MONTREAL — Quarterback Cody Fajardo threw two touchdown passes, William Stanback rushed 95 yards and all-star wideout Austin Mack caught a crucial TD, but it was Montreal’s defence that led the Alouettes to CFL victory on Saturday — much like it has all season.
Montreal’s defence dominated with one forced fumble, two interceptions and eight knock-downs without surrendering a touchdown as the Alouettes defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 27-12 in the East Division semifinal.
The Alouettes move on to play the defending Grey Cup champion Argonauts in Toronto in next Saturday’s East final.
"It's like a broken record every week. I mean, they're great, flat out,” head coach Jason Maas said of his defence. "It's the tenacity that they have, aggressiveness that they bring. I think (defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe) calls a very aggressive game and they all are up to task with that.
“They know their job, they know their role, and they've got confidence and experience in it. And that's a dangerous combination.”
Linebacker Darnell Sankey, who joined the team in September, led the way with eight tackles, two sacks and a pick to earn player-of-the-game honours. Veteran defensive lineman Shawn Lemon, another midseason addition, added two sacks himself.
"We brought Sankey in because of previously what he did, I mean this guy can tackle well, and he can control the middle of the field,” said Thorpe. “That's what we talk about is our middle linebacker being really the centrepiece of our defence and he showed that today.”
Sankey led the league in tackles in 2021 and 2022 with Calgary and Saskatchewan before heading to the XFL.
He said the conversations he had with Maas, Thorpe, Lemon and Fajardo convinced him that Montreal, which was in the middle of a slump, was the right place to make his CFL return.
"They just told me that they believed in this team and believed in the organization, and they felt like I could come in and do what I got to do to help,” said Sankey. “I kind of just believed in them, and they showed that they believed in me, and they proved it."
On offence, Fajardo threw 212 yards on 15-of-23 completions and had one interception to go with his two TD passes to Mack and wideout Jake Harty.
Fajardo also made a bigger-than-usual impact on the ground, running for 62 yards.
Maas says that’s something people should probably get used to as long as Montreal is fighting to stay alive.
"I think people forget how elusive Cody can be as a runner, and I think in the playoffs there's no tomorrow so you give everything you've got,” he said. “I think you're gonna see a little bit more of Cody playing that way."
It was the third consecutive year that Hamilton and Montreal squared off at this stage of the playoffs. Montreal also won in front of a home crowd at Molson Stadium last season.
It’s also the fourth time Hamilton lost to Montreal this year after the Alouettes swept the regular-season matchups, capping a disappointing season for the Ticats, who’d loaded up this off-season with Hamilton hosting the 110th Grey Cup.
"I just feel like they made more plays, just more timely plays, consistent,” said Ticats president of football operations and head coach Orlondo Steinauer. “We were competitive in games, but you got to find a way to win games."
Running back James Butler rushed for 83 yards on 13 carries. Quarterback Matthew Shiltz threw 144 yards and one interception on 13-of-23 completions in his first playoff start. He also ran for 34 yards.
Backup Bo Levi Mitchell — a two-time Grey Cup MVP — did not come into the game until late in the fourth quarter despite Shiltz’s trouble getting in the end zone. Mitchell went 1-for-4 for six yards and an interception.
Does Steinauer think he should have brought him in sooner?
"There's nothing to discuss there," he said.
Both kickers were perfect in the game. Montreal’s David Cote went 4-for-4 on field goals, with Hamilton’s Marc Liegghio also going 4-for-4.
With the Alouettes up 17-12 midway through the fourth quarter, Fajardo found Harty — a special-teams player who had four receptions this season — with a 14-yard touchdown pass to give Montreal a two-score lead.
Mitchell came in to try and help Hamilton mount a comeback, but faced the same stifling defence as Shiltz as Lemon sacked him on second down for a loss of 13 yards with under five minutes left.
After Montreal kicked another field goal, East Division outstanding Canadian nominee Marc-Antoine Dequoy intercepted Mitchell with 49 seconds left to ice the game, but the action wasn’t over there.
On the next play, Hamilton defensive back Chris Edwards appeared to throw a punch on Harty after the whistle, leading to a scrum between both teams, several penalties, and heavy boos from the crowd.
"That's wildly embarrassing. That's what it is, it's not what we're about in our organization,” said Steinauer. “It happened, there's no excuse for it."
Neither team scored a touchdown through most of the first half until Sankey intercepted a tipped Shiltz pass with 57 seconds left in the second quarter at Hamilton’s 30-yard line.
Mack, who had just returned from going to the locker room after a hard hit moments earlier, caught a 30-yard pass from Fajardo on the ensuing play to put the Alouettes up 14-6 after the conversion at halftime.
"He ran out of the locker room like it was a cinematic movie,” said Fajardo. “He came out with blood on his face and came in the huddle, and I read the play and I was like, 'Hey, Mack, if they come down and play man coverage, it's coming up to you.
"That was a huge momentum swing."
After Montreal punter Joseph Zema scored a single, Hamilton moved downfield on its second drive of the game, but the Alouettes' defence kept the Ticats from getting in the end zone, forcing a 23-yard kick from Liegghio.
That was as close as Hamilton got.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2023.
Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press