When the Alouettes launched their season last June in Edmonton, they allowed 607 yards’ net offence and 32 points. Not surprisingly, Montreal lost — less than a week after firing head coach Mike Sherman.
And they lost their next game at Hamilton by a mere 31 points. Two defeats, 73 points against and what appeared to be another long season.
But then, something changed. The team evolved and started to believe. Montreal won its next three, 10 of the final 16 and made the Canadian Football League playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“The moment it changed, and this is going to sound stupid, was in Hamilton,” veteran rush-end John Bowman said. “If you look at the film and not the stats, you saw a team that’s fighting, competing, forcing turnovers, giving ourselves a second chance.
“This year, we found ways to win games. Last year, we were in close games and found ways to lose.”
If the Alouettes can somehow win three more games, this improbable season will end in a Grey Cup championship. But first, they must win Sunday afternoon’s (1 p.m., TSN, RDS, TSN Radio 690) East Division semifinal against the Edmonton Eskimos at Molson Stadium.
While the Als finished second in the division with a 10-8 record, they allowed more points than they scored. Most of the time they’re in a zone defence that allows plenty of yards. And their undersized defensive line, while quick, doesn’t register many quarterback sacks. Nonetheless, this bend-but-don’t-break unit generally did a thorough job of tightening up the closer opposing teams came to the end zone.
“It’s a relatively young and new team. We’re going to have growing pains,” Bowman explained. “Hopefully, it doesn’t come back to bite us tomorrow.”
Middle-linebacker Henoc Muamba, the division finalist as the most outstanding Canadian, said it took time for the players to get to know new defensive co-ordinator Bob Slowik, a CFL neophyte. At the same time, Slowik had to discover each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
“As the weeks progressed, we got better and better, got more confident in the schemes,” Muamba said. “He’s made some subtle changes to our defence the outside eye wouldn’t notice.”
While the Als have a full defensive complement, including the return of linebacker Chris Ackie and defensive-lineman Gabriel Knapton, signed to the practice roster last Wednesday, they’ll be missing a huge part of their offence with the absence of receiver DeVier Posey.
Posey missed the last two games with a lower-body injury and, while he practised two days this week, head coach Khari Jones decided to scratch him Saturday morning. And fellow receiver Chris Matthews still hasn’t recovered from his hamstring injury.
“I feel like our team’s ready,” Jones said. “I don’t think there will be any added pressure. I’m not too concerned. Like any game, we’ll make a few mistakes. We’ll do some things that aren’t great. You just have to fight back from those things.”
It’s hard to know what to expect from an Eskimos team that finished with a losing record (8-10), yet qualified as a crossover playoff team simply because of how terrible both Toronto and Ottawa played.
Other than Edmonton’s opening-game victory against Montreal, it failed to defeat a playoff team. After winning consecutive August games against the Redblacks and Argonauts, the visitors were 2-7 down the stretch and come into the playoffs having lost two consecutive games.
But they also have a healthy Trevor Harris at quarterback. The 33-year-old veteran, who won a Grey Cup with Ottawa in 2017 and reached the championship game a year later, was limited to 13 games this season because of an injury to his throwing arm. But when he was healthy, he helped lead his team to a 6-3 record over the first half of the schedule.
Harris said he hasn’t been this healthy in a long time. But how rusty might he be from his lack of activity? He has one of the quickest releases of all CFL quarterbacks. The Alouettes must attempt to make him one-dimensional, rattle him with hits and get him out of his rhythm to succeed.
“We have a team that’s focused and energized,” Harris stated.
No East Division team has been able to win two successive road games and make it to the Grey Cup since the crossover rule was established, making the Eskimos’ road to a championship daunting.
But volatile head coach Jason Maas said all things are possible if a team believes and has the proper mindset.
“We have to believe we can go in there and get a win,” said Maas, whose future in Edmonton has been widely speculated upon. “Close your eyes and see if you can become a champion. Right now. To win two games on the road, is that inconceivable? Has any team ever won three in a row, on the road? Yeah. Just not coming out of the East.
“It has to start from a mindset. I don’t think any of our guys think that’s not possible.”
Note: While it has been widely believed this will be Bowman’s final season, the 37-year-old, now in his 14th season, has opened the door, ever slightly, about a possible return in 2020. “If (management) want me back and I feel like I can compete and play, I’ll play,” he said.