Herb Zurkowsky: Als finally get off the schneid with long overdue win

REGINA – So what if it came against Saskatchewan’s second-string quarterback, benched at halftime in favour of their third-string pivot? And who cares that the Roughriders’ best receiver was playing cornerback and, quite obviously, overmatched?

The Alouettes finally won a game Saturday night, their first in more than 10 months dating back to Aug. 19, a stretch of 315 days, someone figured out. It also marked the first time Montreal has won on the road since Nov. 5, 2016, and it ended a 13-game losing streak.

“Overdue. Long overdue,” tailback Tyrell Sutton said. “We finally pulled this one out. This one was about finish. It was about staying together, collectively as a group.

“We’re excited we got a win. It’s a stepping-stone. It’s good to get the first win. It hasn’t happened in a long time. We’re not done.”

There won’t be widespread fear throughout the Canadian Football League simply because the Als outlasted the Roughriders, 23-17, at Mosaic Stadium. But if a transformation is going to take place, it must begin somewhere. And this was a victory achieved by a defence that allowed 56 points against Winnipeg eight days earlier. And it was a victory achieved without starting quarterback Drew Willy and offensive-tackle Phil Blake.

Both left the game in the third quarter with Montreal nursing a 13-6 lead. Willy suffered an injury to his neck and, perhaps, a shoulder. He looked to be in obvious discomfort as he got dressed but didn’t suffer a concussion, according to head coach Mike Sherman. Blake, the team’s left tackle, suffered a lower-body injury, likely to his knee or ankle.

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Willy was replaced by Jeff Mathews, the recently-signed former Tiger-Cat and Argonaut. Not only did Mathews produce a workmanlike effort, completing eight of 12 passes for 98 yards, he didn’t screw things up, which often can be the case when the second-string quarterback enters a game.

The Als immediately produced a field goal with Mathews in the game — albeit following a Joe Burnett interception, one of four passes pilfered by Montreal defenders — then two more in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Indeed, Boris Bede paced the Als’ offence, which still has plenty of work ahead, with five field goals, the longest coming from 45 yards.

“This was by far not a perfect game, but I’m proud of what they did. I’m proud of how they stepped up and answered the challenges,” said head coach Mike Sherman, who recorded his first CFL victory following two defeats. “It was an excellent evening. Winning a game here’s tough. I’m happy for our guys. They’ve worked hard.

“After missing out on the first two, I’d have to say it feels good. Particularly after last week’s game,” Sherman added. “That was a tough and devastating loss. The way we lost and how we lost. It was important for us to come back and have a win this week.”

The Als generated only 10 first downs and 229 yards’ net offence, while controlling the ball for 28:27. They lost every statistical battle except the most important one — on the scoreboard.

But if there’s one thing they did well, it was exploiting Duron Carter, the Riders’ leading receiver in 2017 who, for the second consecutive week, played boundary cornerback due to an injury. Chris Williams, who lined up against Carter, caught three passes for 130 yards, including Montreal’s only touchdown, on a 79-yard reception in the second quarter. The emotional Carter also took penalties for unnecessary roughness and objectionable conduct and was back at receiver late in the game.

“To me, he’s a hell of a receiver. I feel like they’d be better served with him on that side of the ball,” Williams said. “He’s just inexperienced at the position. He’s just not an experienced, savvy vet at the position.

“Listen, I just feel like I’m a good receiver. I do this to good corners. For me, the guy’s out there and I feel like I can take advantage of him.”

With Zach Collaros on the six-game injured list with a concussion, Saskatchewan started Canadian Brandon Bridge at quarterback. Although Bridge is mobile — and the Als have had problems with running quarterbacks — he only had three carries, gaining five yards.

Instead, Bridge attempted to beat Montreal with his arm, and struggled. He completed eight of 18 passes for 111 yards, but was intercepted twice. He was benched to start the second half in favour of rookie David Watford. While Watford led the Riders to one touchdown, he also failed to complete 50 per cent of his throws. And, like Bridge, was pilfered twice.

“This game showed what we already knew — we’re a good team,” said middle-linebacker Henoc Muamba, who played his usual sound game, registering four tackles, one for a loss, while knocking down a pass.

“We have high expectations. We realized, after the last game, we didn’t play with a lot of passion, a lot of emotion. We looked dead, like we weren’t involved and connected to the game.”

It was a raucous bunch in the Montreal dressing room, with plenty of yelling, back-slapping, picture-posing and laughter. Losing had become infectious and it felt good to win, finally.

“We know we’re going to be the underdog in every game this year. That’s partly our fault because of our past,” veteran rush-end John Bowman said, attempting to explain the post-game mood. “Nobody’s going to give us a chance. If we don’t believe in ourselves, nobody else will.”

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