It would seem the odds are overwhelming.
The Montreal Alouettes are about to play in their ninth East Division final in the last 11 seasons (they are 7-1 thus far) and the Toronto Argonauts couldn’t conquer Montreal the last three times the foes met in the East final. But many of the Argos say, when they meet Sunday, before an expected crowd of more than 47,000 at Olympic Stadium, Toronto has a real shot to buck that trend.
The Argos are coming off an East semi-final victory over the cross-over Edmonton Eskimos, in which they won the turnover battle and had a record-breaking 31-point second quarter. The Argos didn’t make the playoffs in 2011, and one year later, they are one win away from playing in the coveted 100th Grey Cup game in Toronto.
While that incentive alone is powerful, the Argos say there are many other reasons they have the ability to pull this off: There’s the playoff history of quarterback Ricky Ray, the Montreal background of both head coach Scott Milanovich and defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones, the lingering memories of Toronto’s 2010 playoff beat-down in Montreal, and, with a dramatically different roster, came changes in a few important statistical categories.
During Toronto’s 2011 season, they were seventh in the CFL in the turnover ratio, stumbling to a blundering minus-17 by committing 51 offensive turnovers. This year, the Argos had the league’s best turnover ratio (plus-10), while turning the ball over 29 times on offence.
On Sunday, they face veteran Als quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who was the CFL’s second-leading passer this season, and his team tied with the B.C. Lions for the fewest sacks allowed (30). But the Argos take some pride in knowing they intercepted Calvillo four times, more than any other team.
“I think we challenge him more than any other team, and, at times, it has worked out for us, but at others, he has gotten the best of us,” Argos defensive back Jordan Younger said. “But we’re going in expecting this to be a fight, and we want him to know this is a fight.”
A common phrase around the Argonauts this season has been “We’ve got Ricky now.” It took Ray a half-season to get used to his new team and new offence, and shortly thereafter, he suffered a knee injury. But since his return, the two-time Grey Cup champion with Edmonton has gone 63 of 93 for 927 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. The Argos had 30-per-cent more offensive production in the 13 games he started and finished this year, over the five he didn’t.
The Als beat the Argos in two of their three regular-season meetings (one of the Toronto losses was with backup quarterback Jarious Jackson at the helm). Ray led the Argos to a 23-20 win in Montreal in July.
“These guys are my teammates and they’ll say great things about me and it’s nice to have their respect, but it means a lot to me to go out and show I can earn it,” Ray said. “And I’m not the only new one they just brought in – there’s a new head coach, a great defensive co-ordinator. There are lots of pieces in this puzzle we’re putting together right now.”
Less than half of the players on the current 46-man Argos roster participated in the 48-17 drumming at the hands of Montreal in the 2010 East final. But those that remain remember it well.
“They bombed us in the first quarter, they put 20 on us quick and we couldn’t recover, so we know this time, we better come out early and be ahead or be within striking distance, and I think we can win,” defensive end Ricky Foley said.
“I know I have Ricky Ray as my quarterback, coach Scott Milanovich, who worked on Montreal’s offence and Chris Jones, a defensive co-ordinator who is has also had success against Montreal’s offence. All of that gives me a lot of confidence. If we take care of turnovers and penalties, I think we can beat anybody.”