TORONTO — The Toronto Argonauts hope to build on their recent momentum, as they host the BC Lions on Sunday night at the Rogers Centre to cap off a busy slate of Week 8 games.
Coming off a second straight lopsided win in which they trailed after the first quarter, the Argos are battling back after a disappointing start to the season, brought on partly by injuries to virtually every starting receiver on the depth chart entering 2014.
Yet a win over the Lions at home would mark the second in just five days during this short week, bringing them back to .500 for the first time since Week 2 while also adding to their lead atop the East Division standings.
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The Toronto Argonauts will don their new Signature Uniforms this week against the BC Lions, who will be wearing their own Signature Uniforms revealed last year.
With little time to prepare against a stout Lions defence, no one’s saying it’ll be easy – but it’s a challenge third-year head coach Scott Milanovich said he welcomes.
“It hasn’t been the easiest season but I’ve said it a number of times: every team if not most teams go through some semblance of this, and what it can be for you if you have character in your locker-room is it can build backbone and strengthen your resolve,” Milanovich told Argonauts.ca.
Milanovich likened the current situation to a year ago, when the team ventured on the road for four straight games and won them all, despite missing Ricky Ray and for part of the time Chad Owens and Andre Durie.
“When you start doing things like that when maybe the chips are down, your guys gain a lot of confidence,” he continued.
“But you have to win.”
Two weeks ago the situation was a tense one for the Argos, tied in the division basement with just a single win and preparing for a trip to Montreal.
On the strength of a strong defensive effort and two timely touchdown passes from Ray to Steve Slaton, the Boatmen won that game 31-5 to move into the bye before facing Winnipeg and BC at home five days apart.
Against Winnipeg, the first of two physically-dominating West Division teams they’d play this week, the Argos battled back from first and second quarter deficits with two late second-quarter touchdowns and then 17 unanswered points in the fourth on the way to a 38-21 win.
Curtis Steele had 12 touches for 119 yards and a pair of touchdowns while Slaton added 66 rushing yards on nine carries, as the Argos deployed a downhill rushing attack to beat a blitzing Bomber defence. But more important for the Argos was that Ray got back to looking like Ray, throwing four touchdown passes on 26-33 passing for 297 yards.
“There’s a lot that goes into it and I think it’s him getting some comfort level with his receivers, and obviously our offensive line being able to give him the time to where he trusts that he’s gonna be protected back there – I think that’s a big part of it that gets overlooked,” said Milanovich of his start quarterback.
“But certainly he looked like the Ricky Ray that we’ve seen before, and it was right on time – we needed a big game from him and hopefully he can keep that roll.”
Only three times as an Argo, Ray has completed under 60 per cent of his passes, and two of those games came back-to-back. But on Tuesday the 34-year-old was back to the same kind of near-perfection we witnessed last season, completing 78.8 per cent of his passes including 15 straight in the second quarter.
Now he’s ready for his next challenge, against a defence whose specialty is defending the pass.
“They’re a solid defence, their linebacking core has veteran guys and they cover the field very well, they hit pretty hard so those guys are very active,” Ray told the team’s official website. “In the secondary this year they have some young guys and they’re a little nicked up, so there are gonna be some guys moving around.”
The Lions may be younger than usual in the secondary, but no less dominant so far considering that no opponent has eclipsed 300 passing yards against them this season.
“We’ve just gotta go out there and play a good game,” Ray continued. “They’re gonna go out there and compete and challenge us to make some plays with some man coverage and change it up with some zone to keep us off-balance.”
“For us, like always, it just comes down to execution and making plays when you have the chance to.”
Like the Argos, the Lions know how it feels to start the season on a rollercoaster ride. Without star quarterback Travis Lulay under centre the team started its season 0-2, before outscoring Saskatchewan and Montreal 67-18 to get back to .500.
But a setback at home the following week saw the Lions fail to score a touchdown in a 23-6 loss to the Bombers, leaving many frustrated fans in the province of BC. Since then though a thrilling 25-24 win at previously-undefeated Calgary followed by another close 36-29 win over the Ticats last weekend has everything back on track.
