TORONTO -- The Toronto Argonauts put their three-game winning streak on the line on Sunday night, as they host a hungry Edmonton Eskimos club at the Rogers Centre.
With three straight double-digit wins for the first time since back in 1997, remembered fondly by Argos fans as the years of Doug Flutie, the Argos have seemingly recaptured the same dominance that was unleashed a year ago throughout that magical run to the 100th Grey Cup.
The key word this week though wasn’t different than any other week: focus.
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It’s what Scott Milanovich has preached since being hired by the Argos at the start of 2012, and it’s even what Argo legend Michael “Pinball” Clemons stressed in addressing the team during a guest visit to practice on Friday.
Clemons, one of the most popular players and coaches to dawn the Double Blue, coached the Argos to a Grey Cup in 2004, and as a player was always one of the most dynamic on the field.
“He’s a true blue Argo, and the guys respond to him,” second-year head coach Scott Milanovich told Argonauts.ca. “He was a tremendous player obviously and a great coach and continues to be a great ambassador for our team and our organization.”
Winning is one thing, but doing it consistently is another – that’s what Milanovich knows must happen in order for the Argos to take that next step.
“The gist of his speech was basically about focus and how good teams are able to do it every week, and those are the things that we’ve preached since I got here.”
Now is as good a time as any to drive the point home, with the Argos returning to their own backyard for three straight games – starting with a contest against an Eskimo team that appears stronger than its record may show.
For the Argos, playing their best football of the season, it’s easy to see why Sunday’s game could be a proverbial trap game, especially in the wake of a stunning 38-12 win at home over BC without Ricky Ray under centre, followed by a 38-13 win over the Alouettes in which they stormed out to a 31-0 first half lead.
With division rival Hamilton seemingly gaining speed, even Milanovich seems wary that now might be as good a time as any to hit the gas and leave the rest of the East Division in the rear-view mirror.
“I always tell them where we’re at relative to the East, because it’s hard to know where you’re going to go if you don’t know where you’re at,” said Milanovich. “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it but that is the first goal, is the East Division.”
“It’s too early, all you can do is continue to try to get wins but when you have an opportunity, whether it’s to put some separation between first place and second place or even a year ago to put some separation between second place and the next, it’s important that you take advantage of that and that guys understand how important that can be later in the season.”
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In gunning for the East, Milanovich likely also takes comfort in knowing Ray comes in under centre well-rested and playing some of the best football of his career.
Ray was able to sit out most of the second half last week thanks to the Argos’ big lead, but didn’t leave without another head-turning performance, completing 15 of 18 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns.
Including his previous start against Winnipeg, in which he broke his own record for completion percentage in a game, Ray has completed 34 of 38 passes over his last two starts and is currently blowing the competition away with a completion percentage of 76.4 – unheard of this far into the season.
It took Ray almost an entire regular season in his first year with the Argos, but it seems as though Milanovich’s system has found that little bit of extra untapped potential in Ray, which has allowed the veteran pivot, as if it were even possible, to find the next level in his game.
“He just trusts the offence, he’s comfortable with his progressions in how he moves from one receiver to the next and trusts that the system is going to find him an answer regardless of coverage,” said Milanovich, a former offensive coordinator with the Montreal Alouettes, where he worked first hand with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time in Anthony Calvillo.
“I think that’s maybe why you’re seeing him get hit a little less in addition to us playing better up front, but he’s just quicker in and out of his reads and knows where guys are going to be faster and is able to as a result throw the ball more accurately.”
The next test for Ray will come against his former team, the very same one the Argos eliminated in the East Division Semi-Final in 2012.
With their hopes of contending possibly in the balance over the next month, Head Coach Kavis Reed and the Double E are under pressure to start earning two points rather than moral victories – although as Reed points out, they can’t reach a point of desperation.
“It’s about us just going out and playing football,” said Reed in an interview with Esks.com. “There’s a lot of noise and stuff that is going to surround a 1-5 team, we just have to go play football.”
“There’s no extra stress that we can add to ourselves, that’s not good for this football team, we have to be focused on execution and that’s simply it.”
The Eskimos are coming off a heart-breaking 30-29 loss to the Ticat, after a spirited comeback attempt fell just short on a last-play missed field goal by Grant Shaw.
But even with the loss, the Esks leave their bye week recharged and as focused on getting to task as ever.
|The last time they met|
Sunday, November 11, 2012 (ESF)
Toronto 42, Edmonton 26
Ricky Ray threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, as a 31-point second quarter paced the Toronto Argonauts to an impressive 42-26 win over the Edmonton Eskimos in last year's Eastern Semi-Final at Rogers Centre...Read more.
“Our group is a high character group, there hasn’t been a lot that has needed to be done to motivate these guys and that’s when you know you have the right locker-room – when not a lot has to be done to motivate them,” said Reed when asked about his team’s mindset after what’s surely been a frustrating start.
“They’ve been exceptional in terms of their approach to the game plans, they’ve been exceptional in their approach to football and they’ve been extremely positive.”
It’s a quality that should be considered admirable, given the fact that the Eskimos currently sit at the bottom of the league in points scored. Yet despite the growing pains of having a first-time starter in Mike Reilly under centre and a young team that could take a while to click, Reed said it’s not as bad as it’s been made out to be.
“The last three games we’re averaging 24.5,” said Reed of his team’s offensive production. “What we need to do is we need to score earlier and stop waiting until the end of the fourth quarter to start being a really efficient offence.”
A perfect example of that was the team’s last game against Hamilton, in which the Eskimos didn’t score their first touchdown until late in the third quarter, before exploding for 14 in the fourth and almost pulling off a stunning comeback.
“If we do that, start scoring consistently, then people will realize that this offence has made leaps and bounds in the last three games,” Reed said.
“We said once we got into BC we needed to start seeing what our identity is, and that has carried over in the Montreal game and this last game, where the guys have shown a lot of confidence and essentially a lot of efficiency.”
“So the last three games have been very good for us, hopefully we can continue to build off that.”
Against an opponent in Toronto that has outscored its opponents 111-44 in the midst of its modest winning streak, the Eskimos have a chance to take an even bigger step in discovering their identity on Sunday.
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from Argonauts.ca/Esks.com