TORONTO -- Winning with resiliency and character is hardly a new concept for the Toronto Argonauts in 2012, but on Sunday, they may have passed their greatest test yet.
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In the biggest playoff game the team’s had since 2007, with a chance to advance to the 100th Grey Cup back on home turf at the Rogers Centre, the Boatmen dug themselves out of an early hole and just hung on for a 27-20 win over the Alouettes.
And while all season, the mantra for rookie Head Coach Scott Milanovich has been to protect the football, and avoid penalties. For the second straight playoff game, that quite didn’t work out, leading to an early deficit.
Yet once again, the Argos dug deep and battled back.
“We didn’t start well again, and we did a lot of things I think to hurt ourselves, particularly early in the game,” reflected Milanovich, whose career playoff record as a head coach improved to 2-0. “But our guys believed, and I said it all year, they just trust each other.”
After a long return from Chad Owens on the game’s opening kickoff, followed by a long Owens catch on the first play from scrimmage, it seemed like the Argos might start hot.
But some of the usual early-game struggles kicked in, as an ensuing handoff was fumbled on the exchange, giving the Alouettes the ball and eventually three points.
On the next drive the Argos looked to strike back, but on third down and a long yard to go, Milanovich elected to gamble for the first down.
Short-yardage quarterback Jarious Jackson was stuffed, and like they’ll often do, Anthony Calvillo and the Alouettes made the Boatmen pay for their mistake with a quick seven points the other way.
But despite the two early turnovers and a 10-point deficit, Milanovich knew he couldn’t alter his team’s game plan.
“They know they’re going to make mistakes,” the former Alouette offensive coordinator said following the game. “You have to take your shot in the playoffs, you can’t play them any differently, go out and try to win the game and not wait for somebody to lose it.”
The Argos later turned it over a second time on downs, this time at the goal line following a long reception for Dontrelle Inman, with Jackson and running back Chad Kackert each being denied.
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» Close loss tough to swallow for Alouettes
» Video: Jennings Rumbles For Major
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» Video: McPherson's Touchdown Plunge
» Video: Inman Evens The Score
» Video: Kackert Bolts 49 Yards for TD
But despite three first-half turnovers, the Argos clawed back. They trailed by just a touchdown at the half, while outgaining the opponent offensively.
“At halftime they were very confident and the third quarter was the turning point, we got a couple of touchdowns, our defence stepped up and shut them down and played with the lead the rest of the game.”
The rest is history, as a long catch-and-run from Owens early in the third quarter led two a two-yard touchdown pass to Inman. Soon after, Kackert found a crease in the aggressive Alouettes defence, hitting the hole for a 49-yard touchdown run to give the Argos their first lead of the game.
Chris Jones’ revered defence, meanwhile, gave up just three points in the entire second half, while also forcing three turnovers.
“Our defence just did a great job of giving us opportunities offensively with turnovers and keeping us in the game and allowing us to stay patient,” said quarterback Ricky Ray of his defence’s effort after the game.
“We made mistakes offensively, we had some turnovers, turnover on downs, and we didn’t get into the end zone and for our defence to kind of equalize the game and create some turnovers themselves, that’s huge.”
It was Ray’s consistency and poise though that allowed the Boatmen to battle back.
The veteran gunslinger had more than 200 yards through the air after the first half alone, and despite taking numerous big hits from blitzing defenders, he was able to keep the offence moving with key completions in the face of pressure.
It was the same kind of consistency and poise his teammates have seen all season, and that helped the Argos bounce back from a last-place finish a season ago.
“You’re down but you’re trying to keep it positive,” he continued. “Everybody’s clapping and saying just keep your heads up keep fighting, and that’s the only way you can really handle those situations.”
“Not everything’s going to work out for you in a football game and you’ve just got to keep fighting. They really came out and played really well and took it to us early in that game, and I’m just happy with the way everyone responded.”
Surely it had to help coming into this one knowing the kind of challenges the Argos have already faced this season.
The Boatmen did, after all, finish tied with the league’s best road record of 5-4 – a list that includes a rare win in Montreal during the summer; a win at McMahon Stadium over Jon Cornish and the Stampeders; a fourth-quarter comeback on Labour Day against the Ticats in front of a rabid sold-out Ivor Wynne crowd; a win over the Bombers without Ray under centre; and finally, a playoff-clinching, last-minute victory over the Roughriders on a freezing afternoon in Regina.
But a win over the Alouettes in the Eastern Final in front of 50,000 screaming fans at Olympic Stadium, while trailing 10-0 in the first quarter, might just take the cake.
“Everyone’s going to make their mistakes and what sticks out about this team is we keep fighting back,” said Kackert. “The same thing happened last week, we started out 7-0 after the first quarter and we bounced back better than I think anyone’s ever done in the playoffs.”
They didn’t protect the football as well as they should have, and they probably took a few too many penalties, too. But as Ray pointed out, they didn’t exactly avoid those issues through the regular season either.
Yet that didn’t stop them from silencing their biggest critics, as well as a packed house at Olympic Stadium.
“Coach always stresses protecting the football and penalties, and we haven’t been the best in those areas all year long,” he said following the game. “We’ve taken penalties, turned the football over, and sometimes we haven’t been able to overcome that and other times we’ve been able to do it.”
“We just keep our calm and focus, even when we are making those mistakes.”
The Argos’ win on Sunday defines character.
When they won the Grey Cup in 2004, it was a win against the Lions in the Nation’s Capital that secured the team’s first championship since 1997.
But the game that some people might remember most came a week before, when the Argos stormed into a boisterous Olympic Stadium and stunned the powerhouse Alouettes.
Should the Argos come away victors in the 100th Grey Cup game, this year's historic Eastern Final win also won't be forgotten.
- With files from Argonauts.ca
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