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Zurkowsky: Defence carries Alouettes into playoffs against awful Redblacks

Montreal is in the driver's seat to finish second in the East Division and would host a semifinal post-season game on Nov. 4.

Alouettes quarterback Cody Fajardo (7) throws the ball during first half CFL football action against the Redblacks in Ottawa on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.
Alouettes quarterback Cody Fajardo (7) throws the ball during first half CFL football action against the Redblacks in Ottawa on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. Photo by Justin Tang /The Canadian Press

Nobody would suggest the Alouettes have been the best team in the CFL this season. But, in this crazy league, once a team qualifies for the playoffs, anything’s possible.

Montreal, for a fourth consecutive year, qualified for the post-season Saturday afternoon after beating the Ottawa Redblacks 32-15 before 20,464 TD Place spectators. And considering the uncertainty surrounding the Montreal franchise over the winter because of the instability at the ownership level — not to mention the exodus of free-agent players — this accomplishment shouldn’t be overlooked.

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“This organization has had to persevere with so much since the beginning of the year,” general manager Danny Maciocia told the Montreal Gazette. “This is a special evening, with more games of importance to be played.”

The Alouettes also triumphed without injured rookie Austin Mack, who entered this week’s games as the CFL’s leading receiver

Montreal won a second consecutive game, improving to 8-7, while defeating the Redblacks for a third time this season. While the Alouettes have lost a combined seven games to Toronto, Winnipeg and B.C., the league’s best teams, they’ve gone 8-0 against the rest of the league and have yet to play Edmonton.

Montreal remains in the driver’s seat to finish second in the East Division, meaning it would host a semifinal playoff game at Molson Stadium on Nov. 4.

The Redblacks, meanwhile, seem destined to finish last in the division again with Ottawa’s record now 4-11. This team, remarkably, has now lost 17 consecutive home games to division rivals, stretching back to Nov. 2, 2018, against the Argonauts.

The Alouettes were paced by a suffocating defence that exploited Redblacks rookie quarterback Dustin Crum. While Crum completed 25 of 34 passes for 247 yards, he was sacked five times and threw two critical interceptions.

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One, late in the third quarter, was returned 108 yards for a touchdown by safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy. With the ball at the Montreal eight-yard line and the Redblacks gambling on third down, Dequoy stepped in front of a pass intended for Bralon Addison and outraced Crum to the end zone, which provided the visitors with a 22-0 lead when it appeared Ottawa might get back into the contest. Dequoy is one of the Als’ fleetest players on defence.

“We knew the ball was going to come out quick,” Dequoy told journalists in Ottawa. “Their receiver was right in the flank, so I just jumped in it when the quarterback threw the ball. And I just ran.

“Crum kind of surprised me with his speed. It wasn’t until the last 20 yards that I knew I was going to score.”

For Dequoy, who continues having a season for the ages, it was his team-leading fifth interception and his second touchdown. It also was the second-longest interception return for a score in team history, behind Dickie Harris, who had an 118-yard return Aug. 10, 1972, against Ottawa.

Montreal defenders have now incredibly returned interceptions five times this season for touchdowns. Along with Dequoy’s pair, the others have come from Wesley Sutton, Kabion Ento and Tyrell Richards.

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Not only did the Redblacks commit six turnovers, the Alouettes’ defence kept them out of the end zone until the opening seconds of the fourth quarter when third-string quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome scored on a one-yard run. With Montreal playing prevent defence, Ottawa added a second touchdown at 10:19 of the period following a four-yard run by Devonte Williams.

Reggie Stubblefield intercepted Crum in the first quarter with the ball at the Montreal 10 after the Alouettes went 75 yards on six plays on their opening possession, which was capped by William Stanback’s 24-yard off-tackle touchdown run at 5:19. Stanback had three carries on the series and gained 44 yards.

Stubblefield enjoyed his best game in a Montreal uniform with seven defensive tackles, including one for a loss, and two sacks. Tyrice Beverette also recorded a pair of sacks.

While veteran rush-end Shawn Lemon was unable to generate his 100th career sack, he recovered a Crum fumble — forced by middle-linebacker Darnell Sankey — returning it 30 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. It was the first touchdown of his illustrious career.

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“All we wanted was a winning locker room and an opportunity to compete in the playoffs,” Lemon said. “I’m just proud of this group.”

Montreal quarterback Cody Fajardo did what was required, completing 15 of 20 passes for 178 yards, including a 19-yard scoring pass to Tyson Philpot just before halftime. Stanback also was productive along the ground, gaining 85 yards on 13 carries.

The Alouettes offensively were held to 15 first downs and 275 yards’ net offence, running only 47 plays. Fajardo was sacked four times. But when the defence is firing on all cylinders, offensive blips can be overlooked.

Rookie return-specialist James Letcher Jr., who was making his Montreal debut for the injured Chandler Worthy, was extremely productive and hard to corral — not surprising, considering he’s only 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds. He returned six punts for 105 yards along with two kickoffs for 69 yards.

The Alouettes have some concerns heading into an Oct. 9 rematch against the Redblacks at home. David Côté was successful on only one of four field goal attempts and, while the squandered points proved moot on this day, it’s a slippery slope on which he’s treading this late in the season. Montreal was also undisciplined, taking 13 penalties for 133 yards.

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