The Toronto Argonauts accomplished their mission Saturday night – without much pushback from the B.C. Lions.
Ricky Ray tossed three touchdown passes and James Wilder ran for 136 yards and a TD as the Argonauts clinched first place in the CFL’s East Division with a 40-13 victory over the Lions.
“It’s a huge win for us,” said Ray in the jubilant Argos locker room. “We knew coming in that this is what we needed to do to get to the East final. That gives you the best chance to get to the Grey Cup.”
Ray completed 26-of-34 passes for 341 yards as the Argos finished the regular season with a 9-9 record, earning a first-round bye in the East Division playoffs. Toronto will host the Eastern Final against the winner of a semifinal between Ottawa and Saskatchewan, the West Division crossover club.
“I’m just proud of the guys,” said Ray. “They came in really prepare and got the ‘W’ tonight. We’re just gonna work hard, make sure we’re prepared and try and go out and play our best games,” said Ray. “That’s all you ask for, an opportunity, and we’ve put ourselves in a good situation. Now, we’ve just gotta make sure we’re ready for that moment.”
S.J. Green, DeVier Posey and Declan Cross caught touchdown passes for the Argos while Wilder ran the ball in for another major. Hajrullahu supplied Toronto’s other points on converts.
Lirim Harjullahu kicked four field goals for the Argos and produced their other points on converts as Toronto won its first East Division crown since 2013.
Noting that November is a stressful time of year for kickers, he was encouraged by his performance.
“I wanted to end the regular season on a high note to go into the playoffs and I think we did that,” said Hajrullahu. “For me, it was important to be successful.”
The victory culminated a worst-to-first turnaround for the Argos, who placed last in the East in 2016. But first-year coach Marc Trestman downplayed the significance of the bye.
“We’re not gonna make it any more than it is, but we’ve come a long way as a team and we had to earn this tonight,” said Trestman.
The Argos sealed top spot in the East by scoring on three of their first four offensive series, although they had trouble getting into the end zone early and had to settle for three-pointers.
The Argos racked up 498 yards and held the Lions to 205. Defensive back Cassius Vaughn recorded two interceptions as the Argos posted four picks altogether.
“The defence played great,” said Ray. “We never really had any pressure on us offensively.”
Most of the B.C. points came in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was not in doubt. Jeremiah Johnson scored B.C.’s lone touchdown on a five-yard run. The Lions’ other points came on a convert and two punt singles from Ty Long, along with a pair of safeties conceded by Hajrullahu.
B.C. often struggled due to poor throws by quarterback Jonathon Jennings. The Lions wound up 7-11 and finished last in the West for the first time in 42 years. Before Saturday, B.C. had not placed fifth since 1975.
However, the Lions did little to suggest that they were capable of better things at the end of what might have been the final season for Wally Buono, the CFL’s all-time winningest coach. Buono’s contract with the Lions is due to expire and he has admitted that his future with the club is uncertain.
Jennings completed 19-of-31 passes for a meager 145 yards, while also throwing three interceptions before being pulled in the fourth quarter.
“It’s just disappointing,” said Jennings. “We didn’t have any consistency. They came out with more passion than us and they ended up making more plays.”
The B.C. defence was equally ineffective as the Argos heaped up yards and points almost at will, even though middle linebacker Solomon Elimmimian made 11 tackles. He finished the campaign with a single-season record of 144 tackles, surpassing his former mark of 143 set in 2014.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I’ve pulled (off) a lot of records, but what I’ve realized is that nothing trumps winning.”
Both Jennings and Elimmimian said the Lions will use the disappointing season as an educational opportunity.
“We’ll learn from it and just trust that the foundation is place and there’s guys in place to be better next year,” said Elimmimian.
Notes- Elimmimian also matched his CFL record of six game with at least 10 tackles, also set in 2014. ? Ray recorded his 91st career 300-yard passing game. ? Jennings finished the season with more interceptions than touchdowns (16). ? Lions receiver Marco Iannuzzi played the final game of his seven-year CFL after previously announcing his retirement.