1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 6 – THE EASTERN SEMI-FINAL
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Monday, October 3, 2022
1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 6 – THE EASTERN SEMI-FINAL
In as much as the loss to Montreal in their season finale was disheartening to Brancato and his players, what it served to do was to give the Rough Riders an opportunity to see how and where the Alouettes would attack them in a plethora of situations. This knowledge would allow the team to consciously or unconsciously adjust to Montreal’s offensive schemes and be more ready for them in their upcoming Eastern Semi-Final meeting.
“I think we’re always making adjustments,” Riders’ slotback Pat Stoqua told me when we sat down together on the Sports Lunatics Show on the FiredUp Network in September of 2022, “whether it be system adjustments or personnel adjustments, but I remember the (Montreal playoff) game distinctly. I mean they had some very strong people like Tom Cousineau, who was a number one draft choice, I think of Cleveland at the time, out of Ohio State. He was their middle linebacker.”
They had other great players as well and Stoqua continued. “Keith Gary, David Overstreet, Vince Ferragamo, Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson. They had some superstars that were superstars in the NFL as well, so I think we did make some system adjustments, both offensively and defensively, but now we were getting them back on grass at Lansdowne Park with a home crowd.”
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 2
Early in the week, a couple of players were able to move thoughts of the game to the back burner, at least for a few brief moments. The nominations were made for the different CFL Schenley outstanding player awards and a couple of Rough Riders’ players were named. Offensive guard Val Belcher was the Eastern nominee for outstanding offensive lineman and Tony Gabriel got the Eastern nod as outstanding Canadian.
Belcher would be going up against Larry Butler, left guard of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Belcher had nothing but respect for his counterpart. “I figured Butler would get the Western nomination. I studied him a lot this season on film. There was a stretch of four or five weeks that Winnipeg had just played the team we were going to meet. So I prepared by watching Butler.”
“There’s a lot of similarities between us. We play the same position, so I end up playing against the same guys. We’re about the same size (6’3” and 250 pounds). Our technique and style of play is about the same. We even wear the same number.” Both players wore the jersey number 68.
Belcher’s offensive line coach, Joe Moss, was proud of his player and couldn’t think of a better person for the nomination. “It had to be him. I’ve been preaching a team concept for my guys this season and I haven’t boasted too much about Belcher but he deserves the recognition. Last Sunday, he was against Montreal’s Doug Scott and he’s a good player but Val hung in there and did a good job.”
Moss was one of those demanding mentors and among his offensive linemen, he had asked the most out of Belcher. And the guard was appreciative of Moss’ entreaties. “Joe gets on me but he has helped me become more consistent. Sometimes I get satisfied too easily and Joe doesn’t let me get away with it.”
Gabriel was very familiar with the Schenley stage, having won the league’s Outstanding Player Award in 1978 and Top Canadian Player four times (1974, 1976, 1977 and 1978). In 1981, he caught 73 passes for 1,006 yards in just 14 games. Poplawski played in all 16 of the Bombers’ games and had 84 receptions for 1,271 yards.
Stoqua and Gabriel were roommates for part of their time together with the Rough Riders. And while, he wouldn’t share any roommate stories, Stoqua was not only effusive in his praise for his former teammate and his talent. But Gabriel was the source of at least one of his memories as a football fan as well.
“I remember his catch and I remember exactly where I was in ’76 when Tony caught the pass (from Tom Clements that won the Grey Cup for Ottawa), I had just started at Carleton (University). Football was the last thing on my mind. I was just starting to play basketball with the Ravens, but I certainly followed football very closely.”
“He made the catch, the game was won and we were making our way to Bank Street and celebrate, right? Little did I know that four years later, I would be his roommate. That was the last thing on my mind and it was quite like ‘How did I get here?’ type of thing. He was another mentor of mine.”
“Tony had such great, long strides and great length with his arms. He could create separation from a defensive back, especially if they were a regular size DB, 6’0”, 6’1”. Tony’s 6’4”, 6’5”. When he separated, he created such a big target with his long arms and great hands, he was really hard to cover. I pitied some of those DB’s trying to cover him.”
