July 26, 2007

Alouettes 26, Argonauts 13

TORONTO (CP) – Brian Bratton and the Montreal Alouettes are back in the thick of it in the East Division standings.

Bratton’s 79-yard punt return for a touchdown with 1:36 remaining led the Montreal Alouettes to a 26-13 win over Toronto on Thursday night. That moved the Als (2-3) into a second-place tie with Toronto (2-3) in the East Division, disappointing a Rogers Centre gathering of 31,097.

“This win is big for us because it came against the Argos,” said Bratton, who picked an opportune time to score his first career punt return TD. “But most of all, it’s important for our team to get some momentum.

“We want to celebrate this but we also want to make sure that we’re looking to our next game.”

Which just happens to be against Toronto next week at Molson Stadium.

Bratton’s TD cemented the win but it was Damon Duval who kept the Als ahead, hitting three field goals and three singles that staked the Als to a 19-13 advantage.

“Our special teams have played well all season for us,” said Montreal coach Jim Popp. “I’ll tell you, you go on the road and win and play tough, that’s huge.”

Bratton certainly wasn’t thinking touchdown when he settled under Noel Prefontaine’s punt late in the game. But he saw nothing but turf once he cleared the first wave of Argos defenders.

“When I got the ball, I saw their gunners (first downfield tacklers) and I was able to get by them,” he said. “Then, all I wanted to do was get to the open field and use my speed.

“As I was running, I saw (Prefontaine), who has a reputation of being a good tackler so I knew I had to do something. Fortunately I was able to get by him.”

Toronto pulled to within 18-13 on Prefontaine’s 33-yard field goal at 2:31, capping a sparkling 13-play, 83-yard drive that ended in large part by a questionable call by the officials. A diving catch by Arland Bruce III was called incomplete despite the replay appearing to show the Argos receiver had got his hands under the ball. Toronto challenged the play, but despite the video evidence the on-field call stood and a play later Prefontaine booted his field goal.

Offensively, Montreal struggled with consistency, amassing 252 total yards – including just 120 passing yards by quarterback Anthony Calvillo. The Als’ top offensive threat was running back Jarrett Payton, the son of former NFL star Walter Payton who rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries in his CFL debut after starting the season on the injured list with an ankle ailment.

“He ran hard but unfortunately was unable to play four quarters because he cramped up,” Popp said. “But I thought he played well.”

The same can’t be said for Argos starter Mike McMahon, who was yanked early in the first after surrendering an interception to Montreal’s Chip Cox that set up Calvillo’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Thurmon at 9:14 of the first that put the Als ahead 8-0.

On the next series, veteran Damon Allen came in and promptly took Toronto on a 94-yard, 12-play drive that he capped with a 12-yard TD strike to Jeff Johnson. Allen, who finished 21-of-31 passing for 218 yards consistently marched Toronto’s offence, but the unit couldn’t finish the drives off with touchdowns.

Allen, though, did secure the starter’s job until incumbent Michael Bishop, out with a broken wrist, returns.

“It is what it is,” said Argos coach Mike (Pinball) Clemons. “We have to move on.

“Damon Allen will be our No. 1 quarterback until Michael returns.”

That was of little consolation to Allen, who just three weeks ago dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart after opening the season as Toronto’s starter.

“I’m not thinking about that,” said Allen, who turns 44 on Sunday. “We’re 2-3 and we’ve got to get ourselves back in the hunt in our division.

“It’s about winning games, that’s the only thing you think about.”

The loss tarnished a record-setting performance by receiver Derrell (Mookie) Mitchell and a solid effort by running back John Avery. Mitchell became Toronto’s career receiving leader with a 28-yard catch in the first. He came in needing four yards to surpass Paul Masotti’s total of 8,772 yards, and received warm ovation for his accomplishment.

Avery, who was called out earlier in the week by Clemons, surpassed the 100-yard rushing plateau, becoming the first Toronto player to do so since he did it in ’04 in a game against Hamilton. More importantly, he earned the right to start next week.

And that’s sweet redemption for Avery, who has received criticism for not being an integral part of Toronto’s offence since his arrival here four years ago despite having to battle injuries or last year the arrival of former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams.

“I’ve been asking for the ball for three years,” Avery said. “I finally get the ball and I have a good game.”

Added Clemons: “I think John did a great job of making himself irreplaceable. He may deserve to be bitter but I still have a lot of faith in him.”

NOTES: The Argos wore their light blue third jerseys . . . . Running back Robert Edwards, a 1,000-yard rusher the last two years, was one of Montreal’s four healthy scratches for the game . . . Johnson was taken from the Argos bench in the first half on a stretcher following a special-teams play. Clemons had no information regarding the nature of his apparent injury.