Life without star running back Brandon Whitaker begins this week for the Montreal Alouettes in what will likely be their most important game of the CFL regular season.
The Alouettes (7-4) will play host to the Toronto Argonauts (6-5) with first place in the East Division on the line at Percival Molson Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
An Argonaut win would not only tie the teams at 7-5, but would give Toronto the season series between the two teams, which would be the first tiebreaker if they finish equal in points .The Argonauts handed Montreal its only home loss this season 23-20 on July 27. They have one more meeting Oct. 14 in Toronto.
Whitaker, Montreal’s rushing leader who is also third on the team in receiving yards, saw his season end with a right knee injury late in a 28-17 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders last week.
His replacement is Victor Anderson, a similarly smaller but shifty back who topped 100 yards rushing in his only start when Whitaker missed a game Aug. 17 against Edmonton.
“All eyes are on the Alouettes and Argonauts, it’s not about me,” Anderson said Saturday. “I’ll just try to do what I need to do to help our team win.
“We lost Brandon. He’s a great running back. One of the best in the league. We’ve got to approach it like it’s our last game and to give it our all.”
The Alouettes also lost receiver Brian Bratton to a less-serious knee injury, but will have one of quarterback Anthony Calvillo’s favourite targets back when Brandon London returns after missing two games.
Running back Chad Kackert will return to Toronto’s lineup after missing one game, but coach Scott Milanovich opted to hold injured receiver Andre Durie out for a third straight game.
Milanovich, who was offensive co-ordinator in Montreal last season when Whitaker led the CFL in rushing, doesn’t expect to see the Alouettes’ vaunted offence suffer too much.
“I assume the guy they put in there will be very similar to Brandon,” he said. “They’ll miss Brian’s leadership, but they get London back, so we don’t expect them to miss a beat and it won’t change what we do.”
However, it is potentially devastating, mentally as much as strategically, to lose a multi-skilled player like Whitaker, and coach Marc Trestman said its effect will only be known when the season is played out.
“This team has had a great mindset that, when someone goes down, it’s an opportunity for the next guy,” he said. “We try to turn it into a psychological positive.
“Brandon Whitaker is a difference-maker, an elite player in our league. But we shall see. We’ve been without him for a game and Victor Anderson played very effectively. It’s a different week. He’s got to do it on a consistent basis. But I think our team will capture the moment and give Victor the opportunity he deserves.”
The Alouettes’ chief concern will be stopping Argonaut slotback and kick returner Chad Owens, who has amassed 1,534 combined yards and six touchdowns in seven meetings with Montreal.
In the past two seasons, Owens became the first player ever with consecutive 3,000 combined yards. With 2,695 after 11 games this season, he is on pace to top 4,000 yards.
In their meeting this season in Montreal, Owens piled up 277 yards and scored two TDs.
Alouettes defensive back Dwight Anderson said Owens has been especially effective playing slotback rather than receiver this season.
“I think Scott went over there and basically figured out his best position would be inside,” said Anderson. “At the wide receiver spot, you have more chance to get hands on him.
“To me, he’s more quick than fast. A lot of guys get caught thinking his speed will get you. In a straight line, he’s not as fast as people think he is. As long as you can get hands on him to slow him down, you’ve got a better shot. If you give him space, you let him use his quickness and then you get in trouble.”
There will certainly be motivation on both sides of the ball. Finishing first in the division brings a bye and home field advantage to the division final.
“You’re running out of time,” said Argos quarterbacks Ricky Ray. “That’s why these games are so important.
“Now it’s really where you can create separation or get yourself back into it. For us, there’s a lot riding on it. If we win, we’ve got the season series. If we don’t, we’re a couple of games behind and we’re coming from behind for the rest of the year. Our goal is to win this game and think about what happens after that.”
Trestman is quick to point out that regardless who wins, there will still be six games left to play for each team.
“I told the guys that winning or losing this game doesn’t determine who plays in the championship game at the end of the year, so we can’t take it too far out of proportion,” he said. “It’s significant in the standings, but it doesn’t dictate who is going to come out with the upper hand.
“We just want to grow as a football team and try to play good, solid, clean football.”