a touchdown on this drive, then recover an onside kick in order to attempt to score another touchdown. Nichols put together an eight play drive that saw him connect with his receivers to move the chains. Montreal’s normally powerful defense looked lost and passive on this drive, practically allowing the Bombers to walk all over them at wil. With a four yard pass to Ryan Lankford, Winnipeg accomplished step one of their plan.

2- Montreal still led by five. The Bombers NEEDED to recover the onside kick in order to get a chance to get to the end zone. Justin Medlock kicked the ball skywards and somehow, Montreal misjudged this ball in the air. Brandon Alexander recovered the ball for Winnipeg to keep the hope alive. Post-game, B.J. Cunningham claimed to have lost the ball in the stadium lights, falling on the sword for the rest of special teams players. In reality, no one on the Alouettes’ hands team looked prepared for this play.

3- After connecting for a 13 yard gain, Nichols was all by himself when he encountered a freight train named Chris Ackie, who had the Winnipeg pivot dead to rights and sacked him for a huge loss that could have iced the game for Montreal. But the orange laundry flew and it’s determined that this was a roughing the passer penalty due to Ackie’s helmet making contact with Nichols’ bucket.

It should be noted that Nichols appeared to brace for the impact and lowered his head in the process, allowing for the contact to be made. Hindsight is always 20/20, but Ackie could have done himself a favour by trying to wrap up Nichols in lieu of becoming a human missile. This really could have gone either way, but moving the ball 15 yards keeps things exciting for the hometown fans so onwards we go.

4- After completed another series of passes, Nichols decided to scamper to the end zone. Perhaps fearing the wrath of the zebras and their laundry, there were at least three Alouettes defenders that tried some sorry-looking tackles in the attempt of stopping Winnipeg’s quarterback from scoring. If someone was actually able to get their hands on Nichols, they could have kept him upright and bled out the clock, which had 16 seconds left on it when this play started.

5- Learning the lessons of the past in other football games, Winnipeg decided not to attempt a pass but rather hand off the ball to Andrew Harris, who had himself a game this past Thursday. The Winnipeg native rumbled past the Alouettes defenders and had just enough presence of mind to stay on his feet and break the goal line plane, completing the comeback win in front of an ecstatic hometown crowd.

But did he?

As they say, film don’t lie. Just using the regular tech that we viewers at home have at our disposal, let’s check out some evidence that suggests that this was NOT a game-winning touchdown.

Here’s a photo showing both Harris’ knee and elbow down before the goal line:

harrisdown

And if that’s not convincing enough, take another look at this clip:

harris_td.gif

I’m no physics major, but that looked a LOT like Harris’ knee bounced off the turf before breaking the plane. Which meant that he was down by contact before crossing the goal line.

This could certainly be debated by so many and in the heat of the moment, not even the advent of technology could provide a conclusive answer to that query.

No doubt that a lot of you will claim this as sour grapes on my part, and that’s fine. Once again, this was a scenario where only the CFL command centre could have made this call what it was. But instead, I can’t help but feel that they decided to go with the storybook finish for the Blue Bombers and their fans.

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No matter what, this loss came as a result of one thing only: The Alouettes defense blew it. Big time.

All they had to do was stop Nichols and the Bombers on the ensuing drive after Logan’s TD and it was a done deal. They allowed Nichols to walk all over them, they failed to stay disciplined after the onside kick and they hoped that an “independent” review committee would be their salvation.

In their minds, the game was over after the Logan touchdown and the defense immediately went into bye week mode. Ironic how this Alouettes team used to pride themselves on the mantra of “57+3”, meaning that you have to play ALL sixty minutes of a football game. Instead, it seemed to be just “58:20”.

This went from being a good, hard-fought win to being a loss that saw EVERYONE cast doubt on this Alouettes team yet again. The haters were only too happy to deride the team’s inability to close this out, even busting out the “choker” label. Now this Alouettes team will have this loss marinating on their minds during what will feel like a really long bye week.

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No matter how the Alouettes finish the 2017 season, this loss will be the catalyst on how the rest of the season goes. Either they let it sink them or they use it to motivate them to ascend to another level.

I’m hoping that they see all the good that I have highlighted earlier and use that to overcome this kick to the face. I do see the nucleus of something good here in Montreal and remain confident that this team will find its way. Like so many of their first six games, this could have gone so many different ways.

I’d implore the rest of Alouettes Nation to keep the faith, but quite frankly, I think I’m wasting my breath here. Luckily, I don’t write this for you so-called “fans”. I write this for those who know deep down that this is a good team. They just needs to start playing to its true potential on a consistent basis.

This particular bird ain’t flying the coop. Thanks for reading.

GO ALS GO!!!

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