MONTREAL -- The Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes clash for the first of four meetings on Thursday night, as first place in the East Division is on the line at Percival Molson Stadium.
While the Argos gun for a third straight win and in doing so will have star pivot Ricky Ray back under centre, the Alouettes hope to recapture their past ways with a past face, as Jim Popp mans the controls from the sideline for the first time this season.
It’s often said that football is a game of ‘next man up’, but this season and this week in particular the Alouettes have taken the meaning of that expression to new heights.
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With superstar pass-catcher Jamel Richardson out for the season and running back Brandon Whitaker also out of action for the time being, Popp and company will be counting on others to emerge in carrying the Alouette offence.
Ordinarily that’s about where the expression stops, with backups filling in to replace starters. Replacing the production of someone like Richardson is a gargantuan task in itself, but is nothing new in football, a sport where injuries to star players can often lead to the emergence of new star players.
This week the Als won’t just be juggling personnel. Instead, it goes as far as the sideline, where the next man up is Popp, the team’s General Manager and now also the Head Coach.
Popp will be tasked with making the Montreal Alouettes look like the Montreal Alouettes again – something that could be difficult overnight given the number of moving parts as well as possible changes to the offence.
Ask Anthony Calvillo, though, and he’ll tell you that all signs point to that happening fairly soon.
“I think overall the transition has been great, the guys, especially on the offensive side of the ball, have really been able to go out there and be coached by our coaches, and that includes Mike Miller and Doug Berry,” Calvillo told MontrealAlouettes.com.
“Everything seems to be much clearer for us, and now we’re not frustrated, we’re not worrying about small little things that we used to be worried about before – we can just concentrate on the game and for us that’s a positive thing.”
Calvillo and the Als will find out very quickly what they’re made of over the next month, with three of their next five games against the division-leading and last year’s Grey Cup Champion Toronto Argonauts.
One of two things will happen over that span, as the Als can either win and put themselves in a favourable position to challenge for the division, or fall behind and possibly out of the race by September.
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That means there is little to no time for growing pains, as the team faces a number of key injuries as well as a new sense of leadership from the coaching staff.
“We’re going in the right direction,” said Popp in his first week of practice since Dan Hawkins was fired just five games into his first CFL job. “I’m getting very positive feedback from coaches and players and staff – that’s a great sign, and again we have to win games, we have to clean up penalties, not turn the ball over, and we’ve got to execute in the game, that’s what matters.”
“In regards to leading up to the game we surely feel good about where we’re going and we should get better each week, we’re getting a lot more plays ran on the field and our offence should improve, whether it shows immediately or in the near future I think.”
Calvillo added the issues that the team had communicating in terms of the playbook are apparently no-more, something that held the offence back during Hawkins' brief tenure.
“I think for us on offence, to a certain extent our offensive coaches had a difficult time doing what they wanted to do," said Calvillo of the previous situation, which the future Hall of Famer clearly grew frustrated with as the weeks went on.
“Now with Doug in charge and Jim Popp in charge they have a bit more freedom to do what they’ve been doing their entire lives, and that’s coach what they know,” he continued. “That’s the direction that we’re heading right now.”
Confidence and a new-found sense of direction are only half the battle, however – especially given who the Alouettes face on Thursday.
Even if you ignore the fact that the Argos’ defence, led by Chris Jones, has bounced back the last couple of weeks, shutting down Buck Pierce and the Bombers while last week holding Travis Lulay and the Lions' high-octane offence out of the end zone altogether, there’s also task of keeping pace with Ray, who’s back in the lineup after missing a week with an MCL sprain.
|The last time they met|
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Toronto 27, Montreal 20
Ricky Ray threw for 399 yards and a touchdown, while Marcus Ball had two interceptions as the Toronto Argonauts advance to the 100th Grey Cup with a 27-20 win over the Montreal Alouettes on Sunday at Olympic Stadium.
» Read More.
Ray’s completion mark of 75.4 per cent this season puts him on pace to break the league record of 74 per cent, accomplished by Dave Dickenson in 2005. In his previous start, meanwhile, his pin-point accuracy was on full display, as he completed 19 or 20 pass attempts before leaving the game with an injury to break the record for highest completion percentage in a game – a record that he previously held anyway.
That’s why when asked whether there’s any kind of quarterback controversy in Argoland following an impressive performance by young backup Zach Collaros in last week’s 38-12 win over BC, second-year head coach Scott Milanovich’s answer was pretty straight forward.
“No,” Milanovich laughed, before repeating himself in case anyone missed it.
Milanovich is as happy as anyone to have his prized quarterback return to the lineup on Thursday night, as the Boatmen know the importance of taking two points in Montreal against a team that could be quite difficult to figure out.
“I don’t know, that’s the hard thing,” said Milanovich when asked whether there’s any use in looking at what the Als have done through the first five games of the season under Hawkins, the previous head coach. “We won’t know until after the game, it may be useless based on what they choose to do this week.”
“Right now I think Chris has to treat it like a first game of the season with a new coordinator and kind of prepare for what they had been doing and what maybe they would expect from Doug Berry and all of those things make it kind of difficult for him this week.”
A changing of the guard could be in store in the East Division depending on how the Alouettes respond to having a new coach in charge, but the fact remains that with just eight wins in 25 tries against the Als since they re-entered the league, the Argos are still looking to shake that monkey off their back.
Against a very talented Alouettes squad that could provide some unfamiliar looks, Milanovich knows it won’t be easy.
“The speculation you’d have is how much are things going to change, and how quickly can players adjust to that and I don’t have those answers, but this is a veteran team that was a tipped pass away from being in the Grey Cup a year ago that we’re playing, and they’ve been around the block so I would expect them to really lock in and have a great week.”
Popp, meanwhile, the man that initially hired Milanovich in Montreal and now will go head-to-head with him for the first time, has tremendous respect for this week’s opponent, and knows it’s going to take a lot for the Als to re-claim the position in the standings that they believe is rightfully theirs.
“They know how to win and it makes it an epic battle,” said Popp of Thursday night’s matchup. “Obviously these are two cities that go at it together, then there are people on each staff that were part of the Alouettes quite a bit, that always fuels some rivalry.”
“They’re at the top just like we have been and we want it back, so we’ll go to battle here this week.”
Against the Argos in their own backyard would certainly be the time to show that the Alouettes are back, in the exact form CFL fans have been so accustomed to over the years.
Kickoff is at 7:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from MontrealAlouettes.com/Argonauts.ca