TORONTO — Kabion Ento and the Montreal Alouettes defence turned Chad Kelly's first playoff start into a nightmare.
Ento and Marc-Antoine Dequoy returned interceptions for touchdowns as Montreal forced nine turnovers to stun the Toronto Argonauts 38-17 in the East Division final Saturday.
The nine turnovers — which resulted in 21 points — included four interceptions by Kelly, the East Division's outstanding player nominee. Montreal also stopped Kelly twice in short-yardage situations and recovered a Kelly fumble.
Four times Toronto turned the ball over on downs.
"If we have to win or lose a game, we understand we want it on us (defence)," Ento said. "Every time we step on the field we understand it's another opportunity to take the ball away.
"All we want to do is get the ball back for our offence."
Montreal did that well in the third quarter, intercepting Kelly three times. Ento returned the last one 22 yards for the TD at 9:13 to put Montreal ahead 24-3.
Kelly finished 21-of-36 passing for 246 yards and a TD with the four interceptions while rushing eight times for 62 yards. Although Toronto had more first downs (20-15) and net yards (385-197), Montreal won the turnover battle by a decided 9-1 margin.
"You can’t the ball over as many times as we did on offence,” Kelly said softly. “Obviously I made it a lot harder on the defence than it should have been.
"But this loss is on me. I take full responsibility of throwing those mistakes out there, playing careless with the football, trying to do too much."
Toronto's offence began smartly, driving to the Montreal seven-yard line. But Dequoy's 101-yard TD return at 3:03 of the first opened the scoring.
"One of the things I was trying to tell Chad going into this game was he didn't have to be a super hero" Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie said. "Sometimes we've got to let plays die and unfortunately we had the two pick-sixes, that really changed the game.
"He (Kelly) is still a young quarterback. We feel like Chad is going to give us a chance to get back here next year … the loss definitely doesn't fall on his shoulders."
Later in the third, the BMO Field gathering of 26,620 — the largest crowd for an Argos game since they moved there in 2016 — booed the offence off the field.
"No question it hurts more (after 16-win campaign)," Dinwiddie said. "After the season we had and we were playing in front of our crowd … we're pretty embarrassed with the performance we gave to the city of Toronto.
"I wish we had a better showing for them."
Montreal advanced to its first Grey Cup since winning two straight titles (2009-10). The Alouettes will meet the Winnipeg Blue Bombers next weekend at Tim Hortons Field.
Winnipeg dispatched the B.C. Lions 24-13 in the West Division final to advance to a first-ever Grey Cup showdown versus Montreal.
"The moniker of a great defence is being able to stop people when you need to," Montreal head coach Jason Maas said. "Down the stretch we needed to win games to be in the position we are and each and every week they came up big.
"This is the biggest stage we've played on all year and they played at their absolute peak. Someone asked me (before the game) what I thought was going to be the No. 1 predictor of an outcome and I said turnover margin. I believe that."
Cameron Dukes' one-yard TD run at 4:43 of the fourth pulled Toronto to 24-10. But James Letcher Jr. returned the ensuing kickoff 105 yards for the touchdown — his third return score this season — at 5:19.
Kelly then found DaVaris Daniels on a 64-yard TD strike at 6:43 to cut Montreal's lead to 31-17.
Montreal's defence didn't allow a touchdown in last weekend's 27-12 East Division semifinal win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The Alouettes were 0-3 against Toronto in the regular season but haven't lost since 23-20 setback to the Argos on Sept. 15, a span now of seven games.
Kelly enjoyed a record-setting '23 campaign, his first as Toronto's starter. He won 15-of-16 starts in guiding the Argos to a franchise-best 16-2 record, which also tied the single-season league mark for wins.
In August, Kelly signed a three-year, $1.865-million extension that made him the league's highest-paid player.
Edmonton was 16-2 in 1989 but lost the West Division final to Saskatchewan, which went to win the Grey Cup.
Kelly's 93.8 win percentage was the best ever by a player with at least 14 starts. He completed 270-of-394 passes (68.5 per cent) for 4,123 yards with 23 TDs and 12 interceptions while running for 248 yards and eight TDs — tied for second-most in the CFL.
Toronto's offence also led the CFL in fewest turnovers (27) and was tied for fewest interceptions (15). The Argos entered Saturday's game sporting a 9-0 home record (one win came in Halifax) and 10-0 within the East Division.
Tyler Snead and Jeshrun Antwi had Montreal's other touchdowns. David Cote added five converts and a field goal.
Toronto's Boris Bede booted two converts and a field goal.
Cody Fajardo's eight-yard TD pass to Snead at 5:13 of the third — despite tight coverage from Toronto safety Royce Metchie — staked Montreal to a 17-3 advantage. It followed Shawn Oakman's unnecessary roughness penalty on a Cote field goal that gave the Als first down at the Toronto seven-yard line.
The touchdown was set up by Reggie Stubblefield's interception.
Montreal led 10-3 at halftime thanks to its defence, which accounted for its lone TD. It also stopped Kelly twice on third down despite Dukes usually being Toronto's short-yardage quarterback.
And although Toronto continually enjoyed great field position and accumulated 174 net yards, the offence gave the ball away four times (downs twice, interception and fumble).
Toronto's defence did its part with five first-half sacks (three by Oakman, two by Reggie Barlow) and an interception. The unit, which had a CFL-high 68 sacks on the year, finished with seven Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press