August 6, 2014

Preview: Als looking for spark at home vs. Esks Staff

MONTREAL — The Montreal Alouettes have a chance to reverse their momentum this weekend, when they host the Edmonton Eskimos at Percival-Molson Stadium to kick off a Friday Night Football double-header.

In a season that hasn’t started according to plan for the Als, some predict a loss to the Eskimos could serve as a breaking point for first-year head coach Tom Higgins and company, who’ve seemingly pulled out all the stops including changing quarterbacks in games and adding help on the sidelines with the likes of Don Matthews and Turk Schonert.

Most recently they added former CFL quarterback Jeff Garcia to the fold, adding another experienced set of eyes to observe and make changes on the fly for a team now truly feeling the need for a win.

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The Als were outscored 72-10 in their last two games, marking their lowest two-game point tally in nearly three decades – and the challenge doesn’t get any easier against a top-ranked Eskimo defence that’s allowed only 16.8 points per game and also surrendered the fewest first downs and yards in the league.

After scoring just five points in each of their past two losses and failing to reach the red zone in a 31-5 home loss to the Toronto Argonauts last weekend, what’s clear is something had to change.

“Something needs to happen here with this offence,” Garcia told in his first week as a member of the organization. “A spark needs to happen where they need to bring it together because that as of late especially hasn’t been where it needs to be.”

Garcia’s attention will likely focus on Smith to start with, who was all the hype entering his first full training camp entrenched as the Als’ starter but so far has been the face of the team’s struggles offensively, heading into Friday’s contest with just three touchdown passes, a completion percentage of 48.8%, and worse, a quarterback rating of 65.3 – a ways off his 86.3 rating in three starts last season.

“I think especially with Troy Smith you look at a quarterback who has some tremendous athletic abilities to be able to extend and lengthen plays and utilize his legs, and those are things that if he hasn’t been doing that we need to find a way to get him to do that.”

In other words Smith has all the tools to be successful in the CFL, the challenge is getting him better in tune with the offence.

“When it comes down to playing the quarterback position, if you can’t understand the game mentally you’re going to struggle in the game physically,” Garcia said.

“That’s one of the things I really want to assess with the situation right now is where are they mentally – how are they seeing the game when they step out onto the field and start playing the game.”

“You cannot pre-determine and you cannot think when you’re on the field playing the game, you have to react and you have to be able to sort through coverages and defensive schemes and plug your offensive scheme into the mix and make the right decisions.”

If there aren’t signs of improvement on Friday, it’s true that a breaking point could be near. More optimistically, though, a win could serve as a starting point.

After all, the Als do boast one of the league’s most dangerous playmaking defences and, oddly given that they’ve played from behind, one of the stronger rushing attacks led by veteran Brandon Whitaker. They also appear to be getting healthier, with S.J. Green and Duron Carter back in the lineup to complement a dangerous arsenal for the quarterbacks to throw to.

What’s more, despite just one win they’re only a game back of the first-place Argos, who sit idle this week. There’s plenty of opportunity for the Alouettes to get their season turned around, but opportunity alone won’t be enough.

“I truly believe there’s talent in the room, but like I said in the beginning talent doesn’t necessarily win you football games.”

“It’s one of those tough situations where we’re going to have to see if we can dig ourselves out of it,” Higgins told the team’s official website. “It’s self-reflecting, it’s on every individual in the locker-room.”

For Higgins, whatever it is that can help this team start winning football games has to start now.

“There are teams that have had worse starts in the CFL and have come back, but right now this doesn’t look good or feel good,” he continued. “We get to line up and play the Edmonton Eskimos here and we have to play a lot better, because if we score five points we’re not going to win very many football games.”

The Edmonton Eskimos won’t have any lack of urgency entering Friday’s matchup, despite coming off the bye with a 4-1 record and an impressive start to rookie head coach Chris Jones’ tenure. Still fresh in their minds will be a 26-22 loss to arch-rival Calgary two weeks ago, in a game that pitted two unbeaten teams dueling for top spot in the West Division.

They produced a season-low 262 yards of offence in that loss, including only 81 in the second half, as the Stamps scored 20 of their 26 points off turnovers to overcome another dominating performance by the Green and Gold defence.

