MONTREAL — The Alouettes defied critics and expectations in the first half of the year. Now they want to prove their record is more than just a fluke.
Heading into the second half of their 18-game season, the Montreal Alouettes (5-4) are looking to extend their winning streak to three games when they host the dreadful B.C. Lions (1-9) on Friday night.
Both Montreal and B.C., who have lost six straight, are coming off bye weeks.
"We embrace everything that's spoken about us, whether it's negative or positive," said running back William Stanback after a light practice Thursday morning. "We know what we have here. It feels different this year.
"It's only my second year, I haven't been in this league that long, but it's a totally different feeling in the locker room and on the field."
Stanback has fully recovered from his heel injury and will return to his regular workload on Friday. After missing games against Saskatchewan and Calgary, the CFL sophomore played a limited role in Montreal's 28-22 victory over the Toronto Argonauts on Aug. 25.
"We have something good going on here, something really special," said the 25-year-old Stanback. "We're going to work hard and do what we have to do to make sure we come out on top every week."
A series of setbacks and obstacles has done little to slow down the Alouettes this year.
Montreal has been without an owner all season and remains under the control of the CFL. The team fired coach Mike Sherman one week before the start of the season, and dismissed general manager Kavis Reed under mysterious circumstances in July. Starting quarterback Antonio Pipkin also sustained a leg injury in the season opener.
But what should have derailed the struggling franchise has done the opposite.
Led by breakout star quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., the Alouettes start the second half of their season with a winning record for the first time in seven years. Their five wins equals last year's total at the end of the season.
Montreal is second in the East Division behind the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who have two games in hand. The third-place Ottawa Redblacks are 3-7.
Barring a collapse in their final nine games — five of those at home — all signs point to Montreal clinching a playoff berth for the first time since 2014.
"Things are a little better than the mindset at the beginning," said coach Khari Jones. "Just because we didn't know what we had. I felt good about the team and I told them that from the beginning. When I took over, I felt we had the pieces in place to win here and play good competitive football."
The Lions are hoping a change in their coaching staff will propel their team to a second victory. This week the Lions sacked offensive line coach Bryan Chiu — a former Alouettes player — and replaced him with Kelly Bates.
The B.C. offensive line has allowed a CFL-worst 43 sacks this season — 14 more than second-worst Toronto.
That constant pressure from opponents and lack of protection has taken its toll on star quarterback Mike Reilly's numbers this season. After leading the CFL in passing for three consecutive years, the 34-year-old Lions QB has already racked up 11 interceptions — on pace for the most picks of his career.
The Lions embark on a stretch of five straight games against East-Division opposition. B.C. is 1-2 versus the East this year.
Even with a minuscule chance of making the playoffs, B.C. Lions head coach DeVone Claybrooks says the focus remains on this season.
"Whatever you do, you want to go down swinging," said Claybrooks earlier this week. "And we're going to make teams pay every week. And that's our mindset, trying to go out and win every game, every week.
"Everybody here is playing for jobs and playing for next year as well. So we understand that's the business that we're in."
B.C. LIONS (1-9) AT MONTREAL ALOUETTES (5-4)
Friday, Percival Molson Stadium
GOOD COMPANY: Veteran defensive end John Bowman will play his 224th game on Friday, which will tie Ben Cahoon for fourth most in Alouettes history.
BYE BYE BYE: All three of Montreal's bye weeks were scheduled in the first half of the season. The Alouettes now play once a week for the remainder of the calendar.
HALF CENTURY: The Lions' 1-9 start is the club's worst since 1969, when they went 1-10 to start the season.
NEW TARGET: The Alouettes added veteran receiver Chris Matthews to their offence. The 29-year-old, who won a Grey Cup with Calgary last year, will not be ready to start for Montreal on Friday.
WINNING FORMULA: Reilly and the Lions have had success against the Alouettes historically. Reilly is 11-2 versus Montreal while the Lions have won their last seven versus the Als.
— With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver.
Kelsey Patterson, The Canadian Press