SPORTS

Argonauts host Alouettes in key East Division contest for both squads

10/17/2014 03:48 EDT | Updated 12/17/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - It's not a must-win in Alouettes' head coach Tom Higgins's mind but he concedes Montreal's playoff fortunes would take a big hit with a loss Saturday to the Toronto Argonauts.

The Argos and the Alouettes will square off at Rogers Centre. Toronto, Montreal and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are tied atop the East Division with 6-8 records with each having four regular-season games remaining.

The Argos would not only move two points ahead of the Als with a win but also clinch the season series, giving them a crucial tiebreaker if the two ended up tied.

That could be a key advantage as Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal are likely chasing two playoff spots due to the crossover. The B.C. Lions (8-7) are fourth in the West Division but would secure the No. 3 Eastern seed if they finished with a better record than the third-place team in the East Division.

"We do know that probably only two teams are making it into the playoffs so you severely hurt your chances when you lose any of those four remaining games," Higgins said Friday. "Never put a 'must' on top of the start of a win.

"We're going to line up, we're going to play, we're going to play very well and we're going to win the football game and not have to worry about whether it was a 'must' or just a 'maybe' win."

There's no shortage of intrigue and suspense heading into the final four weeks as all remaining games are inter-division affairs with only Ottawa having been eliminated from playoff contention. Toronto and Montreal meet again Nov. 2 at Molson Stadium.

Toronto coach Scott Milanovich called last weekend's thrilling 34-33 comeback win over Hamilton a must for his team but didn't put the same emphasis on Saturday's contest.

"If we win this game, it puts us in a much better position moving forward," he said. "The reality was if we didn't beat Hamilton last week we were basically going to be out of the first-place hunt so I wasn't going to hide that from our guys."

The Argos and Alouettes have both been on a nice roll of late. Toronto has won three straight while Montreal is 5-1 with starter Jonathan Crompton.

But Crompton hasn't been spectacular. He's completed 58.9 per cent of his passes for 1,512 yards with seven TDs and seven interceptions. Crompton hasn't thrown for over 300 yards in a game and has just one road win, a 15-7 decision over Ottawa on Sept. 26.

"Everyone's looking at stats," Higgins said. "The only one we care about is he's won five and lost one as a starting quarterback."

Milanovich praised Crompton for utilizing such offensive playmakers as receivers Duron Carter (54 catches, 712 yards, five TDs) and S.J. Green (38 receptions, 518 yards, two touchdowns).

"I get the quarterback point . . . but I think he's playing well," he said. "He's trusting his receivers, which is exactly what I'd do if I was him.

"When you have a defence like theirs and playmakers like they do and returners on special teams, anything can happen."

Crompton's status as Montreal's starter was further solidified Thursday after the club released former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. But Higgins said that hasn't put more pressure on Crompton's shoulders.

"Quite the opposite,' he said. "I think there's pressure that's been alleviated because there was this pressure that there was an elephant in the room."

There's no doubt starter Ricky Ray has carried the Argos this season. The 34-year-old Californian leads the CFL in passing yards (3,861), touchdowns (27) and completion percentage (68.6) and has Toronto ranked first in total yards (361.6) and passing yards (287.2) per game and third in scoring (26.8 points).

That's hardly news to Higgins. He was Edmonton's head coach from '01 to '04 and watched an unheralded Ray crack the roster as a No. 3 quarterback in '02 before capping his first season as the starter in '03 as a Grey Cup champion.

"His mentality hasn't changed from the first time he stepped on to the football field in Edmonton," Higgins said. "He's just one of the elite quarterbacks in the CFL and anytime you have Ricky Ray as your quarterback you always have a chance."

The key, Higgins said, is getting to Ray before he can set up and find his receivers downfield.

"We're going to see if we can get after him," Higgins said. "We know that presents a challenge but we're up to challenges."

It's kind of the same approach Toronto will take against Crompton.

"With any quarterback I still think the most important thing is to take away his running game, and then you have to put pressure on him," Milanovich said. "You have to take away his running game then knock him on the ground a few times."

Toronto will make a number of roster changes for the game.

Offensively, receivers Spencer Watt and Jason Barnes go on the injured list, replaced by LaVon Brazill and Maurice Mann. The secondary will feature Evan McCollough (from practice roster) at halfback, Vincent Agnew moving from linebacker to replace Branden Smith at one cornerback spot and Orhian Johnson (practice roster) starting at the other. Matt Ware assumes Agnew's linebacker position.

"I'm not as concerned as you'd think," Milanovich said. "All these guys have played and started quite a few games.

"It's not ideal, I'm not going to lie to you but these aren't rookies and to me that's a big deal."

Special-teams player Daryl Townsend (calf) and receiver Chad Johnson (groin) won't play for Montreal. Johnson, a former All-Pro, has just seven catches for 151 yards and a TD in his first CFL season.

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