Alouettes notch best record since Calvillo (& eight other thoughts on winning the regular-season finale)

Photo courtesy: Montreal Alouettes

The last game of the Montreal Alouettes’ 2023 season won’t be remembered for long. As expected, it felt like a preseason game from start to finish, as both teams prepared to face off against each other in the playoffs next week. However, in the end, the Als beat the Tiger-Cats 22-20 to sweep the season series and finish the year with five straight wins.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Strong start, then sluggish play

Montreal set the tone in this contest with a fumble recovered on the game’s opening kickoff. Marc-Antoine Dequoy again showed why he is the Most Outstanding Canadian nominee for the team by giving the offence a short field.

It took only two plays for Cody Fajardo to connect with Tyson Philpot to give the Als an early 7-0 lead.

The defence followed with an early two-and-out but from there, the Als lacked consistency offensively. They couldn’t connect enough to move the chains. The good news for Montreal was that Bo Levi Mitchell and his receivers couldn’t either.

It wasn’t pretty, especially in the first half. Both teams wanted to play it safe and stay away from injuries, and it showed.

The play once again

The Alouettes decided to once again attempt an onside punt pooch kick for a first down, this time with Cole Spieker instead of Jeshrun Antwi. For a second time this season, it worked. 

I was surprised Jason Maas decided to do it again in a meaningless game. I would have kept it for the playoffs, considering the fact that the rest of the CFL seemed to have forgotten about it.

A point could be made that the Tiger-Cats will now need to adjust for next week and defend the whole field on second-and-long, which could open up more zones for Cody Fajardo. However, keeping those trick plays a surprise can have an even more positive impact on the game. Imagine the Als trailing with the clock winding down, and on a second-and-long, they can get the first down. That could be a game-changer, but I don’t see the Als attempting that strategy next week. 

In meaningless games, you can show plays that you won’t attempt when it matters so that the opponents spend time studying those plays. But not a play like this; not a play you’ve mastered and brought to the CFL yourself.

Field goal game not on point

One of the storylines before this game was David Cote’s return from injury. He missed the last two games and is not having his best year. In a tune-up game, he missed two of his four attempts, even seeing one returned 122 yards for a touchdown by Tyreik McAllister.

Knowing Hamilton’s returner will also return kicks next week, the Als must be careful with their field goals. However, Jason Maas told the media after the game that he will not hesitate to use Cote when it’s required and said he’ll be ready come playoff time.

It will continue to be a hot topic this week. The Als need all the points they can get, especially in the playoffs. We’ll see how Cote will respond. 

Punting game ready

Punter Joseph Zema was named the Most Outstanding Special Teams Player for the Als this season. It is totally deserved, as he put on a clinic all season long. Although he scored a single on a punt on Saturday, he delivered another unreal punt that misdirected the Ticats’ returner and allowed the Als to get a short field a couple of plays later.

We rarely talk about punters, but Zema has given Montreal a lot of good field position throughout the year. It will be another key coming into the playoffs.

James Letcher Jr. seizes his opportunity

The punter is not the only one deserving credit, as the punt return unit has been efficient all season long.

After spending almost all season in the practice squad, James Letcher Jr. has been outstanding as a returner. He brings more dynamism than Chandler Worthy and provides good returns almost every time he touches the ball.

Saturday afternoon, he scored his second touchdown this season with another spectacular run. He often chooses the wide side of the field for his returns, which pays off most of the time.

After the game, he told me how difficult being in the practice squad was for the first months of the season. His family kept him on the right track and awaiting his opportunity. He got it, and now, no matter what happens with Worthy, he should stay in the lineup.

Building momentum

The win didn’t change the standings for Montreal, but the momentum created with five straight victories is not negligible. Yes, it came against teams with negative records, but they still managed to win those games.

There is a high level of confidence around the team, and you can see it when you talk to the players and the coaching staff. They will need it to win three consecutive games from here on.

The record

The Montreal Alouettes were considered by many to be the worst team in the CFL when the season started. Eighteen games later, the script is different, and a lot of credit goes to Danny Maciocia and Jason Maas.

Maciocia had limited resources and managed to build a competitive team. Jason Maas brought all players together, and although I criticized his playcalling from time to time, he delivered an overall competitive offence.

The 11 wins this season are the team’s best since 2012 — back when Anthony Calvillo was under centre. That is a big accomplishment for the whole organization, considering it was the last time the Als hosted an Eastern Final and Marc Trestman’s last year as coach.

What’s next?

The Alouettes (11-7) will face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (8-10) next Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 p.m. at Percival Molson. A meeting with the Toronto Argonauts (16-2) the following week in the Eastern Final will be on the line.

Pablo is a CFL and Alouettes analyst based in Montreal.