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MONTREAL — Their ambitions are the same, yet the feeling surrounding the Edmonton Eskimos and Montreal Alouettes could not be more opposite.
On Sunday, at Percival Molson Stadium on the scenic campus of Montreal’s McGill University, the two clubs will kick off the 107th Grey Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Semi-Final.
Looking to overcome the odds by becoming the first crossover team in history to win a Grey Cup, the Eskimos have had laser sharp focus from the week’s first practice.
“There are teams that wish they’re in the playoffs,” said Eskimos defensive tackle Almondo Sewell. “We’re fortunate we’re in the playoffs right now. We’re 0-0 and it’s a whole new season.”
Conversely, light and loose would best describe a Montreal team that does not appear fazed by the pressure, as a vocal, energetic crowd is expected at the franchise’s first playoff game since 2014.
“It’s the playoffs, but they just have to play the way they’ve been playing,” said Als head coach Khari Jones. “We’ve had really good crowds and I feel like they’ve fed off those crowds. It’ll be fun to see a packed stadium, I think they’ll get a real kick out of that and just enjoy the moment.”
For a handful of Alouettes, success has never tasted so sweet. Veterans like John Bowman, Kristian Matte and Henoc Muamba have lived through some of the team’s recent struggles, including a franchise-worst four-year playoff drought. The city, meanwhile, has embraced the team’s re-emergence, a 10-win season marking the first time in double digits since 2012, when the Alouettes went 11-7.
Vernon Adams Jr. has been a big part of that. The Als’ starting quarterback has won 10 of his 15 starts this season, leading the CFL with 36 combined touchdowns including 12 on the ground. It was only a year ago that the 26-year-old had considered ending his playing career after being cut by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“I thought about retiring twice before last year when I came back to Montreal,” said Adams. “I’m glad I didn’t, just stepped through it and kept grinding and kept paying my dues because we’re here today.”
Originally acquired by Montreal from the BC Lions for a first round pick, Adams was one of the CFL’s top quarterback prospects in 2016. However, success didn’t come easy, as Adams was traded twice before eventually being released by the Ticats.
“My rookie year, when I came up here, I was not ready for the CFL game,” recalled Adams. “I couldn’t hit those (wide field side) throws, I couldn’t see the 12th player was different. I wasn’t doing the right things on and off the field. I wasn’t ready.”
With a little belief from his head coach, Adams has since become one of the CFL’s brightest stars and most entertaining players.
“He’s really put a jump start to my career,” said Adams, when asked about Jones. “He’s probably the first one that’s really believed in me so far. He’s taught me how to read defences, how to really be a pro. Him playing 10-plus years up here, he knows how to play the position so it’s awesome to have a former quarterback and hall of famer teach you those things.”
Adams is known for extending plays with his legs, with some of his best work coming off script. He also leads the CFL with an 11.5-yard average depth of pass, tied with Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell. For the Eskimos, gap control will be key in containing Adams within the pocket.
On the other side is Eskimos quarterback Trevor Harris, the polar opposite of Adams but no less effective. Harris is known for his ability to process a defence quickly. A strong O-line and some quick ball movement helped the Esks allowed a CFL-low 25 sacks this season.
“You just don’t want to have him be comfortable,” said Jones. “When Trevor’s comfortable it’s scary. He reads the field well, he gets the ball out of his hands quickly, he puts the ball where he wants to put the ball. Hopefully we can get him out of a rhythm and get some hits on him.”
It was roughly a year ago, in the Eastern Final against Hamilton, that Harris broke a CFL playoff record with six touchdown passes in a game. Since signing with Edmonton last February, Harris has compiled a 16-6 touchdown to interception ratio. Harris’ worst game of the season was against Montreal, when the Alouettes intercepted him twice in a 20-10 win back on July 20.
Despite making just one start since being injured on Sept. 7, the Esks’ pivot says he’s as healthy as ever.
“I’m great, for sure,” said Harris, who threw for 321 yards in Week 20 vs. the Riders, before sitting out the finale. “As the game went on I felt more and more like myself, but I haven’t been this healthy in a long time.”
After an 8-10 season, the Eskimos aren’t dwelling on the past five months. They also don’t appear discouraged by their odds. Only three teams have ever won the Grey Cup with a losing record (the REDBLACKS at 8-9-1 were the last in 2016), while a third-seeded team hasn’t won a Grey Cup since Ricky Ray led the Eskimos in 2005.
“We have a team that’s focused and energized, just fired up to be here,” said Harris. “I don’t think there’s any thought of the regular season other than the lessons we’ve learned and the team we’re trying to become in the playoffs. We’re a fired up bunch.”
Jason Maas recalls making history in 2008, when he quarterbacked the Eskimos to the first ever victory by a crossover team. Now in his fourth season as head coach, Maas is challenging his team to make history once again.
“To win two games on the road, is that inconceivable that it cannot be done?” asked Maas. “And a third one in a Grey Cup situation? Has anyone ever won three in a row on the road? Yeah, there are teams that have done that, not out of the East though.
“People outside our dressing room probably don’t have the same belief that we have in our dressing room.”
While the Alouettes feature a running back tandem of William Stanback and Jeremiah Johnson, the Eskimos could have a one-two punch of their own as C.J. Gable returns to the lineup for the first time since Oct. 4. He’s expected to see work in the backfield along with shifty sophomore Shaq Cooper.
The Eskimos are down two starting defensive backs, as Forrest Hightower and Money Hunter were both injured in practice. Sophomore Canadian Godfrey Onyeka will get the start at corner, while Tyquwan Glass also gets a starting assignment.
With returner Christion Jones out for the season, the Eskimos signed Jamill Smith and Travon Van to the practice roster this week. Smith has been activated for Sunday’s game and will be the primary returner.
Esks defensive end Mathieu Betts, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, will play his first game in Montreal as a pro. The 24-year-old is no stranger to the area, having spent four seasons with the Laval Rouge et Or.
The Alouettes are a perfect 5-0 vs. crossover teams. However, the Eskimos have had the most success of any team crossing over, going 2-1 in semi-finals and 2-3 overall.
BY THE NUMBERS
28 — Completions of 30-plus yards by Als pivot Vernon Adams Jr., the most in the CFL.
30 — Giveaways by the Alouettes this season (15 interceptions, 9 on downs, 5 fumbles), the second fewest in the league.
70.6 — Trevor Harris‘ career completion percentage, the highest among active qualified quarterbacks.
102 — Two-and-outs forced by the Eskimos’ defence this season, the most in the CFL.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. ET and can be seen on TSN, RDS and ESPN2, and followed via CFL.ca Game Tracker.