Montreal Alouettes win scrappy battle against the Elks (& six other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

It’s mission accomplished for the Montreal Alouettes — at least for now.

They will host their home opener next Thursday with a 2-0 record after two challenging games on the road. The Elks offered a much better opposition than the Bombers but in the end, the Als left Commonwealth Stadium with a 23-20 win.

Below are my thoughts on the game.

Explosive start

Against a team that has struggled to win games over the last couple of years, Montreal wanted to dictate the tempo quickly and they did it.

After a short Edmonton drive was stopped by a great Darnell Sankey sack, Cody Fajardo orchestrated a perfect five-minute drive to give the Als a 7-0 lead. Kaion Julien-Grant and Cole Spieker were the two stars of the offensive push with important catches, including a juggling one-handed stab in the end zone by the latter.

Although the Elks eventually tied the game twice, that’s the closest they came to getting the win. Montreal never gave them the benefit of holding a lead.

Copy and paste

It seems as if I could use the same words week after week. Once again, the Als’ defence led the way with a great performance. In addition to three quarterback sacks, Noel Thorpe’s unit was able to force three turnovers — two interceptions and one turnover on downs.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson underthrew Eugene Lewis on the first interception and Nafees Lyon, who missed the majority of last season, made a great catch on the play. The whole defence seemed to come together to create magic on the second takeaway, as strong-side linebacker Bryce Cosby, who was replacing the injured  Reggie Stubblefield, came flying in to apply pressure on MBT. The Elks’ quarterback was forced to shorten his motion as he got hit right after the ball was released and Kabion Ento, who had the best game of his career in the Grey Cup last November, came up big with the interception near the goal line.

The turnover on downs also deserves some coverage as the execution was perfect from defensive tackle Mustafa Johnson, who is one of the most underrated players in the CFL.  The way he beat centre Mark Korte to the spot and jumped quickly into the backfield to come up with a big tackle for loss on backup quarterback Dakota Prukop was impressive. Johnson had another great game, disrupting the Elks’ offensive schemes at the line of scrimmage all night long.

We like ’em big

For a second consecutive game, Jason Maas’ offence created explosive plays when they needed to take control of the game. In this one, three huge gains led to touchdowns.

Julien-Grant started it off with a 53-yard catch on a deep post route on the opening drive, which led to the Als’ first lead of the game. Then, with the game tied at 10 at the end of the first half, running back Walter Fletcher caught a screen pass and raced 46 yards for a crucial touchdown.

He wasn’t done as he put the final nail in the Elks’ coffin with just over two minutes to go in the game. A 36-yard run was made possible by a great pancake block from right tackle Joshua Donovan and the resulting score all but assured victory.

Overall, Fletcher was able to run for chunk yardage and make plays out of the backfield throughout the game. He finished the night with 12 carries for 82 yards and three catches for 61 yards, with a score in each category. A lot of credit goes to the offensive line, which created holes in the Elks’ defensive line for the running back and got out in front of him in space.

Looking for consistency

Cody Fajardo finished the game 20-of-30 passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns while adding 27 yards on the ground. Statistically, it was another great game for the Montreal quarterback but when you remove the two big pass plays mentioned earlier, there are only 167 yards left.

The offence went more than 28 minutes without scoring a single point, despite having five drives over that span. As both teams struggled to gain momentum, a single score in that stretch could have been enough to seal the deal. The offence will need to be more consistent moving forward.

Nevertheless, Fajardo managed the game well once again. He didn’t commit costly mistakes and let his defence put him in good situations. His arm has been impressive as well. Against Winnipeg, he connected with Tyson Philpot and on Thursday night, he delivered two beautiful throws to Julien-Grant and Charleston Rambo. Unfortunately, Rambo couldn’t hold on to the ball when he hit the ground and the team missed out on another potentially massive gain.

Scrappy wins still count

I rarely talk about Montreal’s opponents in my post-game column but the Elks deserve credit for how they battled. Both offensive and defensive lines gave the Alouettes trouble and players will wake up this weekend with more bruises than usual. For nobody is that truer than receiver Cole Spieker, who got hammered by Loucheiz Purifoy on a hit felt throughout the stadium and was lucky to return to the game.

Edmonton is better than what their record says and I’m convinced that with some time, they’ll get the ship right and fight for a playoff spot. Elks alumnus Jason Maas shared a similar viewpoint as he spoke to the media after the game.

“In this league, it’s always difficult to win, especially on the road. They never gave up until the end,” he said.

The Als haven’t lost a meaningful game — regular season or playoffs — in eight months. Given how hard it is to win in the CFL regardless of opponent, that is truly unbelievable.

What’s next?

The Montreal Alouettes will raise their 2023 Grey Cup banner next Thursday when they receive the Ottawa RedBlacks for their home opener at Percival-Molson Stadium.

The team announced on Friday that it has sold more than 20,000 tickets for the game already. That is a significant milestone, with the real possibility of a sellout. The fans deserve to live out that hype, especially after so many long years of misery.

Pablo is a CFL and Alouettes analyst based in Montreal.