The nominees for the league’s outstanding player were Hamilton’s Tom Clements from the East and Winnipeg’s Dieter Brock from the West. The outstanding defensive player award would see a pair of linebackers pitted against one another. The Ti-Cats’ Ben Zambiasi and the Edmonton Eskimos’ Dan Kepley were the nominees.
The winners would be named during Grey Cup Week.
When it came time to start planning for the do-or-die match with Montreal, George Brancato would be faced with having to deal with some major injuries. Defensive backs Randy Rhino and Jerome Stanton would both be out for the big game. Both men suffered pulled hamstrings in their final regular season meeting with Montreal.
Meanwhile over in the Alouettes’ camp, linebacker Tom Cousineau was looking doubtful. He aggravated his elbow injury against Ottawa on the previous Sunday. Wide receiver James Scott was also limping around on a bad ankle that was diagnosed as sprained. Both players would be evaluated further as the week wore on.
Immediately after the 39-15 loss to the Als. Brancato had been disconsolate and after viewing the game film, his mood did not brighten much. His analysis was brief and to the point when he spoke with reporters the day after the game. “After looking at that, I have to wonder if we can beat those guys. We just didn’t play. It looked as if we quit.”
One of the players that Brancato had been most disappointed with was running back Sam Platt. Platt carried the ball five times for just nine yards and he also caught three passes for seven yards. He seemed to have trouble holding on to the ball and in Brancato’s mind, he played with very little intensity.
Calvin Fance had been the backup running back for much of the season, but the coach was giving serious consideration to inserting two Canadian backs into the starting lineup. Those would be John Park and Jim Reid. Reid was Ottawa’s best player against Montreal. In the two games against the Alouettes in 1981, Reid averaged six yards a carry. In their final matchup, Reid had four carries for 36 yards and he had five catches for 45 yards as well.
The one drawback to using Park and Reid in the offensive backfield was that there would be no other backup running back. But the move would allow the team to insert the previously injured offensive tackle Pat Staub in to replace Tim Hook. While Hook had enjoyed a very good season in 1981, he had been manhandled by Keith Gary in the final regular season game.
Losing Stanton and Rhino meant that Ottawa would have to abandon its relatively successful six-man defensive backfield and go to a more traditional setup. Larry Brune had been great in his role as the sometimes-blitzer/sixth defender, but he would move into Rhino’s free safety position. Carl Brazley would replace Stanton at the corner spot. Linebacker Bill Mitchell would move into the linebacker space that Brune had been in. The question was ‘Could he cover a receiver deep?’
Brancato answered that question quickly. “We’re not worried about Mitchell’s speed to cover deep but the problem is that he isn’t used to doing it. Basically, we’ll use a conventional 4-3 defense. Brazley shouldn’t have a problem playing the corner. I thought he played well in there after replacing Stanton.”
For Randy Rhino, his true value to the club was on special teams. At the time of his injury, he was the league’s all-time leading punt returner. But his pulled hamstring and his pending free agency meant that the possibility existed that he had played his last game in the red, black and white.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me in Ottawa,” Rhino told the Citizen’s Tom Casey. “I have a lot of options to consider. I need one more full year of schooling to become a certified chiropractor. In the off season, I manage to get in about a half a school year. I have to determine if it’s worth waiting another year to complete school. I also have a young family and my eldest child will start school next year.”
“I don’t want to uproot him in the middle of a school year. I’ve really enjoyed my season in Ottawa. We have a great bunch of guys but it has to be worth my while to come back. I can understand if the club doesn’t want to pay a deep back some big money. Once the season is over, I plan to talk to management and see if they want me back and where I fit in their plans. Then I’ll go back home (to Atlanta) and think about the future.”
Rhino returned punts for 918 yards in 1981, which was a career best. In seven years in the league, he amassed a total of 3,367 punt return yards. Six of those seven years, he played with Montreal.
