June 19, 2024

The Alouettes made a strong start to the regular season with a decisive victory that sends a clear message to the CFL: they are serious about defending their Grey Cup title.

While one game doesn’t define a season, Montreal’s 27-12 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Princess Auto Stadium was a thorough and dominant performance. The game was a rematch of the Grey Cup, a game Winnipeg had been eager to replay for over six months. However, if the Bombers were seeking revenge or redemption, they found neither on this night.

The victory raises the question of how much more convincing the Alouettes’ performance might have been if the game had been played at Molson Stadium, with the Cup championship banner raised and the home crowd energized.

Seven months ago, Montreal’s defense led them to an unexpected title, and it seems that unit, under co-ordinator Noel Thorpe, is ready to continue its strong performance.

“I go against those guys (on defense) every day (in practice). I know they’re the best defense in the league,” quarterback Cody Fajardo told reporters in Winnipeg after the game. “I know how good they are and how hard they make it.”

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Als head coach Jason Maas praised the defense, saying: “I’ll just say this about our defense — they come to work every single day. They compete every single day. They care about each other. They’re coached hard, coached well. They have a lot of confidence, and they should. They put a lot of time and effort into what they are. The thing I love about them the most? They don’t concede nothing. They make every team earn everything they’ve got. It’s phenomenal watching our defense when they’re on the field.”

Consider this: Winnipeg didn’t score its only touchdown until 68 seconds remained in the fourth quarter, with Johnny Augustine making a one-yard run. Holding any team, especially the Bombers, out of the end zone for almost the entire game is a rare feat in the CFL.

The Bombers, who have appeared in four consecutive Grey Cups but lost the last two, had an 8-1 home record last season. Their offense led the CFL in points, touchdowns, yards, and first downs last year. However, the Als’ defense made them almost non-existent. Quarterback Zach Collaros, who missed both of the Bombers’ exhibition games last month, completed 20 of 33 passes for a modest 209 yards. Tailback Brady Oliveira, last season’s outstanding Canadian and player finalist, was held to 38 yards on 11 carries.

Montreal’s defense, known for big plays and opportunistic turnovers in 2023, continued that trend. In the second quarter, a Collaros pass intended for Dalton Schoen was underthrown and intercepted by safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, the East Division’s outstanding Canadian last season. New Bombers return-specialist Myron Mitchell fumbled a punt in the first quarter, forced by Tyrice Beverette and recovered by newcomer Bryce Cosby. In the third quarter, Darnell Sankey forced a Nic Demski fumble recovered by Dionté Ruffin. Collaros was also sacked twice, by Shawn Lemon and new defensive tackle Derek Wiggan, a free-agent addition from Calgary. Lemon, a veteran rush end, now has 102 career sacks.

The Als are now on a nine-game winning streak, having not lost since September 15. However, this victory likely came at a cost. Linebacker Reggie Stubblefield and receiver Tyler Snead suffered significant injuries, with Stubblefield seen on crutches with a brace on his right knee, and Snead in a walking boot after making two catches for 62 yards. Both are likely to be placed on the six-game injured list next week.

Offensively, the Als were led by Canadian receiver Tyson Philpot, who appears on the verge of superstar status. Philpot, who scored the Grey Cup-winning touchdown, caught 10 passes for 141 yards and added two scores. One play after Mitchell’s fumble, he caught a 14-yard pass from Fajardo. The Als sealed the game in the fourth quarter with a flea-flicker, Philpot getting behind the defense for a 76-yard pass-and-run score. The Bombers’ use of two inexperienced cornerbacks, Terrell Bonds and Tyrell Ford, was exploited by the Als.

“We talked about being the best this year,” Philpot told reporters in Winnipeg. “We started off doing that against one of the better teams in the league. The Alouettes are here. That’s all I can say. That defense shut down one of the best offenses in the league for a long time. We’re going to keep this standard going and prove who we are to the CFL.”

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Cody Fajardo, the Grey Cup’s most valuable player, was highly effective against Winnipeg, completing 20 of 28 passes for 254 yards with one interception. Fajardo used six different receivers. Backup quarterback Caleb Evans scored the Als’ other touchdown on a one-yard run, six minutes into the second quarter. David Côté added a pair of short field goals.

The Als travel to Edmonton next Friday night.

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