McLeod Bethel-Thompson was at his best exactly when his team needed him.
The quarterback commanded an explosive offence to lead the Toronto Argonauts past the Montreal Alouettes 34-27 in the East Division Finals and advance to the Grey Cup for the first time in his five-year career.
Regina will host Toronto and two-time defending champion Winnipeg on Nov. 20.
It is the 24th time the Argos (12-7) have made it to the Cup in franchise history, and they did it on the heels of their best offensive performance of the season.
“I wasn’t satisfied with how I played all year,” said the signal-caller after the game, alongside his two-year old daughter Aziza. “I didn’t feel like I was playing at my best. And that’s what it’s all about, not making it about yourself and being the best when your team needs you.”
The 34-year-old completed 19 of 27 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns in front of 21,331 at BMO Field, to help guide his team against an Alouettes (10-10) squad that had allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns during the season.
Bethel-Thompson wanted to highlight the defensive side of the ball that helped this team come all this way even on a day when it seemed the offence was the driving force.
“The defence has been the heart and soul of us all year, and the heart and soul of us today,” he said.
“We have been wanting more touchdowns all year, so that’s what this whole season is all about.”
Toronto’s defence has made a habit of stealing the ball from their opponents this season, leading the league with 44 takeaways, and defensive back Jamal Peters kept with it by forcing a pivotal fumble in the first quarter to stop a promising Montreal drive and set up his team’s second scoring campaign.
Despite the play by Peters, it seemed like Ryan Dinwiddie’s team had no answer to the Trevor Harris-led offence.
The Alouettes quarterback went 25-of-30 for 362 yards and a touchdown and – alongside receiver Tyson Philpot (eight catches, 127 yards and one touchdown) – helped his team move the ball up and down the field, putting pressure on Bethel-Thompson and the offence to respond.
“McLeod had his best game in the biggest game,” said the Toronto coach. “He hasn’t been perfect but look at his win-loss record the past few years.
“He finds ways to win football games.”
Some would say this Argos squad is greater than the sum of its pieces. Some would say the great pieces make everything else seem better. Whatever, Dinwiddie knows he has a special group.
“Coaches are overrated when they have great players,” he added, keeping up with what seemed like a team-wide effort to share the praise around, a mark usually found amongst successful teams.
It hasn’t always been a consensus that the Argos did have a great quarterback, though. Criticized earlier in the season for his inconsistent play, Bethel-Thompson rebounded in a big way by leading the CFL in passing yards and peaking at the right time.
Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels – who broke open the game with a 46-yard touchdown reception on a coverage bust by the Alouettes – trusts his quarterback beyond any doubt.
“Just to see the work that he puts in day in and day out and how he stays level-headed to lead this team is amazing,” said the veteran.
“We rally behind him, and his energy means everything to us. We knew he was going to have it.
“I would run through a wall for McLeod”.
Daniels finished the game with three catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. Fellow receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. added 97 yards on nine catches and a score.
Quick start for Toronto
The first quarter began with running back A.J. Ouellette catching a screen for 46 yards and receiver Brandon Banks making one of the most acrobatic catches of the season after seemingly dropping the ball but securing it with his feet to set up a six-yard touchdown by returning running back Andrew Harris.
Trevor Harris came right back and marched Montreal down the field but had to settle for a short 25-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3 with 6:33 to go in the first quarter.
A bad punt by John Haggerty gave the Alouettes good field position but Peters forced a fumble on wide receiver Kaion Julien-Grant and passed it laterally to fellow defensive back Deshaun Amos to put the Argos in scoring position.
And score they did.
Bethel-Thompson dumped it off to Harris for 28-yards before finding Ouelette for seven yards to make it 14-3 with 1:48 left in the opening quarter.
The explosive offensive afternoon continued for the Argos in the first half as backup Chad Kelly found a wide-open Daniels on a 2nd-and-1 who took it to the house to put the home team ahead 21-3.
The Alouettes wouldn’t go quietly into the night, though. Trevor Harris responded with a great drive of his own, completing four of five passes for 85 yards, the final one a 36-yarder to Tyson Philpot to make it 21-10.
Both teams combined for 519 yards of offence in the first two quarters with the quarterbacks combining for 464 yards and two touchdowns.
Montreal responds early in third
A 52-yard touchdown run by Will Stanback – followed by a successful two-point conversion – to open the second half made it 24-21 and put pressure on the Argonauts offence to keep delivering like they did in the first half.
After field goal drives by both sides, that’s exactly what they did.
Bethel-Thompson and Co. put together yet another dominating 70-yard drive that ended on a 31-yard strike to Kurleigh Gittens Jr. in the end zone that stretched the lead to 34-24.
The Argos offence took the field with 4:07 left in the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead and a chance to drive a dagger in the Alouettes’ hopes and the Torontonian troops responded.
Exactly four minutes, seven seconds and 48 yards later, the Argonauts were in the Grey Cup.
NOTES: Since 2014, home teams have won 13 of the 15 East Division Finals … It was the first game since August 12th for Running Back Andrew Harris who tore his pectoral muscle against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and was initially ruled out for the season. It will be his third straight Grey Cup appearance after making it the final two seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.