All this personnel manoeuvring would create two spots for American players in the lineup. There were three players who were at the top of Brancato’s mind when it came to filling those positions. Defensive tackles Ron Simmons and Mike Peerman had both shone at different times during the season. Middle linebacker Eric Manns was also a potential choice to be inserted in the lineup. And given how well he played against the run, he was a favourite to play, despite his unexplained absences at a couple of times during the season.
Brancato addressed any concerns about Manns with the press. “I had a good talk with him today. He says he has straightened out his personal problems and he wants to play. He proved that to me last week at practice.”
J. C. Watts would be the starting signal caller, but Brancato indicated that his play seemed to regress in the game against Montreal. The films showed that he had a tough time finding open receivers and his interceptions also seemed to be increasing in frequency. He wasn’t recognizing opportunities to advance the ball with his legs either.
“When J. C. threw that interception to open the second half, he could have run for 30 yards. There was no one in front of him,” Brancato told the media. “That play could have broken Montreal’s backs. We pointed that out to him while watching film but that’s all part of gaining experience. It’s a price a club has to pay, playing with a young quarterback.”
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3
The wild, up-and-down tale of the Rough Riders-Eric Manns relationship ended on the Tuesday. Ottawa general manager Jake Dunlap stated it officially. He also expressed it quite succinctly. “Colour him gone,” he told reporters.
But, what about all the nice things Brancato had said about the linebacker the day before?
“I talked to him Monday after practice and he said he wanted to play again,” the coach said. “So I told him to come back in the morning and see Jake so we could re-sign him to a contract. He never showed up. I saw him walk into the dressing room at 2:15 (before 3 o’clock practice) and asked why he didn’t show and if he still wanted to play.”
“He replied, ‘I think so, but I want more money.’ We were going to sign him to the terms of his original contract. That was the end of the line as far as I was concerned. I gave him three minutes to clean out his locker and to get out. I didn’t give him a chance to explain. I had enough. It’s really too bad because Eric has a lot of talent.”
No one was able to reach Manns for his side of the whole affair.
With Manns out of the picture, it was getting a little easier to figure out how the lineup would look on the following Sunday. It was expected that the team would activate Pat Staub to play offensive tackle, replacing Tim Hook and Mike Peerman to play defensive tackle. Peerman was also able to play off the line in a linebacking spot if needed. And Brancato was thinking that way also.
“We plan to use Peerman and John Glassford as linebackers,” Brancato told reporters. “We’ll use Peerman at tackle as well. We’ll probably use a variety of defenses and play a lot of games along the line of scrimmage to confuse Montreal. Tim (Hook) has a bit of a groin muscle pull. Staub is the logical choice to activate from the move list because we have an abundance of defensive linemen.”
It looked like Brancato’s idea to use Jim Reid and John Park at running back was not going to fly. At this point, his other choices were Sam Platt and Calvin Fance and it wasn’t clear yet which back he was going to go with.
While all this was going on, there were reports coming out of Toronto that George Brancato was one of the main candidates to become the new head coach of the Argonauts for the 1982 season. But the Ottawa coach still had another year on his contract and he brushed off those rumours when asked by the gathered media.
“I haven’t been contacted by Toronto and as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to it. I’m still under contract to Ottawa but I would like to discuss a new contract with the club. They haven’t approached me yet about it nor have I approached them. I realize this isn’t the time to talk about it but I would hate to start next season with only a year left on my contract. It’s a lot like a player going into his option year. Coaching is an insecure business and the secret is longevity.”
One other bit of news that came out on the Tuesday of this week was the announcement of the Eastern Division All-Star team. The Tiger-Cats, who went 11-4-1 during the regular season placed fifteen players on the team. There were seven members of their offense and eight players from their defense who made up the elite group.
Their quarterback, Tom Clements was the headline name on the team. Their star, Keith Baker and Montreal’s James Scott were tied in votes for the wide receiver spot. Besides Clements and Baker, Rufus Crawford was chosen at running back, Rocky DiPietro was the slotback, Henry Waszczuk was the centre, Ed Fulton was one of the offensive tackles and Bernie Ruoff was named as the place kicker.
