The Calgary Stampeders expected a guy named Chad might give them a torrid time in the 100th Grey Cup.
It’s not clear they realized it would be running back Chad Kackert rather than receiving/kick returning dynamo Chad Owens, the league’s most outstanding player for 2012.
Kackert, the little guy from Simi Valley, Calif., played a massive game, taking most-valuable player honours on the strength of his gritty 195 total yards (133 on the ground, 62 in the air on a team-high eight catches).
The Argos surprised the CFL earlier this season when they preferred the 5-foot-8 Kackert - who had a cup of coffee with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Division 1-AA New Hampshire - to former leading rusher Cory Boyd.
“When coach called me that day to say Cory Boyd was released and I was in, I thought [he] was calling me to bring him back something from the duty free,” said Kackert. “My girlfriend saw how serious my face was that day on the phone, and she thought I was getting cut. I just got a chance to do the champagne shake. I had been waiting to do that my whole life.”
The concert-master for the capture of the Cup - the Argonauts’ first home-field championship since 1952 - was the imperturbable Ricky Ray, picked up for a bag of footballs and a some spare tees from the Edmonton Eskimos this past off-season (okay, it was actually for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and first-round pick).
Asked what it has meant to have Ray, perhaps the CFL’s best big-game pivot, on a team that finished last in the East in 2011, Kackert said one word: “Success.”
Ray’s departure from Edmonton will long be rued after the Argos won their first championship since 2004, winning 35-22 before 53,208 fans at Rogers Centre.
Maybe recently-deposed Esks GM Eric Tillman will get a Grey Cup ring in recognition for his largesse.
If Ray looked stunned at his official Argo unveiling last winter, he was somewhat happier with his champion’s cap on after the game.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I came here but I was excited to come here and play for [rookie head] coach [Scott] Milanovich in his offence. We knew we had it in us,” Ray said after his third career Grey Cup triumph.
Toronto was able to devise a game plan that completely neutralized bruising Calgary running back Jon Cornish, the league’s leading rusher in 2012.
On the first five occasions he carried the ball, he accumulated -4 yards and fumbled an exchange from Calgary quarterback Kevin Glenn - the Argos scored 14 points as a result.
If Ray demonstrated he is at the very summit of the CFL’s elite quarterbacks, Glenn’s performance prompted more questions than it answered.
After Ray was intercepted on his first throw of the game, Glenn was unable to make Toronto pay, overthrowing deep threat Maurice Price on second down.
From there Cornish’s fumble led to Ray finding Owens with a five-yard touchdown pass - one of only two grabs on the night.
A couple of possessions later, Glenn launched a terrible throw, Toronto’s Pacino Horne made a circus catch to intercept it and then steamed 25 yards for the score.
Cornish gained a paltry 57 yards, about the same total he gained in a pair of regular-season losses to Toronto, but was philosophical in defeat.
“The Argonauts have our number,” Cornish said in the locker room, adding “we weren't at their level tonight.”
The Stamps had gone 9-2 since Labour Day; Hufnagel said his team felt ready, but in the end was bewildered by the Argos.
“I didn’t see it coming. The players didn’t see it coming. The players were very emotional at halftime. Sometimes the game goes that way,” he said.
The victory will be especially sweet for Milanovich, who in addition to being on the losing sideline when Calgary beat the Montreal Alouettes in the 2008 Grey Cup, once suffered the indignity of being cut by Hufnagel and the Cleveland Browns coaching staff the day before his guaranteed NFL contract kicked in.
Jones coached with Hufnagel in Calgary and departed last winter to join his old friend Milanovich amid acrimonious circumstances, with the Stamps alleging tampering.
He was clearly enthused after the game.
“It came down to the players never questioning the crazy things we asked them to do. Even at the times when we weren’t playing well this year, they never questioned us. Milanovich is a really special leader,” he said.
A formidable strategist, Jones made it a priority to stop Cornish.
“We knew if we could stop his feet behind the backfield, we could be successful. Coach Jones had a great gameplan,” said Toronto defensive lineman Ricky Foley, the game’s outstanding Canadian.
Foley’s a Toronto-area native, and showed palpable joy at winning his hometown’s first championship since 2004.
“Winning the 100th Grey Cup in my hometown? Could it get any better? It was amazing to look up to the crowd and ask for their support and to have them give it,” he said. “It was unbelievable.
When it came time for the hulking, tattooed Foley to share the post-game stage with the diminutive, mustachioed Kackert, the larger man swallowed his teammate in an embrace.
Kackert’s star turn was an improvement on his spectacular showing in last week’s East Final, where he scored the decisive touchdown - and after which Owens said “if you didn’t know Chad Kackert, now you do.”
During one sequence late in the first half, Kackert took an inside toss from Ray and rumbled 14 yards, slipping one tackle before running straight at Calgary defensive back Eric Fraser - who is six-foot-one, 201 pounds - and planted him on his backside.
Kackert was also instrumental, once again, in thwarting a defence’s plan to pressure the implacable Ray - a trait that has endeared the still-improving 26-year-old to both his coaches and teammates.
This week Kackert said he has grown more comfortable with executing his blocking assignments against much larger defensive players - it showed on Sunday.
Owens, meanwhile, was hit early and often by the Stamps, including on the opening kickoff, when he was crunched by Malik Jackson.
With Owens under wraps, Ray turned to other options, Kackert chief among them.
In the third quarter, he took a swing pass that should have netted a modest gain and turned it into a first down with a juke on defensive lineman Corey Mace.
Then he ripped off a 22-yard run off-tackle on the next play.
Calgary took every opportunity to hit Kackert - in much the same way the Toronto defence took Cornish out of the game, by hitting him in the mouth and letting him know about it.
But it didn’t matter.
Kackert kept getting up and coming back for more - on the third quarter drive he bounced off Fraser near the sideline, sending the defensive back sprawling.
None of it would have been possible without Ray, however.
He stood tall in the face of considerable Calgary pressure - someday teams may learn that blitzing Mr. Cool seldom pays off - and picked the Stamps secondary apart early on, heaving a 62-yard bomb to Jason Barnes to set up a field goal.
Later he hit a 32-yarder to a leaping Dontrelle Inman that set up a one-yard touchdown to Inman from Jarious Jackson two plays later.
Ray would ice the game with a 7-yard touchdown to hometown boy Andre Durie in the fourth quarter - a score made possible by a no-yards flag and a roughing penalty on the same punt return, during which Owens was hurled to the ground while already out of bounds.
Where the Stamps shot themselves in the foot, the Argos kept it clean, committing no more turnovers after the first play, the most-penalized team in the CFL managed to lose zero yards through flags in a first half where they pulled out to a 24-6.
That would change in the second half, when defensive lineman Adriano Belli was ejected for a personal foul during a scrum involving several players.
By then, the game was all but decided.
And when the trophy entered the stadium with six minutes to play, Calgary’s white touchdown horse - which had been invited to watch at a discreet distance - trudged back to its improvised stall under the stands.