The win over Hamilton was a whacky ride in itself, given that the Lions blew a 17-3 first-quarter lead before re-gaining control in the second half to eventually earn their fourth win in five games.
Kevin Glenn, tasked with keeping the Lions afloat while Lulay recovers from off-season shoulder surgery, threw for 407 yards on 22-36 passing and earned Offensive Player of the Week honours for his efforts in the win.
“It feels good, but the biggest thing is the win – however we need to get the win we needed to get it, it was a big win and we needed to stay in the hunt in the West,” Glenn told BCLions.com.
“The offensive line held up and the receivers were catching the ball,” he continued. “We had good calls from the offensive coordinator and we fought, we felt as though it didn’t matter what the down and distance was – we were gonna fight to get the first downs, and it happened.”
Now Glenn’s status for Sunday is up in the air, as he nurses an apparent injury and Lulay prepares to dress for the second straight game. Either way, both quarterbacks are preparing as though they’ll play – something Head Coach Mike Benevides said he expects from two adamant professionals.
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“It doesn’t change a heck of a lot,” said the third-year head coach. “We’ve built a certain way to try and attack the defence with our running game and our execution.”
“Certainly they’re both kind of different in what they do, but they’re both intelligent, cerebral quarterbacks and experienced veterans,” he continued. “So we’re just going to run our offence at a high level of efficiency and depending how the day goes we’ll make different calls for each of them.”
In the end what Benevides emphasized this week is putting those types of distractions aside, and preparing for a team entering Sunday on an emotional high.
“They got huge momentum from playing at home, they had a big victory and certainly as we study tape and we watch them it’s gonna be a huge challenge – they beat Montreal pretty handily and they won against a pretty good football team in Winnipeg,” said Head Coach Mike Benevides.
“We’re gonna have our hands full and the guys understand that.”
It’s no secret that the key to success in that department lies with stopping Ray, who’s 0-3 against the Lions since joining the Argos in 2012.
“I’ve seen and played against Ricky Ray for so long and he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s an All-Star, there’s no doubt,” Benevides said. “He is extremely good at what he does and it’s always a challenge to play against him, the guys get excited for it and he’s such a competitor.”
“Nothing rattles him, he’s a guy that’s been through the war many, many times and I have tremendous respect for Ricky, not only as a player but a person.”
- A win would bring the Argos back to .500 for the first time since Week 2. Last season they were below .500 only once when they started 1-2, and wound up finishing the season 11-7.
- In the win against Winnipeg the Argos ran off a 31-7 scoring spree, creating a gap of two wins atop the East. They were the only East Division team with more than one win to start the weekend.
- Toronto’s offence came up big in the second quarter against Winnipeg, producing three touchdown drives in a span of 11:51. They gained 184 of their 462 yards in the second quarter alone.
- Ray is approaching the 50,000-yard career passing plateau, needing 548 yards to get there. It appears more likely he’ll reach that milestone next weekend, when he visits his old team in Edmonton.
- 10 different players caught at least a pass on Tuesday for the Argos, who have had 18 players catch a pass this season. That already eclipses last season’s total of 16 different pass-catchers.
- Since going 0-3 in red zone scoring chances at Saskatchewan, the Argos have turned six of their last seven opportunities into touchdowns.
- The Lions eclipsed 400 yards of offence for the second time in 2014, including 407 passing yards – the club’s highest total since November, 2010, a span of 62 games.
- A win against the Argos would be the franchise’s 500th regular season victory. Its first win was in Sept. 1954 against Calgary at Empire Stadium.
- Last week the Lions posted their fifth straight game of 20-plus rushing attempts, something they hadn’t done since September to October of 2009. They’re 112-34 when rushing 20 times or more since 2000, and 29-2 since August 2011.
- Shawn Gore recorded a career-high 117 receiving yards against Hamilton, and was joined by Emmanuel Arceneaux who had 103 yards himself. The last time the Lions had a pair of 100-yard receivers in the same game was in 2009.
- The Lions scored consistently in last week’s win over Hamilton, launching eight scoring drives including three touchdowns and five field goals. They scored on five of their remaining six drives to stave off a Ticats comeback.
Kickoff is at 7:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
– With files from Argonauts.ca/BCLions.com