Defensively, the Ti-Cats entire linebacking group, Ben Zambiasi, Cam Carteri and John Priestner, made the team. Also chosen were defensive backs David Shaw, Leroy Paul and Harold Woods. Linemen Ecomet Burley and Grover Covington also were chosen for the team.
Despite having fifteen players named to the All-Star group, Hamilton coach Frank Kush thought his players were deserving of their selections. In fact, he thought more of his players should have made the team.
“I think the main factor was the won-lost record of the ball club plus the fact the other teams didn’t do that well. We kept our group together throughout the season and we started off extremely well against the Western clubs and that probably caught a lot of eyes. I’m kind of surprised that (defensive back) Preston Young and (defensive end) Jim Muller didn’t make it on defense. Preston did just an outstanding job defensively and Muller played extremely well this year.”
“Any type of accolade is going to be of psychological benefit to this team. If you receive recognition as being the top players in the league, then you have to go out and play that way. You can’t sit and rest on your laurels.”
Six players from the Ottawa Rough Riders made it to the list also. Schenley Award nominee Tony Gabriel was a perennial All-Canadian and 1981 was no different. He was selected to the tight end spot. Ottawa’s other award nominee, Val Belcher, made it as one of the offensive guards. On defense, safety Randy Rhino, deep back Larry Brune, tackle Mike Raines and end Greg Marshall made the squad.
Besides Scott, two other Alouette players were named to the team. Guard Bill Norton and tackle Doug Payton were the other men chosen from Montreal. The second running back named to the team was Toronto’s Cedric Minter while the Argos’ veteran punter Zenon Andrusyshyn also made it.
In another story, having just bought the Montreal Alouettes from Sam Berger at the beginning of the 1981 calendar year, it looked like Nelson Skalbania was trying to sell the team and the sooner, the better, it seemed. Apparently the idea of shelling out a lot of big money to star players and then having his team become the league’s biggest disappointment, and losing boatloads of money weren’t as glamorous as he might have thought they would be.
There were at least two groups that were looking into purchasing the club from the real estate magnate. But the fact that they were both from Western Canada was causing them to tread lightly at these preliminary stages of the situation. During the season, Skalbania had sold minority shares in the team to a couple of local businessmen.
He left Montreal on the Tuesday, but before he did, he reportedly went down to the locker room and wished his team well before heading off to Vancouver for the weekend.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 4
Wednesdays were traditionally slow news days in the Canadian Football League in the early 1980s. This day was no exception. The biggest news in the league was what was happening out in Calgary with the Stampeders.
James Sykes had been the leading rusher in the CFL in 1981 having run for 1,107 yards. Other than Sykes, though, the Stamps didn’t have much. General manager Jack Gotta had fired head coach Ardell Wiegant after the team’s eleventh game of the season and replaced him with Jerry Williams, hoping that a change of personalities at the coaching spot would mean a change in the way the team was playing.
But then, the team won just one of its last five games. On Wednesday, Williams handed in his resignation. Two of his assistant coaches, Walt Posadowski and Dennis Meyer were let go. Two other assistants, Stan Schwarz and Willie Burden, no longer had a contract with the team to coach.
Gotta told reporters that he had a list of four or five replacements for Williams but he refused to elaborate as to who any of those candidates might have been. Another possibility to become the coach was Gotta himself. He coached the Stampeders from 1977 to 1979, winning the league’s Coach of the Year Award in 1978. In 1979, he took the team to the Western final only to lose to the Edmonton Eskimos.
The player of the week selections were announced on Wednesday as well. Two of the three were from the Montreal Alouettes. David Overstreet was named the offensive player of the week. He rushed for 125 yards and caught passes for another 63. He also scored a pair of touchdowns in the Als’ 39-15 win over Ottawa.
