Naylor: Turnover battle could prove key in Argos-Als match-up

Dave Naylor
11/20/2010 5:55:09 PM
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It's not the kind of statement that revs-up a team, but Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo had some profound, if cautious, words for his team prior to Sunday's Eastern Final with Toronto.

"Punting is not the enemy," said the 38-year-old before his eighth Eastern final in the past 10 years. "Field position is a big part of these games."

Calvillo's words come from years of experience understanding how crippling turnovers can be for a team that rarely loses a game in which it emerges on the right side of that battle.

Montreal hasn't lost a game in which it won the turnover battle since Mark Trestman's first month as head coach back in 2008. By contrast, when the Als endured their humbling moments during the regular season – lopsided losses to Toronto, B.C., Calgary, and Hamilton – their accumulative deficit on turnovers was a staggering 19-5.

The Argonauts, meanwhile, didn't lose a single game all season in which they won the turnover battle.

So while it may be simplistic to say the turnover factor is the absolute the key to punching a Grey Cup ticket to Edmonton from the East, it certainly has loomed large where these teams are involved.

"When you lose the turnover battle, the percentages are very low for you to win the game," said Calvillo. "We know that and Toronto knows that so that's always in the back of your mind. You go into the game thinking ball security and that's how you play the game."

Fortunately for the Als, Calvillo is less prone to throwing interceptions than any quarterback in the CFL, delivering just seven throws into the wrong hands in 562 attempts this season, a ratio of about one of every 80 tosses.

"A lot of that has to do with not forcing your throws and listening to (the timing of) your feet," said Calvillo.

Toronto's Cleo Lemon was picked off about one of every 24 throws and demonstrated a tendency to extend plays when the wise course of action might be simply taking a sack or to throw the ball out of bounds.

Recognizing that, the Argos limited what they asked Lemon to do in last weekend's Eastern semi-final in which his longest completed pass was just 12 yards. Lemon threw just one interception in 29 throws as Hamilton was statistically dominant in all areas but one – turnovers – and managed to squeak out a 16-13 win.

Calvillo is right that "punting is not the enemy" but the kicking game wasn't always kind to the Alouettes when it came to facing Toronto this season.

Montreal was the only team to surrender 30 points to Toronto this season (three times), largely because Toronto's special teams were superb, consistently put its offence on a short field, with Chad Owens accumulating over 500 return yards over three games.

"That right there changed the game," said Montreal cornerback Mark Estelle.

Owens proved to be a game-changer for Toronto in his first CFL season through his ability to avoid tacklers by going side-to-side and then turning vertically up-field into a crease.

And if the Argos try to kick the ball away from Owens, they'll have to deal with Ryan Christenson, the rookie who returns from the nine-game injured list this week and who ran a kickoff back for 110-yard touchdown during a 37-22 win over Montreal back on Aug. 14.

One mistake and either Owens or Christenson can make the Alouettes pay.

"In my opinion Chad is the best special teams guy in the league," said Lemon. "He gives us great field position, momentum and confidence on the sidelines where guys have that feeling of belief that we can get the job done."

CFL football is traditionally a game where risks are encouraged, where big plays rule and where conservative or safe football is frowned upon.

But the feeling headed into Sunday's Eastern Final is that whichever team commits the fewest mistakes will be the one punching its ticket for Edmonton.

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