It wasn’t pretty but the Alouettes finally won a game at home.
Brandon Whitaker ran a career-high 162 yards on 24 carries and Sean Whyte kicked six field goals to lead Montreal to 32-27 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos on Thursday night at Percival Molson Stadium.
The Alouettes’ defence, the strongest and most consistent part of their game this season, put up a brick wall on a last-second, goal-line touchdown attempt for the Eskimos, who needed a major for the win after Whyte put Montreal up by five on their last offensive play.
“The defence has really been setting the tone for us all year long and there again they stopped a good team on the last play of the game that secured a victory for us heading into this bye week,” quarterback Anthony Calvillo said. “It feels great.”
Whitaker, who missed the last month and a half of last season with a knee injury, started to look like that Whitaker of old, bulldozing through the opposition and gaining plenty on the ground.
“It's been a long time (since I've ran that much),” said the 27-year-old, who eclipsed his previous best of 150 rushing yards set back on August 4, 2011 against the Toronto Argonauts.
“He did a great job. He'd be the first one to tell you he was a little bummed when he turned it over but he's a tough player,” head coach Dan Hawkins said of Whitaker, who had a rough first half with just 24 yards to his credit. “I think he's continuing to get confidence in his knee and getting rhythm with the O-line and just a lot of jelling with everybody coming together.”
Whitaker has proven to be among of the CFL’s top rushers, yet the Alouettes haven’t opted for plays on the ground as often as one might expect. And while handing it off to him may not have been the focus in the game plan, its success changed that.
“You're trying to build on what's working and what's going. We had a good rhythm going there and we were able to stay in rhythm,” Hawkins said of the emphasis on the running game. “I thought Mike called a really good game, kept them off balance for the most part.”
There was a clear sense of relief among the players with this win, faced with potential personnel changes had the result not been what it was – which it nearly wasn’t.
After the Alouettes and Eskimos traded field goals early in the first quarter, a Shea Emry interception on Edmonton’s second series brought Montreal’s offence back on the turf with good field position. Calvillo found S.J. Green deep in the end zone corner for the touchdown.
It marked the 22nd straight game with a touchdown pass for the Alouettes quarterback, a new personal best and the third longest streak in CFL history.
Montreal built up a 20-6 lead at the half on a field goal – aided by another Emry interception – and a 13-yard run from Whitaker.
But then history began to repeat itself as the Eskimos notched a trio of touchdowns while the Alouettes managed just a pair of field goals through the third quarter and early into the final frame. Suddenly, with less than four minutes gone in the fourth quarter, the Alouettes were trailing for the first time all night, 27-26.
“You've got to keep playing. It seems cliché but over half the games were decided in the last three minutes last year,” said Hawkins of another blown lead. “I've never rejoiced when we're ahead or gotten down when we're behind because too many things can happen and trust me, I've seen it all.”
Whyte restored the Alouettes’ lead and added a slight cushion late in the quarter. His final field goal came with Montreal in a third-and-one scenario at the goal line after unsuccessful attempts to sneak in for the touchdown and put the game out of reach.
Hawkins said his decision to go with the field goal stemmed from last week’s questionable third-and-one, which saw a hand-off from Calvillo to Jerome Messam in the backfield.
“I just wanted to make sure that they're going to have to score a touchdown,” he explained. “You'd love to score a touchdown and put the game away but if you don't, then they have tremendous momentum and now they're driving for a field goal instead of a touchdown.”
The win column now shows two for the Alouettes but they know it could have easily been on the other side. And they’ll remember that, along with the progress they made on offence in sustaining drives, as they head into their week off.
“Yeah, we've got no choice,” Whitaker said of building off the win. “We still feel like we left a lot of yards and points out there so that's something we've got to get back to the drawing board and work on and get ready for after the bye week.”
“We made a lot of mistakes out there still and we got away with it,” added Calvillo. “I still feel that we've still got a long way to go. We just had too many mental mistakes today.”