That’s in the past though and while they’ll get another shot at the Stamps in three weeks on Labour Day, for now they’re consumed with a two-week stay on the road with visits to Montreal and then Ottawa – a trip the Esks hope will bond them together after a week off.

“It’s really good because the kids get to go and bond and stay for an extended period of time, it’s not a quick in and out like we normally have,” Jones told “But the challenges are ‘where do I eat, what do I eat, how do I work out’, that sort of thing.”

“It’s one of those things where you add a little adversity and it’s good for our football team,” he continued. “Adversity’s good for your character, and we’ve got good character on this team so it’s good for us to be challenged.”

First up is a Montreal team that the Esks believe is much better than its record shows. The Alouettes have scored just 75 points this season, by far the lowest in the league – but as Jones points out that group is capable of breaking out at any moment.

“They’ve got some good players, if you look at their roster they’ve got some really good football players and they’re guys that have won some games in the past,” Jones said. “Granted they’ve had some injuries, and I anticipate them coming out with flying colours in this next ballgame.”

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While Jones and the defence will be focused on preparing for two quarterbacks with entirely different playing styles along with any possible influence from the recent additions to the coaching staff, quarterback Mike Reilly and the offence are less focused on Montreal’s flailing offence than its stingy opportunistic defence.

“Every team goes through it, especially when you lose a guy like Calvillo – he’s impossible to replace, but everybody that’s over there is capable of playing football, it’s just a matter of finding the right fit,” Reilly said. “Our defence will take care of their offence, I’m going to let them worry about it and I have faith that they’re gonna do what they always do.”

“For us and for me offensively we have to worry about a stout defence on the other side, and we have to play really good football against them,” he continued. “They have playmakers at each spot, but again it’s the same old thing – with our offence if we execute, we should be able to take care of business and it doesn’t matter what they do, we should be successful.”

After already equaling last year’s win total, the Esks just like the Alouettes are reaching a focal point in their season. Just winning more games than last year isn’t enough, and with two challenging road games on tap they have to do everything possible to avoid a letdown.

The next two weeks offer this young team an opportunity to grow together and ultimately find out what it’s made of moving forward, beginning with a matchup against a Montreal team looking to win at all costs.

“It’s a great time for us to bond and come together a little bit, it’s good timing after the bye week and everybody got to go away and recharge a little bit and they were hungry to go back, and now we’re going on the road together to battle and try to get some wins and guys are excited,” Reilly said.

“But it’s not gonna be an easy test, Montreal has a good defence and we’ve been watching a lot of tape on them and they’ve had a good defence for a number of years, so we’re going to have to play our best football to get a win.”

Game Notes:

  • Montreal has a team completion percentage of 46.3 this season, its lowest since 1971 (46.1%). Over the last two games the Als have completed 22-of-59 passes for a mark of 37.3%, including 6-of-31 on second down.
  • Over the last two games Brandon Whitaker has gained 205 of the team’s 240 net yards (44%), and currently ranks third in the CFL in rushing with 299 yards and fourth in yards from scrimmage at 368.
  • S.J. Green snapped a run of 23 consecutive games played when he sat out of last week’s game, but he’s expected to play on Friday. This season he has nine catches for 132 yards.
  • After starting 2-of-5, Sean Whyte has made seven straight field goal attempts. He still ranks eighth in the league making 75% of his kicks.
  • The Als haven’t had a red zone attempt in either of the last two games, or in their last 37 possessions.
  • Last year at this time the Edmonton Eskimos were 1-4, going on to start the season 1-9. Their recent loss snapped a five-game winning streak, their longest since the start of 2011.
  • The Eskimos haven’t allowed more than 303 yards in any game this season. Their 1,262 yards allowed over five games is their lowest since 2005.
  • Edmonton has allowed only 84 points for an average of 16.8 per game, the team’s lowest since 1989 when it led the CFL in points against.
  • The Esks either lead or are near the top of the league in yards allowed (#1); first downs with only 68 against – 25 fewer than any other team; run defence (#2); sacks (#3); fewest touchdowns allowed (#2); and 2nd down conversions, which they lead with 34.3 per cent.
  • In their four victories the Esks were plus-10 in the turnover department, but were minus-four in their only loss to the Stamps.

Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.

– With files from