Keith Gary was the defensive player of the week. He was a thorn in the Rough Riders’ side all day long, harassing Ottawa’s quarterbacks and hammering Sam Platt into submission.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 5
There seemed to be no really good days for the Rough Riders as they were approaching their Eastern semi-final against the Montreal Alouettes. George Brancato had been leaning toward using Calvin Fance as his running back in the game on Sunday, but at practice on Thursday, Fance joined Jerome Stanton and Randy Rhino on the injured list. And, just like Stanton and Rhino, Fance pulled his hamstring.
“It looks like our personnel decisions will be based on finding 34 players who are healthy,” Brancato told reporters after the Thursday workout. That meant that Brancato would really have no other choice but to use Sam Platt at the running back position, something he was trying to avoid, given Platt’s performance in the team’s loss to Montreal the previous weekend.
On the plus side, the injured knee of Canadian safety Mark Philp was looking good through the week’s practices and the possibility of him playing against the Alouettes was growing. He had missed the previous five weeks with the knee issue. If he was to be activated, it would only be as a backup.
In the ‘gossip and rumours’ department, another story from outside of Ottawa was circulating about George Brancato leaving the nation’s capital to coach another team in 1982. This time, the report came from a Toronto paper that Brancato would be heading to Montreal to take over there.
The story indicated that there were unnamed sources in both the Rough Riders’ and Alouettes’ front offices that were saying that Montreal management had been in touch with Ottawa’s coach to let him know that he was a prime candidate for the head coaching job and that he could be interested in it depending on the size and length of the contract. But, again, Brancato was forced to come out publicly to squelch such a rumour.
“There’s nothing to the story at all,” Brancato told reporters. “I have never heard from them. The guys in Montreal and Toronto are making things up. I never said that. I can’t even talk to them. I’m under contract here.”
That kind of talk was kind of surprising given the happy talk coming out of Montreal from their players regarding the Als’ coach, Jim Eddy. Eddy had taken over from fired coach Joe Scannella after the team’s tenth game. At that point, they had a record of 1-9. They had won two of their last six games in 1981, but they appeared to be a team on the rise.
Defensive end Keith Gary described Eddy as a players’ coach and said that the new man had brought with him a sense of calmness to the team. “Before Eddy, took over, the coaches weren’t getting along. There was a lot of yelling and screaming and that didn’t help. Eddy has instilled confidence in us. He’s the kind of guy you want to play for and (new QB Ken) Johnson has provided us with some leadership.”
Tight end Peter Dalla Riva felt that the players on the Alouettes were divided as well. And only since Eddy had taken over had the team pulled together. He also said that, while some outsiders might have thought that the high salaries some players were making was a wedge issue, turnovers had been a big problem for the team’s morale.
“I don’t think the big money some of the guys were getting was as much of a factor as the fact we kept turning the ball over,” Dalla Riva told the press. “Psychologically, all the turnovers would blow your mind. There was no continuity and it was very frustrating. That divided the club because we were giving up too many big plays. We started pressing and playing as individuals.”
Eddy, who had been a head coach in Saskatchewan and a defensive coordinator in Hamilton before moving to Montreal at the beginning of the 1981 season, was critical of the way that Scannella had run the team from training camp until he was let go in the second half of the season. Eddy contended that camp had been too easy and players weren’t ready to play when the season started. He also thought the playbook had been too complicated.
“We’ve gone back to basic football and as far as I’m concerned, our stage of development has reached only the seventh game of the season. Usually, at this time of the year, a coach cuts back his practices, especially with a playoff game coming up. But we’ve been forced to extend workouts to catch up.”
When Montreal acquired veteran quarterback Ken Johnson from Calgary late in the season, it afforded Eddy the luxury of being able to sit Vince Ferragamo down to watch how a CFL quarterback plays. Ferragamo had thrown seven touchdown passes and been intercepted 25 times in 342 pass attempts. It was an unpleasant time for the former Ram quarterback, but, there was no doubt that the move improved the fortunes of the struggling club.
“He has given us CFL experience and he’s not turning the ball over,” Eddy said. “His positive attitude has influenced a lot of our players. Johnson has added maturity to our club. The potential has always been there and Johnson has provided us with the catalyst.”
