The CFL playoffs opened Saturday and to no one's surprise the same teams defeated the same teams as last season in the league's semi final match-ups.
East Semi -final
Les Alouettes dispatched the Tiger-Cats in a game that never really seemed to be in doubt. Montreal's defence smothered the moribund Hamilton offence while its offence did enough to win in characteristically unspectacular fashion.
Last week I said that the Ti-Cats needed excellent performances from their two best offensive players, WR Tim White and RB James Butler to beat the Alouettes. They got a good performance from Butler but their dynamic receiver, Tim White, all but disappeared, incredibly recording no stats. The bottom line was that the Ti-Cats were decidedly out coached on offence. Alouettes DC Noel Thorpe completely eliminated White from the game in impressive fashion. Meanwhile, Montreal LB, Darnell Sankey and DE, Sean Lemon were outstanding registering eight tackles, two sacks and one INT as well as five tackles and two sacks, respectively. Next to the signing of Adarius Pickett by the Argos, these two are easily the best free agent signings on defence in the league for 2023. These two all-star calibre defenders only played half the season in Montreal but along with Marc-Antoine Dequoy have the Als punching above their weight on defence. The Argos will need to pay special attention to all three in the final next week.
Part of the reason that Tim White was a non-factor was the five sacks that Hamilton allowed and the poor performances of its two quarterbacks, Matthew Shiltz and Bo Levi Mitchell. It was very clear that given the lateness of Mitchell's entry into the game that Hamilton had lost almost all confidence that he could lead them to victory. If it turns out to be the last game in his decorated career it will have been a very ignominious end to it.
While Montreal was stripped of stars during free agency, it must be given credit for signing perhaps the best three available from other teams. While Bo Levi Mitchell and Trevor Harris were signed by Sask and Hamilton to great fanfare, the Als signed Cody Fajardo, who survived and outplayed them both at a significant discount. Fajardo reminds me of a former Alouette and Argo QB, Joe Barnes. Both used their legs well, were resilient, and toughed out wins in unspectacular fashion. Fajardo has been successful by moving the sticks and not turning the ball over. The Alouettes have a good defence and don't make a habit of beating themselves. Once they started running Stanback off left rather than right tackle they got some serious yardage.
Notwithstanding, Butler, Hamilton looked like a team without a positive identity. They couldn't get the ball to White and were unable to finish drives. The fact that they humiliated Mitchell by inserting him so late, despite a woeful performance by Shiltz, is a huge indictment of his signing. It was quite simply a bust. The Ti-Cats quite obviously signed his brand, not his recent performance. He has not had a strong season since 2019 despite playing behind one of the league's two best offensive lines in Calgary. Last season the Stamps only allowed 18 sacks. Contrast that with Cody Fajardo who was sacked 70 times in 17 games with the Riders last season. What did Hamilton management really think was going to happen with Mitchell behind Hamilton's mediocre line this season? What did Saskatchewan's management really think was going to happen with the soon-to-be 38-year-old Trevor Harris behind its atrocious offensive line this season?
The other side of the ball didn't help the Ti-Cat brand either. Chris Edwards reverted to "the mean" again and embarrassed himself and the team with his end-of-game antics. Has he used up his nine lives yet? In addition to Edwards, the Ti-Cats have some difficult decisions to make about a number of aging veteran players who have been stalwarts but never won them a Grey Cup. Simoni Lawrence only had three tackles and is clearly not the player he once was. DT Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn were also demonstrably quiet. Ja'Gared Davis made an athletic play to deflect a pass but one wonders how much runway a veteran rush end has left when his trade is nullified by failing a physical. Former all-star Argos tackle Chris Van Zeyl is another year older. The coaching staff did not distinguish themselves this season either. Aging or not, the Ti-Cats had a better overall roster than Montreal did this season. It didn't show on the field.
Montreal is a gritty team and is well coached. They don't have a roster that can beat the Argos unless the Argos lay an egg and turn the ball over prodigiously, or somehow get out coached by a wide margin. The Als have won six in a row and now believe in themselves. They won't be pushovers but will hope their defence can keep it close and allow them to hang around in the fourth quarter to steal a win. They can only hope to play error-free football and that the Argos beat themselves. I expect the Alouettes will show up.
Will the real Vernon Adams please stand up? If you saw the Lions beat the Stampeders, you know that Big Play VA had an outstanding game on the ground and in the air. He was sharp all game long and crucially did not turn the ball over. He is at his best when he takes off and runs and did this masterfully on key second down plays. Can he beat the Bombers next week? Well, he has beaten them twice in the last two seasons but the western final will be an entirely different matter. The Lions remain a long shot to beat the Bombers, but if there is a QB other than Chad Kelly who can beat them it's Adams. He has to play lights out again and he must run effectively. Can he do it two weeks in succession and against a team that rarely beats itself? Only if they can protect the ball and stop taking so many damaging penalties. If the Lions take more than five penalties against Winnipeg they will surely lose. The score on Saturday flattered Calgary largely because of several drive-extending penalties by the Lions, including a roughing the kicker call. If they are undisciplined against the Bombers they will be blown out. On the other hand they can hope that Zach Collaros has a poor game like he did in last year's Grey Cup (Argos assisted). Collaros can oscillate between brilliant and pedestrian but it's a lot to hope for if you are a BC fan. Oh, and then there is Brady Oliveira....
In spite of playing with less than two weeks' rest from a concussion, QB Evan Hillock returned to lead the Western Mustangs in a rout of the Queen's Golden Gaels. Many wondered if Western's impressive back up QB, 6'5' 248 lb, Jerome Rancourt, would step in given the uncertainty of Hillock's health. Western's defence played an outstanding game forcing four turnovers and shutting down Queen's vaunted running game. The Stangs will now host Laurier in the Yates Cup next week. Laurier advanced by beating the revitalized Windsor Lancers in a close game in Waterloo. Laurier is led by Hec Crighton Trophy favourite, 6'6' quarterback, Tyler Elgersma. What are they feeding these quarterbacks, they are built like rush ends?
However, the most surprising QB story of the OUA playoffs might just be Windsor Lancer freshman Nick Demovski from Belle River, Ontario. Demovski came off the bench in the OUA quarterfinal to lead the Lancers to a comeback win over Carleton and very nearly did the same thing against Laurier in the OUA semi final this past Saturday. Trailing Laurier by a touchdown late in the game Demovski threw a long TD pass only to have it called back due to penalty. Nevertheless, their win over Carleton was the first home playoff win for Windsor since 1975! You may recall from one of my earlier posts that Windsor boasts 18 Americans on its roster this season. If York and the Varsity Blues are looking for inspiration on how to resuscitate failing football programs they might want to have a look at Windsor.
I expect Western to win yet another Yates Cup handily in London Saturday.