TORONTO – It has been nearly 55 years since a CFL game has been played at the legendary Varsity Stadium. However, that will all change Thursday night as the Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes prepare to do battle in a final dress rehearsal ahead of next week’s CFL regular season kickoff.
The Argonauts enter Thursday’s tilt coming off an impressive 24-6 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the inaugural game at Investors Group Field. A majority of the veterans did not make the trip to Winnipeg including quarterback Ricky Ray, who will start Thursday’s game against Montreal, receiving his first in-game reps since the 100th Grey Cup championship game this past November. Reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Chad Owens will also suit for the Argonauts along with 100th Grey Cup MVP (Most Valuable Player) Chad Kackert.
“We’ll play most of them, at least, the ones that get approved medically. I know you’re probably talking about guys like Ricky and the starters. They probably won’t play very much but it’ll be no more than a quarter, probably significantly less than that,” commented Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich following the team’s pre-game walk-through on Wednesday morning. “When I’ve seen enough, that’ll be it.”
As Argonaut fans flood the bleachers at Varsity Stadium for Thursday’s pre-season game, all eyes will be on the team’s backup quarterback competition. Second-year quarterbacks Trevor Harris and Zach Collaros have been spectacular throughout training camp and both registered strong performances last week in Winnipeg.
Harris started the game for the Boatmen and finished 8-for-11 with 115 yards passing in one quarter of play. Collaros was efficient under centre, completing 9-of-12 passes for 95 yards and one touchdown. Collaros also showcased his mobility outside of the pocket as he registered 26 yards along the ground.
Thursday’s game will certainly go a long way in determining who will suit up as the Argonauts’ backup quarterback for next week’s regular season opener.
“We’d like to know shortly after the game when we watch the film and make a decision this week,” responded Scott Milanovich when asked about the team’s current backup quarterback situation.
Mitchell Gale and Josh Portis will also receive reps on Thursday as they continue to battle for a roster spot. Gale, a rookie from Abilene Christian University, showed tremendous poise and composure as he led the Argonauts in rushing with 52 yards during last week’s pre-season game in Winnipeg. The 23-year-old also added a touchdown pass in the victory.
Earlier this week, the Argonauts made their first set of training camp cuts. Among those released was 2012 CFL draft selection Quincy Hurst, who tore his ACL in last week’s 24-6 win over the Blue Bombers.
The team also announced the release of cornerback Pacino Horne. The 29-year-old Ypsilanti, Michigan native started fourteen games for the Argonauts in 2012 including the 100th Grey Cup championship.
With the roster trimmed down to 65, there is an opportunity for young players to assume a larger role in the Argonauts’ pre-season finale. However, the roster cut down can also negatively affect the outcome of Thursday’s game as it increases the risk of injury and may force veteran players to have more reps than originally expected.
“After cuts last week, you’ve got less players so even when they come out, they’ll have to be ready to go back in case of any injuries so there’s always some anxious moments towards the end of the second pre-season game,” stated Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich.
Defensively, the Argonauts secondary received a much-needed boost on Wednesday as All-Star cornerback Pat Watkins returned to the football field, participating in the team’s pre-game walk-through. Watkins missed a majority of training camp as he was tending to personal matters in the United States. While Watkins will not suit up for tomorrow’s pre-season finale, head coach Scott Milanovich is very pleased to have his All-Star defender back on the roster.
“We’re thrilled to have him back and Pat’s a really good guy. He went into the team meeting this morning for the first time and got a standing ovation from his teammates, and I think that says a lot about him,” said Milanovich. “He misses a majority of training camp and his teammates are still that thrilled to see him. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a professional, he comes to work everyday, he comes to play, and he loves the game.”
Marcus Ball, Robert McCune, and Brandon Isaac will also play in Thursday’s pre-season game. With a youthful secondary and a revamped defensive line, the Argonauts will rely heavily on their star-studded linebacking trio.
“We are just coming out here to play a great pre-season game to get ready for the first regular season game,” said Argonauts linebacker Robert McCune as he surveyed the surroundings of the iconic Varsity Stadium. “The coaches are going to do their evaluation from the young guys and we are playing this game to prepare for the season opener.”
As for the Alouettes, they enter Thursday’s pre-season contest coming off a 33-26 defeat at the hands of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Entering his 20th CFL season, Anthony Calvillo will start for Montreal at Varsity Stadium. Calvillo threw just one pass in last week’s pre-season game but made a significant impact as he managed to connect with Jamel Richardson for a 50-yard completion, setting up Chris Jennings’ short touchdown run. Sixth-year quarterback Quinton Porter also turned in an impressive performance against the Tiger-Cats as he completed 8-of-17 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns.
The big competition at Alouettes training camp is for the teams starting running back position. Former 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Messam was acquired by Montreal during the off-season in an attempt to solidify the Alouettes’ running attack. However, an injury during training camp has opened the door for Chris Jennings and Brandon Whitaker to compete for the starting job. Whitaker, who was the Alouettes’ starting running back at the beginning of last season, is still attempting to regain his form after missing the final eight games of 2012 due to a torn ACL. In Whitaker’s absence, Chris Jennings assumed the teams starting running back duties and registered 334 yards rushing on just 59 carries. In the 2013 CFL Draft, the Alouettes drafted running back Steven Lumbala, a young prospect that has shown flashes of brilliance throughout training camp.
As teams begin to shift their focus to next week’s regular season kickoff, there is still plenty at stake during this week’s pre-season games. The Argonauts will try to conclude their exhibition schedule on a high note as they look to improve their pre-season record to 2-0 on Thursday night.
Former Allies Meet Again
Although it is only pre-season football, emotions will certainly be running high as former Argonaut Ejiro Kuale makes his return to Toronto after requesting his release from the team this past off-season. Kuale spent the first three years of his CFL career in Toronto where the 29-year-old linebacker was a dominant force on special teams and played with tremendous intensity on defence.
Argonauts receiver Trent Guy will also be squaring off against his former squad as the 24-year-old began his CFL career with the Alouettes last season.
The game can be heard live on TSN 1050 Radio beginning at 7:00 p.m. EST as Argonauts play-by-play announcer Mike Hogan has the call from the historic Varsity Stadium.