MONTREAL - Even without kick return star Chad Owens, the Toronto Argonauts found a way to pull off a spectacular win.
Down 23-8 midway through the third quarter, the defending Grey Cup champions roared back for a 37-30 victory over the Montreal Alouettes to retain sole possession of first place in the CFL East Division on Sunday afternoon.
The win on a blustery day before 23,911 at Percival Molson Stadium stopped a two-game losing run and avenged a 20-9 loss to the Alouettes in Toronto on Tuesday. The Argos (6-4) stayed two points ahead of Hamilton (5-5) and four ahead of Montreal (4-6).
"Nobody gave us a chance," said Argonauts coach Scott Milanovich. "We had our backup quarterback, our third-string running back, Chad Owens is out.
"We talked about it being a character day for us. Not so much a statement day, but let's see what kind of character we have when everybody thinks we're not good enough. That's what I'm proud of. I told them after the game that there won't be another time all season that they doubt that they can win a game."
Both teams were missing key offensive players, which may be why there were no offensive touchdowns in the torturous first half of a game that only sprang to life in the final 22 minutes.
Zach Collaros, filling in while starter Ricky Ray recovers from a shoulder injury, ran in a touchdown and threw to John Chiles and Dontrelle Inman for two others. He completed 30 passes for 336 yards, with one interception.
Defensive tackle Kiante Tripp also scored on an interception, and kicker Noel Prefontaine missed three field-goal attempts but added two field goals and four singles.
Montreal rookie quarterback Tanner Marsh, in his second start while Anthony Calvillo deals with a concussion, threw a TD pass to Duron Carter and ran one in himself, while defensive back Geoff Tisdale also scored.
But Marsh struggled to move the ball, completing only 13-of-28 passes for 225 yards. He was picked off three times, while Toronto had another pick on a failed trick-play pass by slotback S.J. Green.
"We have to do a better job of helping Marsh, but you have to give them credit," said Montreal coach Jim Popp. "They confused him some today.
"But at the end — and he's done it a number of times — he gave us a chance to win. He got us all the way down there. You can't ask for more."
Both teams were missing their starting quarterbacks, running backs and a top receiver, with Ray, Chad Kackert and Owens out for Toronto and Calvillo, Brandon Whitaker and Jamel Richardson among a long list of starters down for Montreal.
It came down to the defences. And for just over half the game, Montreal's was dominant.
The Alouettes got on the board early when John Bowman stripped the ball from Chiles and Tisdale ran it back 47 yards to score at 1:24.
Montreal's Sean Whyte added three field goals, while Toronto picked up five points on kicks for a 16-5 Montreal lead at the intermission.
Midway through the third quarter, Bear Woods tackled Prefontaine on a punt attempt, forcing a fumble that Ed Gainey ran to the one. Marsh scored on his first attempt at 8:02 and the Alouettes looked to have the game in the bag.
The Argos answered back with Collaros' 21-yard TD run at 9:22. Less than two minutes later, Jermaine Gabriel hit Marsh as he was throwing and the ball squirted to Tripp, who ran it in 54 yards for a TD.
On their next possession, Chiles was left wide open for a 54-yard TD reception at 13:31 and Toronto had its first lead of the day at 28-23.
"Tripp's touchdown was the game changer," said Milanovich. "It got us to within one score and you could just feel the momentum shift on the sideline."
The lead didn't last long, as Marsh hit Carter with a 45-yard scoring toss on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
Toronto tied it on a pair of Prefontaine singles and took a seven-point lead when Collaros found Inman with a five-yard TD pass with 1:17 left to play.
Montreal marched back to the Toronto 11, but a last-gasp pass was picked off in the end zone by Alonzo Lawrence.
Collaros said the game turned when the Argonauts beat Montreal's ferocious pass rush a couple of times in the third quarter, which gave them space to make plays.
"That's why the third quarter was so big because we burned them a couple of times on their pressure," he said. "It kind of scared them off a bit and we were able to have a little more time to execute things."
Popp would have no argument for that.
"They made plays and we didn't," he said. "They made adjustments at halftime.
"Our defence was outstanding in the first half, but we weren't doing much on offence. We didn't move the ball much. We didn't help our defence. We need to be better. We were fortunate they missed field goals."
The Argos defence held Montreal back Jerome Messam to only 12 yards on seven carries and limited Marsh's scrambling. Toronto tailback Jerious Norwood picked up 42 yards on 11 carries in his debut.
Notes: Bowman had a pair of first-half sacks to tie Anwar Stewart for Montreal's career record of 66. ... Each team had five sacks in the game. . . Toronto has won both its games in Montreal this season. . . The Alouettes aired a pre-game, recorded message to the fans from former coach Marc Trestman, who coached his first NFL game for the Chicago Bears on Sunday.