Game day was getting closer. The rubber was soon to hit the road.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 6 & SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 7
As the minutes, hours and days continued their steady march to the Sunday kickoff of the Eastern semi-final, anyone talking to George Brancato could recognize an impending sense of doom hovering over the Rough Riders’ facility. There was almost a feeling of dread at times, if you believed what you were hearing, that Ottawa had no chance in their coming contest against the Montreal Alouettes.
According to Montreal’s coach, Jim Eddy, the Als were playing their best football of the season right now. Brancato seemed to be intimating that Ottawa was having trouble scotch taping a healthy lineup together.
In their game the week before, Ottawa held a lead at the half, but the Alouettes exploded for 32 points in the third and fourth quarters and won going away 39-15. But, like Pat Stoqua said, this upcoming game was in Ottawa, on the slower grass surface and in front of the Rough Riders’ fans at Lansdowne Park. That had to be a mitigating factor, right?
Brancato had been furious after the game the previous week and he told his players exactly how he felt they performed. But, the next day, with the ill feelings out of his system, it was a new world. He even hosted a pizza party for the players and general manager Jake Dunlap was there with his quick wit and his one-liners.
But Brancato had seen enough of the Als to know that his team had to respect them. They also had to ‘play with intensity’ for sixty minutes. “I was concerned after the loss and I still am,” he told Tom Casey. “Montreal’s talent can’t be overlooked. The only way for us to beat them is to play with intensity. Take it to them physically and not make any dumb mistakes that will cost us an easy touchdown.”
“We’ve had a good week of practice but that doesn’t tell me anything. Last week, we had a great week of practice and got blown out by Montreal.” Every morning, in the week leading up to the game, J. C. Watts and Kevin Starkey were sitting down with Brancato and backfield coach and former CFL quarterback Jerry Keeling to go over film of that loss to Montreal. Another meeting was held before each of the afternoon practices.
For Watts, he never envisioned that in his first year of professional football, he would be thrust into a sudden death, winner-take-all playoff game and be expected to carry his team to victory.
“I never expected to be in this position. In college, I had two or three years to mature, but I’m not complaining. The media is blowing this game up. ‘All the marbles’ will be on the table. Everyone, it seems, is talking about the game and I enjoy that. I’m really looking forward to playing. The challenge has me excited.”
A lot of the time that Watts and Starkey had spent in film study was devoted to seeing ways to read Montreal’s defense. And Watts admitted that he could have performed much better than he had the previous Sunday.
“Montreal had a good pass rush on me and maybe I became too conscious of it. I’m not used to taking that kind of pressure. I should have dumped the ball off more and avoided the rush with some better plays. Montreal was protecting against the intermediate passes – 15 to 18 yards – and I should have gone underneath it or over it.”
When Watts came back to Ottawa in the middle of the season, it took him a while to get used to the Canadian game, but with increased repetitions in practice and then in games, he had improved vastly as the season wore on. In the last couple of games, however, he enjoyed strong first halves and then faltered in the third quarters.
In the loss to Montreal, he tossed pair of interceptions in the third period. After a solid week of film study and practice, he remained confident. “Those interceptions won’t bother me. There’s no sense worrying about what has happened. Last week’s game was very important for me and I may have over-prepared mentally. I was too tight. This week, I’ve tried to relax more and hope to react to my instincts more once the game starts.”
When it comes to confidence, Watts’ counterpart over on the Montreal sideline wasn’t lacking for any either. Drummed out of Calgary, Ken Johnson was enjoying a resurgence as the signal caller for the Montreal Alouettes. Heck, he even unseated the big contract incumbent, Vince Ferragamo. And his current coach and his offensive coordinator both loved having him.
After playing in Calgary during the previous three seasons, Johnson found himself at odds with Jerry Williams. Williams told the media that Johnson couldn’t find secondary receivers. But Johnson told reporters before this upcoming game that the problem wasn’t him. The big issue was with the lack of balance in the offensive system the Stampeders were using.
