Saturday, November 15, 2008

CFL: No all-West Grey Cup for you!

Well, the Montreal Alouettes came up with a 36-26 victory [Sean Gordon, The Globe and Mail over the Edmonton Eskimos in this afternoon's East final, shattering not only my perfect streak of playoff predictions but also the dream of an all-Western CFL final. That probably keeps the league executives happy: as Gordon pointed out in his pre-game piece this morning, it's easier to sell a final with Montreal nationally than a battle of Alberta or a B.C.-Edmonton clash. It also means that there should be a lot of excitement in Montreal leading up to the final, which might have been more muted if the home team wasn't playing (particularly considering that the Canadiens are retiring Patrick Roy's number on the night before the big game). Thus, the Alouettes' win is probably good for the league, but it's somewhat disappointing to miss out on a never-before seen all-Western matchup.

In any case, this was a great football game, but it wasn't the offensive shootout many were anticipating; much of the fireworks came on special teams, which saw Edmonton pick up two touchdowns on a blocked punt (blocked and recovered by former Manitoba Bison Justin Cooper [CIS] and a 78-yard punt return by Tristan Jackson and Montreal add two more on 97 and 64-yard punt returns by Larry Taylor. Ricky Ray and Anthony Calvillo were similarly effective (339 and 295 yards respectively) and both threw one touchdown against zero picks, but Calvillo was more efficient, completing 20 of 32 passes against Ray's 26 of 49.

The run game also favoured Montreal. Avon Cobourne, who still seemed a little banged-up, ran 16 times for a decent 52 yards, while Edmonton only tried to rush three times with A.J. Harris and only picked up three yards doing so. Curiously enough, Edmonton didn't throw many short passes to their running backs either, which is usually a staple of their offence. Harris didn't have a catch all day, while Calvin McCarty (a Surrey guy who went to Western Washington) only had four catches for 14 yards. By contrast, Cobourne added another 61 yards on his four catches.

Early on, things were looking good for Edmonton. Their offence was moving the ball, even if they only got a few points out of it, while Calvillo struggled early on. Two field goals and the early blocked punt gave the Eskimos a 13-3 lead early in the second quarter. As the game went on, though, the Montreal line gave Calvillo more protection, and he started to pick apart Edmonton's defence with quick, short passes. Taylor's first punt return for a touchdown (64 yards) with less than two minutes to go before halftime gave Montreal a 19-13 lead and got their fans back into the game, and the Alouettes never trailed after that. As Montreal head coach Marc Trestman told TSN's Sara Orlesky after the game, "We took Edmonton's best shot today and we withstood the test."

The Eskimos made the end game interesting, though. Ray threw a bomb to Kelly Campbell early in the fourth quarter, and he took it in for a touchdown to bring Edmonton within 16. The Eskimos' defence held Montreal, but their offence couldn't keep the momentum going; Ray forced too many deep throws and the Alouettes dd well in pass coverage. Jackson re-energized Edmonton with a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown inside the last two minutes, but the two-point conversion failed. Maurice Mann did well to recover the ensuing onside kick, but Ray fumbled on the next drive, driving the final nail into Edmonton's coffin.

It wasn't a lights-out performance by Montreal, though, and some questions will hang over their heads as they prepare for the Grey Cup. Early on, while Edmonton's pass rush was getting past their offensive line, Calvillo looked decidedly vulnerable and was noticeably ineffective. Both Calgary and B.C. bring great pressure up front; Montreal will have to improve their pass protection and be more consistent with it if they want to win the big game.

Cobourne's health is also an issue. As Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette points out, he missed the final three games of the season with an ankle injury and hadn't played since Oct. 13. He looked somewhat sluggish today, and wasn't able to make as many of the quick cuts CFL fans have come to expect from him. That might be rust, or it might be a still-sore ankle, but the Alouettes may need more from him in the final. Both Calgary and B.C. boast powerful ground games; a Montreal team without one will be at a considerable disadvantage.

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