Alouettes edge Ticats 22-20 in playoff preview

MONTREAL — After managing a 22-20 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the final game of the CFL regular season on Saturday, the Montreal Alouettes have the upper hand heading into their more meaningful Nov. 4 Eastern Conference semifinal bout, but that doesn’t mean they’re taking their foot off the gas.

With Saturday's win, the Alouettes are 3-0 against Hamilton in the regular season. Another win in next weekend's semifinal would advance them to the East Conference final in Toronto and, hopefully, the Grey Cup, which will be played on Hamilton’s home field.

“(The win) is great momentum going into that game,” said Montreal quarterback Cody Fajardo. “It’s not about the best team in terms of record, it’s about the team that gets hot at the right time. We’re going into the playoffs with five straight wins, that’s about as hot as you can get.

"We know a lot of people aren’t talking about the Montreal Alouettes still, and that’s OK. Keep it that way, we just want to continue to put our head down and work.”

Alouettes head coach Jason Maas agreed. To him, there’s more to it than just knowing they’ve beaten this team before — no matter how many times.

“I think in some ways sports are mental, but there’s a lot of physical that goes into that as well,” said Maas. “Those are awareness points, or those are things that are out of your control. I think you just focus on every day and focus on getting better and not worry about the fact that we’ve beaten them three times this year.”

Substitutions were plentiful on Saturday as both teams sought to get their starters some repetitions ahead of next weekend’s semifinal clash.

For the Montreal Alouettes, fresh off a bye week, it was a matter of getting key players like Fajardo warmed up before slotting in their backups to keep the starters healthy.

Hamilton had the same idea, giving key players such as quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and running back Tyreik McAllister the nod to get things started early on in the game.

While Fajardo had the opportunity to finish out the first quarter and get things started in the second, it was up to his backups Caleb Evans and Davis Alexander to carry the team through the rest of the game — and they didn’t disappoint, especially in the case of Alexander who went 5-for-6 and threw for 51 yards, just four shy of Fajardo’s 55.

While this may come as a surprise to some, that’s not the case in the eyes of coach Maas.

“I think what our team’s built on is competing,” said Maas. “We work hard. (The media and the fans) see a performance like that from a player, but you don’t ever see the work he puts in through 18 weeks on practice fields. These guys are all professionals, they’re just waiting for an opportunity.”

Opportunity was a recurring theme in this game, as a number of offensive drives came off the back of a missed opportunity for the other team. This was the case for the Alouettes’ first touchdown, which came as the result of a forced fumble on the kickoff return and for McAllister’s touchdown later in the game returning a field-goal attempt from Alouettes kicker David Coté.

It wasn’t all bad on Coté’s end though. Down 20-19 with under two minutes left, Coté made a successful 22-yard field goal to put the Alouettes back in the lead by a score of 22-20.

“I’m confident every time he (Coté) steps on the field,” said Maas. “We pushed his comfort level a little bit on the last kick for sure and he kicked it well. I know the work he’s put in, I know the work he’ll put in next week. We’ll expect great results from him.”

The last time the Montreal Alouettes had an opportunity like the one that lies ahead was 2012, when they closed out the regular season 11-7, the same record they secured this weekend. Only one player from that roster remains, and that’s Saint Hubert, Que., native Kristian Matte.

“It’s something special (to have ended the season with this record),” said Matte after the game. “We put in the effort. I’m happy, I’m proud, but this is one thing and there is still work to be done.”

How different is this team from the team that took the field back in 2012? It depends who you ask, but quarterback Fajardo and coach Maas think they have what it takes to go all the way.

“I think we have a lot of the characteristics that good teams have,” said Maas. “We have a great group of guys that again, work extremely hard. They get along.

“To win 11 games is huge. What makes it different from any other 11-win team, I don’t know, but that’s a special group in there, I know that and I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

The Alouettes and Tiger-Cats will square off next Saturday (Nov. 4) to determine who will move on to face the Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Conference final on Nov. 11.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2023.

Ireland Compton, The Canadian Press