The Toronto Argonauts kept alive their dream of playing in the 100th Grey Cup at home. And they looked pretty good doing it.
The Argos are now one victory shy of a Grey Cup appearance after crushing the Edmonton Eskimos in the East semi-final, 42-26, with a record-setting 31-point second quarter and strong defence. There were glimpses of the excitement Argos management envisioned when it brought in championship quarterback Ricky Ray, promising coach Scott Milanovich, and innovative defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones.
The Double Blue forced turnovers and turned them into points. They gelled on offence and smothered Edmonton with staunch defence. So now Toronto heads to Montreal to face the Alouettes in the East final next Sunday for a berth in the Grey Cup.
It was Edmonton who scored first. A long run by tailback Hugh Charles set up an 11-yard touchdown pass from Kerry Joseph to slotback Cary Koch.
Toronto struggled early. Ray set up a second-and-short situation, and backup Jarious Jackson entered for a quick short-yardage job but fumbled and forced Toronto to punt. Brandon Isaac took a costly horse-collar penalty. Chad Owens got hit deep on a punt return, which pinned the Argos inside their own five-yard line. Joseph was eluding Argo defenders, even once hurdling over downed linemen to escape them.
But in the second quarter, the momentum shifted.
Argos defensive end Ronald Flemons recovered a fumble by Argos-turned-Eskimos running back Cory Boyd. Toronto then marched down the field, and dodged a bullet as a miscommunication between Ray and Owens turned into a picked-off pass but was later determined to be incomplete. Ray then made up for it by hitting running back Chad Kackert with a 12-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
Then Owens had perhaps the game's most electrifying moment. He ran back a punt 59 yards for a touchdown, weaving all over the field, shaking off Eskimos defenders en route. It was his first return for a touchdown since last October, and it gave Toronto a 14-7 lead.
Then, with Edmonton poised to get into the red zone, Argos linebacker Marcus Ball intercepted a shovel pass intended for Charles, and took it 52 yards the other way. The Argos converted it into seven points when Ray hit slotback Maurice Mann wide, and he cruised into the end zone. Swayze Waters then added a field goal, and Ray scored on a quarterback draw for a 31-7 halftime lead. It was the highest-scoring quarter for any single team in CFL playoff history.
"We started off slow, they started off fast, and that's why it's good to have a veteran quarterback who has been in that situation and isn't going to get rattled," said Milanovich. "We could not have started worse than we did. I don't think any of our guys panicked, and our defence stepped it up after that drive and kept giving us the ball back."
In the second half, the Argos had a single, a field goal and a Kackert rushing touchdown. The defence played big. They pushed Charles to the sideline and denied him long runs. Ricky Foley sacked Joseph, and Ahmad Carroll and Ejiro Kuale batted down passes. Various Toronto defensive backs broke up long passing plays.
"Once we got the ball rolling and got our confidence was up, and things started going in our favour, we knew we really had something going," said Ball. "We won but they still scored too many points, so we still have things to work on."
Edmonton's day was rough. Top defensive player J.C. Sherritt sat out with an ankle injury. Matt Nichols, Edmonton's future franchise quarterback, relieved Joseph, but left the game on a stretcher with a dislocated ankle. Edmonton still mustered a field goal, a running touchdown by Joseph and one through the air to wideout Nate Coehoorn. But it was too little too late.
The Toronto win gives Milanovich the chance to play his former team. His excitement was tempered. He's not just happy to be in the playoffs.
"We're not satisfied by this, and I was upset that they threw Gatorade," said Milanovich with a chuckle. "This is not the Grey Cup – it's just one of three steps we hope to take.'"