TORONTO (Nov. 14) — Those who frequent this corner will know that I routinely take a stance… and almost never alter my position. Until I have to. At which point, I serve myself a large plate of crow.
Such an occasion is upon me today — and not unhappily — after swearing on stacks of bibles for the past three Canadian Football League seasons that McLeod Bethel–Thompson would never win a playoff game for the Toronto Argonauts. The journeyman quarterback proved me wrong on Sunday afternoon at BMO Field, managing the Eastern final with poise and accuracy as the Argos upended the Montreal Alouettes, 34–27, to advance to the 109th Grey Cup, next Sunday, in Regina. An alluring match–up awaits against the two–time defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who may not have a healthy Zach Collaros at quarterback, after the former Argo rolled over on his ankle late in the Western final victory over the B.C. Lions. Collaros had the ankle taped and hobbled onto the I.G. Field turf, only to pull a quick U–turn and head back to the sideline. If he is markedly hampered for the championship match, Toronto could emerge closer to even money in a game Winnipeg would otherwise be favored by a touchdown. Also enamoring is that Blue Bombers coach, Mike O’Shea, played linebacker for the two greatest Argo teams of all time — the 1996 and 1997 clubs that each compiled a 15–3 record under Doug Flutie and won consecutive Grey Cups. Even more engrossing will be current Argo running back, Andrew Harris, playing against the team with which he won the Canadian football title the past two seasons. But, Collarros, whom the Argos twice owned and discarded, will likely be the big story during Grey Cup week in the Saskatchewan capital.
MY PHOTO OF THE SECOND ARGONAUTS TOUCHDOWN AGAINST MONTREAL. McLEOD BETHEL–THOMPSON (4) PASSED TO RUNNING BACK A.J. OUELLETTE (TOP–RIGHT), WHO COMPLETED A 10–YARD SCORING PLAY WITH 2:23 LEFT IN THE FIRST QUARTER. TORONTO LED, 14–3.
It will be the first Grey Cup clash between the Argos and Blue Bombers since the famed 1950 “Mud Bowl” at Varsity Stadium, a 13–0 victory for Toronto. The Boatmen will appear in the championship game for the tenth time since 1982, having lost to Edmonton that year at Exhibition Stadium. Victories followed against B.C. (1983, 2004), Calgary (1991, 2012, 2017), Edmonton (1996) and Saskatchewan (1997). Toronto lost to the Eskimos in 1987.
As for Bethel–Thompson, something finally clicked with the 34–year–old veteran midway through the current season. He was never spectacular, but routinely composed and reliable. Nearly disappearing was the Achilles heel of his career: the killer, untimely mistake — normally, an interception returned for a touchdown — that destroyed momentum and reversed the flow of a game the Argos were winning. Until recently, you could count on such a calamity; it was only a matter of when it would happen. MBT has also sharpened his touch with the ball after long becoming notorious for overthrowing open receivers. And, most critically, the red zone is no longer his enemy.
Bethel–Thompson always piled up passing statistics between the 20–yard lines, only to bog down (leading to a field goal) or throw a silly, end zone interception. In Sunday’s Eastern final victory, immeasurable credit goes to the Argonauts offensive line for allowing MBT the time to create scoring drives. It was the best I’ve seen from that oft–injured group… and of vital importance, as the immobile Bethel–Thompson is a sitting duck in the pocket.
Credit, also, is due the coaching staff, led by Ryan Dinwiddie, for an excellent game plan. The deception that allowed Toronto to build an 18–point lead, early in the second quarter, was brilliant. On third–and–one from the Montreal 46, back–up quarterback Chad Kelly lined up for what appeared a routine sneak into the trench. Instead, Kelly rose; looked to his left and found receiver Davaris Daniels all by himself down the left sideline, 15 yards clear of the closest Alouette. It was an easy pitch–and–catch for what could have been a game–breaking score.
IT WAS ALL ARGOS IN THE SECOND QUARTER, TO THE DELIGHT OF FANS IN THE COLD AND WINDY UPPER DECK ON THE EAST SIDE OF BMO FIELD, OPENED FOR TICKET SALES ON SUNDAY.
But, the visitors were not finished.
Montreal, after falling behind by 19, availed itself of a disturbing Argo trait: the donation of quarterbacks throughout the CFL. As mentioned, Collaros, the two–time champion of Winnipeg, was twice in the Argonaut clutches, only to be unloaded. Cody Fajardo has become a capable (at times, terrific) starter in Saskatchewan. The erratic, but talented, Nick Arbuckle is currently in Ottawa. And, Trevor Harris, a Toronto chattel from 2012–15, nearly passed his former team out of Sunday’s playoff match. The 36–year–old native of Waldo, Ohio (35 miles southeast of Columbus) began to heat up midway through the second quarter, finding holes in the suddenly soft Toronto defense. By the 1:06 mark of the third, after a far–too–easy 82–yard drive in three plays, the Alouettes were within three points of the Argos, trailing 24–21. But, it was Bethel–Thompson who ultimately regained control of the match. A perfect strike over the middle to the outstretched hands of Kurleigh Gittens Jr. — arguably the best receiver in the CFL — punched Toronto’s first Grey Cup ticket since 2017. The 31–yard scoring play that ended the third quarter provided the Argos a 34–24 advantage, an insurmountable edge. All Montreal could muster in the final 15 minutes (mostly, an exchange of punts) was a 34–yard field goal by David Cote with 4:25 left in regulation.
Defining the entire day was the clock–killing drive by Toronto, which controlled the ball for the final 4:07, allowing Bethel–Thompson, with time expired, to take a triumphant knee. MBT handed the ball to his turf grinders, Andrew Harris and A.J. Ouellette, who methodically bulled toward the Montreal end zone. The beaten Alouettes sealed their fate with consecutive penalties: a 15–yard facemask infraction on Harris, then a five–yard offside error. When Bethel–Thompson went to his knee, the Argonaut players rushed onto all parts of the field, tossing their helmets and doing cartwheels; hugging and rolling around the grass pitch. Lost in the tumult was a poignant scene: former Argo kick returner Chandler Worthy doffing his jersey in front of the visitors’ bench and asking Harris to autograph the item. Quite a tribute to the veteran, Canadian born halfback, a Hall of Fame inductee as soon as eligible.
BY THE TIME THE SUN BRIEFLY EMERGED IN THE THIRD QUARTER, MONTREAL’S TREVOR HARRIS, THE FORMER ARGO, WAS CONTROLLING THE BALL — AND THE GAME. HIS ACCURATE THROWS ENABLED THE ALOUETTES TO TWICE CRAWL BACK TO WITHIN THREE POINTS OF THE HOME SIDE. BUT, McLEOD BETHEL–THOMPSON WOULD NOT BE DENIED ON THIS ARGONAUT AFTERNOON.
But, this blog, remember, is all about contrition and the fowl dinner I’ll need to consume tonight.
For, it was Bethel–Thompson who stuck it to his detractors — perhaps none bigger and louder than me — and finally emerged with his first CFL playoff victory. A salute, as well, to TSN analyst Duane Forde, who I knocked in a previous blog for suggesting, after a victory over the weak Hamilton Tiger–Cats, that MBT had “erased all doubt” about his viability as a quarterback. I maintain that Forde overstated the matter, but Duane is looking a lot better, today, than yours truly. And, to be honest, I’m happy for Bethel–Thompson. Though we’ve never met, he seems like a terrific guy… and there’s no question he has persevered through many bleak moments in double blue.
On Sunday, that diligence and determination took his team to the Promised Land: Regina’s Mosaic Stadium.
I’m hoping there aren’t too many feathers on that bird.