“Anybody who knows football can understand what happened in Calgary. In Montreal, we’re using a sound offensive approach. There’s a half decent balance between passing and running. It’s basic football.” Als’ coach Jim Eddy likes one thing about Johnson that he didn’t like about Ferragamo. “Johnson isn’t turning the ball over and that gives our offense continuity.”
When it came to outside parties keeping an eye on this game, Hamilton coach Frank Kush wouldn’t say which team he would prefer to play in the Eastern final but he also wouldn’t explicitly say which team he thought was the better one. No need for any bulletin board material for a potential opponent. That said, he seemed to imply that Montreal was the stronger group.
“There are certain aspects of the Montreal running game that are exceptional. Johnson is giving them the best of both worlds. I know him well. I saw him play high school ball in Arizona. He’s not that good of a deep passer. You couldn’t compare him with Vince Ferragamo but he’s an excellent short passer. He knows the Canadian game and he gets rid of the ball quickly.”
“The type of defense against the short pass makes some room for the running game,” Kush concluded. David Overstreet had a terrific game against Ottawa in their season finale. One thing about him though was his propensity to put the ball on the ground. In 1981, he fumbled the ball 16 times, losing it on 12 occasions.
Kush did like J. C. Watts’ ability to scramble and unravel defenses with his legs. “Watts has that great mobility and he can stretch defenses out because of his ability to get outside. That makes a lot of room for him to throw down the middle. I also think that Sam Platt is an excellent athlete.”
Ottawa’s six-man defensive backfield intrigued Kush, but injuries forced the Rough Riders to go to a more conventional defensive system. Kush didn’t think that would bode well for the Riders.
“Speaking from my point of view, when you make changes, it creates problems. I feel one of the reasons we’ve been strong defensively was because we weren’t forced into many changes. Changes break continuity. It reduces play recognition. Changes can often lead to chaos.”
The Alouettes were expected to maintain their ‘continuity’ by using the same lineup that hammered the Riders the week before. Despite their nagging injuries, James Scott and Tom Cousineau were now both expected to play. Jim Eddy was happy with the way his team played the previous week, but he also expected a tougher fight back in Ottawa.
“We played our best ball of the season last week against Ottawa. But I realize we’ll be playing a much different Ottawa team this Sunday. Since Ottawa had second place locked up and we were fighting for a playoff spot, the motivational factor was all on our side.”
For their game this coming Sunday, the Alouettes were three point favourites against the Rough Riders.
For Ken Johnson, leaving Calgary was the best thing for his career. The same was true for another former Stampeder. Kelvin Kirk had been cut from the Stamps during training camp back in June. After clearing waivers, the 28-year-old Kirk was scooped up by the Rough Riders and he enjoyed a great season.
“I was pretty disappointed when I was cut by Calgary,” Kirk said. “I had hurt my thumb in training camp and I wasn’t catching the ball well. That was the reason why Calgary let me go.” In the regular season, Kirk averaged just under 22 yards per pass reception, catching a career high of 38 passes for 804 yards. He also excelled as a punt and kickoff returner and even played in the defensive secondary when he was needed.
George Brancato couldn’t contain his enthusiasm when asked to talk about his speedy wideout. “I knew he was a good football player, but I didn’t think he was that good. He has done everything we’ve asked from him. He has had a super season.”
On the Friday night before the first round playoff game, Kirk was named as the Rough Riders’ Most Valuable Player in a vote by the local media who covered the team. Tony Gabriel was named as the Riders’ MVP by his teammates. Greg Marshall was named as the club’s outstanding lineman by the players.
One other thing happened on Saturday, the eve of the game that would decide which team would move on to be the fodder for the first-place Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Eastern final. J. C. Watts invited his former Oklahoma Sooners’ teammates Keith Gary and David Overstreet to his home for a pre-game dinner. Everything would change, of course, once the teams took the field, but, at least, there was a moment of camaraderie between former friends to keep things light until the battle was joined.
