Quarterback Cody Fajardo calls his Montreal Alouettes “a band of misfit toys.”
“There’s a lot of guys on this team, including myself, that were kind of exiled from their own team,” he said.
The misfits owned the day Saturday, upsetting 16-win Toronto 38-17 before an announced crowd of 26,620 — the Argonauts’ largest-ever crowd at BMO Field.
The Alouette defence, under the direction of defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe, triggered the win. The Als defenders discombobulated the Toronto offence while forcing Argonaut quarterback Chad Kelly into places he will not soon forget.
“Offence wins games. Defence wins championships,” said Fajardo. “That was evident tonight. And our defence is a championship-winning defence.”
The Toronto turnover count was one away from double-digits. It was a shopping list of blunders: interception, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, fumble, interception, interception, interception, turnover on downs and turnover on downs.
“What can you say about our defence?” said Montreal coach Jason Maas. “I’ve been saying it all year. They play at an extremely high level, each and every week.”
“The guys believe in each other, play for one another,” he added. “They play team defence and they’re aggressive and tenacious. They just get after you.”
Montreal will face Winnipeg in the Grey Cup game next Sunday at Tim Hortons Field. The Blue Bombers advanced to their fourth straight league championship game with a 24-13 West Division final win over the B.C. Lions on Saturday night.
Safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, the Eastern Conference finalist for Most Outstanding Canadian this season, set the tone on Toronto’s first offensive possession.
After Kelly moved the Argos 63 yards in four plays to the Montreal seven-yard line, Dequoy stepped in front of an Argo receiver and returned an interception 101 yards for a touchdown.
The 29-year-old Quebec native finished second in the CFL during the regular-season with five interceptions, two of which he took back for TDs.
Kabion Ento also returned an interception for a TD and former Argo Shawn Lemon forced Kelly to fumble.
Montreal Alouettes defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson (94) tackles Toronto Argonauts quarterback Chad Kelly (12) on a run during second half CFL Eastern Division final football action in Toronto, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Montreal ranked second in the CFL with 48 defensive take-aways this season. Its plus-14 turnover ratio, the franchise’s best since 2010, also ranked second in the league.
According to sports analytics company Pro Football Focus (PFF), Montreal’s defensive coverage unit was one of the best in the league in 2023. The Als allowed the second-lowest number of passing touchdowns and completion percentage, third lowest passing first downs, while also finishing third in interceptions.
The Als’ special teams also stepped up Saturday.
James Letcher Jr. returned a punt 105 yards for a touchdown. And Australian punter Joseph Zema’s accurate kicking denied the Argos return chances.
Montreal, which finished second in the Eastern Conference at 11-7-0, has now won seven straight games including last week’s East semifinal win over Hamilton.
But the first six games of that run, which started after back-to-back 39-10 and 23-20 losses to the Argos in September, all came against sub-. 500 opposition — Ottawa (twice), Hamilton (twice), Calgary and Edmonton.
Before that, Montreal went 0-7-0 against B.C., Toronto and Winnipeg. On Saturday, the Alouettes showed they can take down an elite team.
Maas was not surprised.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in our locker-room before today that didn’t think we we’re capable (of beating winning teams),” he said. “I think we played some really good football against those teams. We just haven’t won those games.”
“There’s a lot of confidence brewing in that locker-room,” he added. “They didn’t need this as vindication to know they can play with the top teams.”
For Fajardo and Mass, the trip to the Grey Cup comes after a 2022 season that left both in limbo.
Saskatchewan fired Maas as offensive coordinator a year ago. Fajardo was benched for the final two games of the Roughriders’ 2022 season in favour of sophomore pro Mason Fine.
A free agent, the quarterback had offers from both Toronto and Montreal but chose the Als.
“This off-season was incredibly tough for me and my family,” said Fajardo “I didn’t know if I was going to hang them up. I didn’t know if I was done, if a team was going to give me a chance. And coach Maas signed here and Danny (GM Danny Maciocia) offered me a two-year deal which showed the investment and the belief in me.
“And I wanted to do everything I could to prove those guys right for giving me the opportunity. And I wouldn’t be playing football today, I wouldn’t be in the Grey Cup next week if it wasn’t for those two men. And I love them dearly.”
Said Maas: “Basically a year ago I wasn’t on a football team.”
Maas also praised Maciocia for bringing in the likes of Lemon and linebacker Darnell Sankey. “They’re both leaders,” he said.
It’s Montreal’s first trip to the Grey Cup since 2010.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2023.