MONTREAL -- Division rivals search for an early-season turning point after stumbling out of the gate, as the Toronto Argonauts visit Percival-Molson Stadium for a clash with the Montreal Alouettes.
The Alouettes are coming off a much-needed bye week, but one they didn’t seemingly enjoy after a 41-5 loss in Vancouver to the BC Lions left a sour taste in their mouths. It was a chance to get away from football and refresh, although mentally it’s unlikely anyone truly got away.
“My wife, when we took this break and we were together, she said ‘where are you’,” said Alouettes’ first-year head coach Tom Higgins in an interview with MontrealAlouettes.com. “And it wasn’t [physically] where we were, it was ‘your mind is always racing’.”
“In one way it was excellent,” he continued. “We needed to have us a break, the coaches hadn’t had a break nor had the players.”
“But you’d always like to go into the bye with a victory, and that wasn’t the case obviously.”
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The good thing is in a close-knit East Division, the Alouettes are as close to being in first as they are to last. Right now they’re in third place, as Higgins pointed out, and were the season to end today they’d be out of the playoffs with a team from the West crossing over.
But they have the same winning percentage as the first-place Ticats and a better winning percentage than the fourth-place Argos, which means things essentially start back at zero with a 14-game season ahead. That has the Alouettes in a positive frame of mind.
“We still control our own destiny, all we have to do is lineup and play good football and win football games, and when you go 2-3 there’s no reason why we can’t go 3-3 and all of a sudden everything’s back on track,” Higgins said.
About to play an East Division opponent for the first time this season, now the urgency truly sets in against a team that is equally desperate to come away with two points. The Argos are the only team below Montreal in the standings, having dealt with a myriad of injuries on offence and scoring just one touchdown in the last three games.
Higgins said as much as both teams are in need of a win, in the end only one can get it.
“We’re playing an opponent that’s in the same boat as ourselves, and that’s going to allow one team to feel like they’re back on track and the other team looking like they’re really soul-searching,” Higgins said. “We’d like to be the team not doing that.”
While the Argos’ biggest struggles come on the defensive side of the ball, having allowed by far the most points of the league with 149 for an average of 29.8 points per game, the Alouettes are searching for answers offensively.
With just 70 points in four games they’ve scored the fewest in the CFL, and many are beginning to point the blame to Troy Smith, touted coming into the season as the team’s quarterback of the future. Smith said the fact that his play is under scrutiny is no secret to him, but he won’t be fazed.
“There’s no doubt, I wouldn’t be a truthful player if I didn’t tell you that but I have an understanding of who I am and what I want to represent,” he said. “There’s nothing like an old-fashioned fire being lit underneath you to get something going.”
“Adversity usually brings out your true character and what type of man and what type of player you are so I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
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Higgins meanwhile continues to support his starting pivot, pointing out that quarterbacks new to the CFL tend to struggle more often than not. Even Doug Flutie, one of the best quarterbacks ever to play in the CFL, completed just 52.8 per cent of his passes in his rookie season with the Lions while throwing just 16 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions.
“When young quarterbacks and new quarterbacks to the CFL get into live action, if you ever look back statistically they don’t necessarily have a great deal of success,” Higgins told the team’s official website. “This is a truly different game than anything they’ve ever experienced.”
Rather than adding pressure though the Als are finding ways to support the former Heisman-winner in the offence. The team recently added former head coach Don Matthews and offensive guru Turk Schonert to the staff as consultants, while Higgins is discussing ways to get Smith out of the pocket to better challenge defences.
That will all be put to the test on Friday night, as the Als go against an Argos team similarly trying to bounce back following a 37-9 loss in Regina to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. It hasn’t been often the Argos have struggled to find the end zone, but on this occasion they can sympathize with the Alouettes after scoring just 41 points over their last three games.
Outside of a blowout win over the very same Riders back in Week 2, few things have gone right for the Boatmen this season. A slow start on defence was expected after the team switched coordinators and changed schemes along with most of the personnel, but on offence injuries to Chad Owens, Andre Durie, Jason Barnes, and recently even John Chiles have slowed down one of the league’s most prolific offences.
Head Coach Scott Milanovich isn’t using the injuries as an excuse, knowing that if the team can’t get it together before its star players get healthy the season will likely be lost.
“You can’t say it’s not a factor, certainly,” Milanovich told Argonauts.ca’s Don Landry, emphasizing the word ‘factor’. “Those guys are starters for a reason.”
“But in this game, it happens – maybe not to this degree,” he continued. “You still need to win, you still can win. You just have to be better at the small things.”
“I'll never ever go into a game thinking - it doesn't matter who's out there - that we're not going to win the game.”
It certainly hasn’t made anyone’s job easier, including that of Offensive Coordinator Marcus Brady, now in his second season at the helm of the talented Ricky Ray-led offence. The Argos have talented young receivers ready to prove themselves and step into larger roles, but the offence was built around the unique skill-set of some of the players missing.
“They’re not Chad and Durie where you can just give them the ball and they make everybody miss,” said Brady. “You’ve got to be a little more creative in scheming things – kind of tailor to their strengths as players.”
“They’re progressing,” he continued. “Are they at Chad Owens’ level? Andre Durie, Jason Barnes, guys that have been in the league for years? No, of course and we don’t expect them to be, right now."
"But they’re getting it and, obviously, right now they’ve got to get it faster and faster," Brady says, snapping his fingers quickly for emphasis. "We’re pushing it. We’re working harder, as coaches, to try to get ‘em there. Taking more time in walk-throughs and meeting times. They’re working hard."
Anthony Coombs, selected third overall by the Argos in the CFL Draft, has the task of filling Durie’s role in the offence as a slotback that causes damage after the catch. Like Durie did at the start of his pro career, the 21-year-old is making the transition from running back to receiver and suddenly has a lot on his plate as one of Ray’s go-to guys.
“It’s been challenging, those are big shoes to fill,” said Coombs, who has 176 receiving yards on 18 catches this season, including a 46-yard gain against the Riders last weekend. “This is my first year and week by week I’m getting more comfortable in the position.”
“My job is just to come out here every day and work to get better.”
Coombs said plenty of pressure comes with added responsibility, but he’s locked in and making sure he’s as well or even better prepared than any of the veterans in the room. He’s also getting no shortage of coaching from the guys that know what it takes to be successful.
“It’s a really good offence because there are a lot of veterans in various positions, whether it’s Chad Owens or Andre Durie, even though they’re hurt they’re still helping me in practice and in the meeting rooms,” he said.
“They just see things that work for them in the offence, so they want to relay that to you and say ‘instead of doing this move try this’, and also they know the opponents very well,” Coombs continued.
“They’ll tell you about the opponent and they’ll tell you about tricks on each play that’ll help you be more successful.”
Coombs is joined by Spencer Watt, Darvin Adams, Maurice Man, Mike Bradwell, along with recently-signed receiver Robert Gill in an Argo receiving corps looking to turn the tide against a stingy Alouette defence.
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from MontrealAlouettes.com/Argonauts.ca