Sunday, November 29, 2009

Setting up the Grey Cup

Today's Grey Cup clash between the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders is all set to kick off in about 40 minutes, and I'm planning to live-blog it right here. I have a brief preview column up over at The Rookies, but I figured I'd use the last few minutes before the game to write a more detailed one here. Without further ado, here's some thoughts on what may be crucial parts of the game.

Quarterbacks: On paper, this one looks like a bit of a mismatch. Montreal has Anthony Calvillo, who just won his second straight Most Outstanding Player award after a season where he completed an incredible 72 per cent of his passes and threw for 4,639 yards and 26 touchdowns while only being intercepted six times. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has Darian Durant, who wasn't even guaranteed to be their starter this year. Durant has come on in the last few weeks, though, and led a tremendous comeback against the Calgary Stampeders in the West Final last week. Moreover, Calvillo has been historically unsuccessful in Grey Cup games; he goes into this one with a career 1-6 record. I wrote earlier this year that win-loss records are generally a lousy way to judge quarterbacks, and Calvillo played very well in some of those losses, but at other times, he and the Alouettes have struggled under the pressure of a Grey Cup environment. You'd have to think the Alouettes still have an edge here, but the quarterbacking duel may be much closer than the pure stats might suggest.

Running backs: This is another intriguing one. Saskatchewan has Wes Cates, who was a key part of their 2007 Grey Cup win and was their best player last year, but struggled with injury this season and had a down year. He finished with 932 yards on 195 carries. Montreal has Avon Cobourne, who historically hasn't been that outstanding, but had a pretty good year, finishing with 1214 yards on 224 carries. However, that was only sixth-best in the league. It's curious that in what has been dubbed the "Year of the Running Back" by many, two of the teams with the least-renowned rushing offences are facing off in the Grey Cup. Cobourne has had the better season this year, but Cates has potential to do even better, and he brings more to the table in the passing game. I'll give a slight edge to the Riders here.

Receivers: Two vastly different groups here. The Alouettes have gone the traditional CFL route with a group of quick import receivers, including Kerry Watkins, Brian Bratton and Jamel Richardson. Their lone starting non-import at receiver is slotback Ben Cahoon, who's always been one of the top Canadians in the league, but is approaching the end of his career. Saskatchewan, by contrast, features a highly unconventional group of receivers; they have five top Canadians from CIS schools, including Rob Bagg, Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont and Adam Nicolson. They've been targeted by some writers for this approach, including Sun Media columnist Terry Jones, who derogatorily called the Riders' receivers "slow, white, Canadian guys."

It's true that the Saskatchewan guys by and large don't have the flat-out speed of Montreal's receivers, but speed isn't the be-all-and-end-all in the passing game; look at how much better Michael Crabtree is than Darrius Heyward-Bey. Saskatchewan has a very talented group of guys who skilled at deceptive routes and not afraid to fight for balls in traffic and take big hits. That's why I give them the edge here.

Lines: Montreal has an incredible offensive line composed entirely of Canadian starters. They've been together for years and have great cohesion as a group. Saskatchewan's O-line is no group of slouches either, but Montreal's is arguably the best in the league. The Riders have the better D-line though, especially considering bookend defensive ends John Chick and Stevie Baggs.

Linebackers/defensive backs: Both teams are pretty strong here. Montreal has the edge at LB with Chip Cox and Shea Emry, but I love the Riders' defensive backs. Cornerback Omarr Morgan will be one to watch here; he's been in the league for over a decade but has never made it to a Grey Cup, so this is a big game for him.

Special teams: This is also close. Both teams have great kickers, Saskatchewan's Luca Congi and Montreal's Damon Duval, and solid return men, the Riders with Jason Armstead and the Als with Larry Taylor. The Als have a slight edge here.

Crowd: The Riders win this one decisively. They have an incredible group of travelling fans, and McMahon Stadium is almost entirely green today. That might be just the edge the Riders need to take home the win here.

Trivia: This is the first time these franchises have faced each other in a Grey Cup, but the cities have faced off before. The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association beat the Regina Roughriders 22-0 in 1931.

Prediction: Saskatchewan 31, Montreal 28

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