Sunday, November 29, 2009

That's No Way to Lose a Championship

Yes, I know that everyone's talking about Tiger Woods' accident.

Forget that.

The 97th Grey Cup was held on Sunday, the Canadian Football League Championship, pitting the Montreal Alouettes against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

It was the perfect match-up of powerhouse vs. underdog.

Montreal stormed their way to a dominant 15-3 record, going undefeated in nine home games.  Quarterback Anthony Calvillo, the 2009 CFL Most Outstanding Player, completed 72% of his passes while pacing the league with 26 touchdowns and tossing only six interceptions.  Tailback Avon Coburne rushed for 1,214 yards with a league-leading led the league with 13 rushing touchdowns.  Three different Alouettes notched at least 80 catches and 1,000 yards receiving, led by Ben Cahoon's league-high 89 catches.  On the other side of the line of scrimmage, defensive end John Bowman tied for the league lead with 12 of Montreal's 42 sacks.

You get the picture.  The Alouettes were the best.  Their offense was the best.  Their defense was the best.  Their special teams unit was the best.  They won games by scores of 50-16, 25-0, 39-12, 42-8, 48-13, and 42-17.  They advanced to the Grey Cup Championship by obliterating British Columbia, 56-18.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders finished the regular season with a 10-7-1 record to nose out Calgary for the West Division title.  In the words of ESPN's Steve Berthiaume, "[T]he Roughriders are the CFL's version of the Green Bay Packers. They are one of North America's few publicly-owned sports companies, just like the Packers. They wear green, they represent a Province of very cold farmers who LOVE their team. They are Rider Nation and they're all about Rider Pride."

The Roughriders had faced the Alouettes twice during the season and were defeated in both games, 43-10 and 34-25.  They earned their third crack at the Als by knocking off Calgary, 27-17, in the CFL Playoff Finals.

There's your background.  It should be mentioned, too, that Saskatchewan was going for their second championship in three years while Montreal had gone 1-5 in the Grey Cup since 2000 (including four consecutive disappointments).  This would be the 17th Grey Cup for both franchises.

The game is played before a sellout crowd of 46,020 at Calgary's McMahon Stadium, a crowd that's greatly tilted in favor of the Riders.  The men in green ride that partisan support to a surprising 17-3 lead at intermission, the least amount of first half points all season for Montreal.

The lead is 27-11 in the fourth quarter after a 16-yard touchdown run from Riders quarterback Darian Durant.  10 minutes remain in the game.

Montreal fights back.  Coburne supplies a rushing score from three yards out with the two-point conversion tacked on afterward to carve the deficit to 27-19.  A Durant interception gives the Als the ball back, and Calvillo takes advantage with a touchdown pass to Cahoon.

With 51 seconds left, the Alouettes force a Riders punt.

Louie Sakoda booms a 59-yard kick that bounces dangerously off the hands of returner Brian Bratton, but teammate Etienne Boulay recovers the ball to avert disaster.  Anthony Calvillo leads his offense out to the field, the drive starting at his own 34 yard line with 40 seconds on the clock.

Cue the drama.

On 1st down, the Als signal-caller is flushed from the pocket and heaves an incompletion down the middle of the field.  31 seconds left.  On 2nd down, Jamel Richardson comes open over the middle, taking a Calvillo delivery and sprinting to the Roughriders' 54 yard line.  24 seconds left.  Again Calvillo is forced out of the pocket by Saskatchewan; his pass to Bratton is low and ruled incomplete, the "Command Centre" (video replay booth) reviewing the play and agreeing with the call on the field.  10 seconds left.  Calvillo stays cool under pressure, finding Kerry Watkins over the middle on a 18-yard pass.

5 seconds left.

It's a no-brainer for Montreal.  The Alouettes call on the CFL's top kicker, Damon Duval, to attempt a game-winner at the horn.  But the kick isn't even close, wide right and then some.  A joyous green frenzy erupts on the sideline and the field and the stands...

Wait a moment.  Flag on the play.

Unbelievably, on the biggest play of the season, Saskatchewan is called for having too many men on the field.

Given a second chance, Duval splits the uprights perfectly.  Montreal wins the Gray Cup, 28-27.

Man oh man.

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