Hamilton kick-returner Brandon Banks literally left Alouette players twisting in the wind on two punt returns for touchdowns — three if you count a 78-yard romp for a score called back for holding in the first quarter.
The Tiger-Cats, who scored two more touchdowns on the back of Jonathan Crompton interceptions, went on to win the CFL East Division final 40-24 on a surprisingly balmy 10-degree day at Tim Hortons Field.
Losing coaches usually say how proud they are of their players. But Montreal's Tom Higgins had reason to after seeing his team claw its way back up the standings as the season wore on.
"From where we started, to turning it around to be able to get here, it's heart-wrenching to not be able to finish," Higgins said.
Montreal (9-9-0) started the season at 1-7-0 but finished on an 8-2-0 run before thumping B.C. 50-17 in the Eastern semifinal.
"We wrote a really neat story," Higgins added. "It didn't have a storybook ending but it was still a really neat story. I hope when the athletes reflect back, they look upon it as 'Wow, we really did something this year.'"
"This was a journey for a lot of us young guys, for sure," said linebacker Bear Woods, who had a game-high 13 tackles.
There was some brave talk along the way from the Als, especially in the leadup to Sunday's game. Some Montreal players talked of victory being inevitable while others disparaged some of the Hamilton players they would face.
There was no such banter after the game. The Montreal dressing room was silent, full of big men giving each other hugs of disappointment.
The 60-year-old Higgins, in the nicest possible way, suggested there were lessons to be learned on the subject of talking too freely.
"My personal opinion is you let your actions do your talking for you," he said.
Because, he added, "when you say something, you better back it up ... if you don't do what you say you're going to do, then you don't look very smart."
Wide receiver Duron Carter, who had 75 receptions for 1,030 yards during the regular season, had just three catches for 25 yards Sunday. He did not haul in his first ball until early in the third quarter and that was negated by a penalty. He eventually beat glove-like cornerback Delvin Breaux to register a catch with two minutes left in the quarter.
Carter was also flagged for both objectionable conduct and unnecessary roughness and admitted he lost control.
"It's a helpless feeling when you don't get the ball," he said.
"You live and your learn," he added. "I was frustrated. I'm part of the reason we lost."
Montreal's inability to stop Banks was particularly painful for Higgins, who doubles as special teams coach. Higgins said he hadn't planned to take on that role when hired.
"I chose to do it because there really wasn't anybody else. And I've had help," he said.
He said there would likely be some restructuring to come.
Higgins said Banks' success was the product of fine play by the diminutive Ticat returner and poor execution by his special teams.
The Als were well-positioned to stop the second Banks' TD return, he argued,.
"We had guys standing there," he said. "It was almost like Casper the Ghost because it looks like we were just grasping for air and he wasn't there. I'm not sure we could have put ourselves in any better position to make the play. But guys didn't make the play."
Kicker Sean Whyte found himself defending his day at the office.
"We knew he was a threat," he said of Banks. "But we have very good athletes on the punt cover squad. So I'm just doing what I'm told and kicking the ball where I'm told to put it. It's up to the rest of the guys and me to make the tackle."
Crompton, who took over as quarterback midway through the season, completed 25 of 38 passes for 314 yards (his first 300-yard plus outing) and three touchdowns. But he also threw three interceptions.
"The jury's still out," Higgins said of his young quarterback. "But he has a winning record and going into training camp next year, he would be the No. 1 quarterback.
Said Crompton: "Obviously I made a few mistakes. You've just got to learn from then. Unfortunately there's no tomorrow for us this year. But I give a lot of credit to our guys. There was no quit. Everybody busted their tails until the end on all three sides of the ball."
Montreal led 7-3 at the end of the first quarter but went in at the half trailing 20-14. Mistakes cost the Als with Hamilton scoring touchdowns via a five-yard Nic Grigsby run, after a Crompton interception and a glorious 93-yard Banks punt return for touchdowns.
The Tiger-Cats led 27-17 going into the fourth quarter. But Crompton pulled the Als within three with a 63-yard strike to S.J. Green at 4:54 of the final quarter.
A pair of Justin Medlock field goals sandwiched around an 88-yard Banks punt return killed off the game.
"We just didn't make the plays when we had to," said Green, who finished with three touchdowns. "We made some plays but just not enough."
Injuries did not help the Montreal cause. Safety Marc-Olivier Brouillette was sidelined about getting dazed making a tackle while fullback J.C. Beauxlieu also was unable to finish the game due to a possible shoulder separation.
Brouillette said after the game he felt fine but would undergo concussion test.
The Als have now lost nine of their last 10 playoff meetings with Hamilton, including the last six.
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