MONTREAL — The Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats should know each other inside and out by now.
Montreal hosts Hamilton in the CFL East Division semifinal on Saturday at Molson Stadium in a fourth game between the two teams this year — fifth if you include the pre-season. It’s also the third straight year they’ve met at this stage of the playoffs, with Montreal winning at home last time out.
The Alouettes came out on top on each occasion this season, too. Anticipating the opponents’ next move is the key to doing it again against such a familiar foe, says Alouettes head coach Jason Maas.
“You try to think a step ahead and what they may try to do differently, if anything. Those are the cat-and-mouse games,” said Maas, who also referenced a long history of going up against Hamilton defensive co-ordinator Mark Washington and senior assistant Scott Milanovich, who calls the plays on offence.
“You try to go back and forth a little bit, each coach does, each coordinator does, about what they've done in the past, what you can do to be a step ahead, or if your plan's sound and what you have to adjust.
“This is the chess game of football."
The Alouettes came second in the East with an 11-7 record to exceed expectations after undergoing full-scale changes, from ownership to starting quarterback, last off-season.
With the Grey Cup in Hamilton this year, the Ticats loaded up by adding two-time outstanding player Bo Levi Mitchell and running back James Butler, but finished 8-10 after a slow and injury-riddled start to the year.
Montreal is riding a five-game winning streak and has taken care of business against everyone this season except the league’s top three teams — Toronto, Winnipeg and B.C.
Hamilton hasn’t had the same consistency, but has shown a higher upside than Montreal by beating Winnipeg and B.C. this season. The Ticats have also had a stronger second half since Milanovich took over play-calling duties from former OC Tommy Condell.
Both sides expect Saturday to be a tight matchup.
"It's likely to be a battle and could come down to the last possession,” said Ticats president of football operations and head coach Orlondo Steinauer. “You've just got to go with your game plan, make your adjustments and make more plays than the other team."
Matthew Shiltz gets the start under centre for Hamilton as Mitchell backs up. But where they’re listed may not matter since the Ticats implemented a two-quarterback system late in the season.
"Both quarterbacks are going to play. How much, that will be determined by us,” said Steinauer. “The most important thing is that Bo, Matt and Kai (short-yardage quarterback Kai Locksley) understand their roles heading into this game and the possibilities, and really that's the focus."
As a result, Montreal faces the challenge of game-planning for two stylistically different QBs.
"Shiltz, he's a very dynamic runner, he's a very efficient passer and Bo Levi just has that experience," said Alouettes all-star linebacker Tyrice Beverette. "He knows what it takes to win a game.”
"It's difficult on our defence,” added Montreal quarterback Cody Fajardo. “You have a guy in Bo who can sit back and pick you apart, who's seen just about every defence known to man and then you have a guy in Shiltz ... who's a bit more athletic, he can run around and make plays.
“Obviously our defence is going to have their hands full."
The Alouettes defence ranked second against in opponent passing yards this season but only fifth against the run, making Shiltz and Butler — who finished third in rushing yards (1,116) — key players to watch.
CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION
On the other end, Montreal’s passing game runs solely through Fajardo.
Fajardo lost his starting job in Saskatchewan last season but found a spot in Montreal after Maas, the former Roughriders OC, took the Alouettes gig.
If not for that, Fajardo isn’t sure he’d still be playing in the CFL after a tough season in Regina.
"I'm just extremely happy to be in a playoff game,” he said. "It was very difficult for me last year, sitting at home and watching other teams in the playoffs.
"If coach Maas (doesn't get) this job, I might have hung them up. It might have been it for me."
Fajardo ranked fifth in passing yards and led the league in completion percentage (71.1) but threw 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions this season.
An offence with him, a strong receivers group — including all-star wideout Austin Mack — and 2021 CFL rushing yards leader William Stanback, should still be enough to cause issues for a Hamilton defence that ranked sixth in opponent net offence.
"They have weapons at every level,” said Ticats defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis. “Fajardo is a veteran savvy, competitive guy. I always tip my hat to him because he's one of the most competitive quarterbacks.”
IT MIGHT GET LOUD
Montreal averaged 17,670.3 spectators for an 88.24 per cent capacity this season, according the CFLdb Statistics — numbers that should rise on Saturday.
Offensive lineman Kristian Matte, Montreal’s longest-serving player, says Molson Stadium's atmosphere gets louder than most with a packed house.
"With all the noise they make, it changes something for the opposing offence,” said Matte. “We've got the mountain behind the stadium, when there's 20,000 or more fans there it's really loud."
Said Steinauer: “They're going to wreak havoc for our offence when they're in the huddle and our punt team.”
Both teams have most of their key players healthy for the matchup. Alouettes receiver Kaion Julien-Grant, among others, remains on the injured list. Pierre-Olivier Lestage was removed from the active roster after sustaining an injury last week, leaving a big hole to fill in Montreal’s offensive line.
— With files from Dan Ralph in Hamilton.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2023.
Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press