Studies with actual math in them conclude that momentum in sports, as most of us understand it, is largely an illusion.
What people tend to single out as pivotal events are, when you dig down, generally not so pivotal.
That’s not an effective line of reasoning with Toronto Argonauts coach Scott Milanovich.
In his mind, the Argos’ Sunday date with the Montreal Alouettes hinged on a play in the third quarter. The Argos had just whittled a 23-8 Montreal lead down to 23-15 on quarterback Zach Collaros’s 21-yard touchdown scamper.
With Montreal driving on the next possession, Argos safety Jermaine Gabriel blitzed rookie Als pivot Tanner Marsh, hitting him just as he tried to deliver a pass; the ball landed in the considerable arms of defensive end Kiante Tripp, who cantered 54 yards for a touchdown.
It was their second score in the space of 1 minute 10 seconds.
“Tripp’s touchdown was the game changer ... you could just feel the momentum on the sidelines shift at that point,” Milanovich said after the game, which featured the largest crowd at Percival Molson Stadium since 2011.
Regardless of whether momentum is an actual thing – and many empiricists insist it is not – there are benefits the Argos (6-4) can draw from a 37-30 final that allowed them not only to snap a two-game skid but prevented the Alouettes (4-6) from grabbing a share of first.
That they were able to do so without star receiver Chad Owens and with their backup quarterback and third-string running back makes it, in the coach’s words, a “season-changer.”
“We talked about it being a character day for us. Not so much a statement day, but let’s see what kind of character we have when everybody thinks we’re not good enough,” Milanovich said.
“That’s what I’m proud of. I told them after the game, there won’t be another time all season that they doubt that they can win a game.”
That’s something the team in the other dressing room wishes it was able to say.
The Als frittered away leads in losses to Calgary and Saskatchewan earlier this season, and after a first half in which their smothering defence dominated the Argos offence – and roughed up Collaros to the tune of four sacks and several more knockdowns – it all fell apart.
The fact Marsh ended the day 13-for-28 with three interceptions and a fumble didn’t help.
Asked to rate his performance, the Texas native summarized it in one word.
“Bad. You can’t win with that, I’ve got to be better ... I just made too many mistakes, you’ve got to win that game, man,” he said.
That’s undoubtedly true, but it’s unfair to hang this one just on Marsh – had the Argos not dropped a sure touchdown and missed three field goals, a comeback wouldn’t have been required against the injury-riddled Als.
And if the Montreal defence had the Argo offence figured out in the first half – defensive end John Bowman stripped the ball from John Chiles on the Argos’ third play of the game, cornerback Geoff Tisdale scooped up the ball and scored the day’s opening touchdown – whatever adjustments Milanovich and his staff made at halftime more than compensated.
And when Collaros managed to stave off the baying hounds of the Montreal pass rush and find some open receivers early in the second half, the Argo offence came into the game.
“We burned them a couple of times on their pressure stuff, Spencer Watt caught a pass down the sideline,” the former University of Cincinnati standout said. “In the fourth quarter it scared them out of it a little bit, and we were able to have a little more time to execute things.”
It can be argued that had a bigger effect than Tripp’s interception, Milanovich called the second half “a big growth spurt for Zach.”
“I knew he was a physically tough kid. It’s the mental toughness that makes or breaks quarterbacks, particularly young quarterbacks,” he said.
As Collaros found his stride in the second half, Marsh struggled to get into a groove, despite a long touchdown pass to Duron Carter – his first pro score – Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones predictably made his life uncomfortable.
The low point for the Als was a trick play in which receiver S.J. Green lobbed a pass upfield to no one in particular. It was intercepted by Jamie Robinson.
With less than two minutes to play, Toronto took the lead for good on Collaros’s nifty pass to Dontrelle Inman.
When the Als got the ball back, Marsh struck the gun-slinger’s pose and flung a ball upfield to Jerome Messam for 45 yards.
On the next play, he hit London, who appeared to have scored the tying touchdown. No such luck – he had stepped out of bounds, the Als were stuffed on a running play, then Marsh threw his final interception.
Unlike his first two CFL starts – wins against B.C. and the Argos – there would be no happy ending.
“We didn’t put it away when we had a chance to,” Als’ GM Jim Popp said.
That’s a lesson the Argos appear to have assimilated; the Als’ season depends on them learning it.