Not much left but anticipation of what may be. The weather forecast for game time on Sunday was not great. Rain and snow flurries were expected for Sunday. The high temperature would be 4 degrees Celsius. It would not be a comfortable day to play football.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 8
The weather WAS ugly. The day was cold, rainy and miserable. And, for the Ottawa Rough Riders, that meant the conditions were close to perfect. For the Alouettes, that was not a good thing. Joe Zuger, the Tiger-Cats general manager, was in the building, and he saw the game perhaps a little wistfully.
Zuger had been a long-time Tiger-Cat, first as a player, a defensive back and later, a quarterback. His Hamilton teams were always a CFL force in the 1960s. He talked about those days, back when the Ottawa Rough Riders had Russ Jackson as their signal caller and he had speed and hands on the outside to which to throw.
“The great equalizer, a field like that. Remember when Ottawa had (Margene) Adkins, (Vic) Washington, (Whit) Tucker and those guys,” Zuger told a few reporters who met with him before the game. “Bad field conditions were part of the reason why we could beat them.” After the game, Zuger chuckled to the same reporters, “Just like the old days. A battle in the mud.”
Indeed, it was a battle in the mud. And the weather and field conditions were of great help to the slower team, the Rough Riders. That didn’t mean that the game was easy. It was, in all actuality, a game that went right down to the very last few plays. But that was part of what made the game so great. It was one of the greatest games people had seen in Ottawa in a long time.
The game was a battle, back and forth, without ever being clear as to who was in control of it. Without a doubt, the mucky field played a huge role in the way the game was played and the decisions that the teams made. But it was something that both teams had to deal with and as the game went on, the integrity of the footing for every player got worse and worse.
The Rough Riders were the first team to score. After moving the ball efficiently down the field, J. C. Watts scrambled for an 18-yard run to take it down to the Montreal 1. Sam Platt ran it over the goal line on the subsequent play and with the Gerry Organ extra point, it was 7-0 almost ten minutes into the game.
David Overstreet did not have a great game. He carried the ball 16 times and picked up only 32 yards on the day. But on the Montreal possession after Ottawa’s opening score, Overstreet capped off the Alouette drive with a one-yard run to paydirt of his own. The Don Sweet conversion tied the game right before the first quarter came to a close.
Ottawa couldn’t make anything happen on their next possession and when Montreal got the ball back, they moved it down to the Riders’ 37-yard line. From there, Ken Johnson threw a little hitch pass to Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson, who broke a Billy Hardee tackle attempt and slogged his way down the sideline all the way for a score. It was 14-7 for the Als and things were looking grim for the home side.
Don Sweet kicked a single with just over two minutes remaining in the first half to make it 15-7. Ottawa got the ball back and made it far enough to allow Organ to kick a 37-yard field goal from what was described by at least one onlooker as a ‘pool of mud’ to bring the Rough Riders within five points as the teams went into their respective locker rooms.
Only one point was scored in the third quarter. Don Sweet missed a field goal try from 33 yards and his team took a 16-10 lead heading into the final stanza. J. C. Watts was the leading rusher in the game for either team and had looked much better in this game than he did back at Olympic Stadium the week before. In this one he carried the ball for 51 yards on just nine carries, but his last one finished his day off earlier than he would have liked.
The night before the game, Watts hosted a little dinner for his former Oklahoma teammates Keith Gary and David Overstreet. Word was that everyone had a nice time. During the game, Gary had a difficult time getting past Pat Staub but when he did, he wasn’t shy enough to take a shot at his old pal Watts. He never hurt him though.
Watts showed a really gritty side in this game though. He was putting his head down and running through tackles. It was that way, until early in the fourth quarter. The score was still 16-10 and Watts wanted to get his team back in the game, if not give them a lead. The Riders had the ball deep in Montreal territory as Watts was running hard when he met up with Als’ defensive back Dave Dumars at the two-yard line.
“We needed a touchdown badly and I dropped my shoulder to run over him,” Watts told reporters after the game. “But Dumars got a little lower than me and I got hit right in the middle of my helmet. I remember staggering up, then falling on the way to the huddle. I ran one play and from that point on, everything was fuzzy.”
Watts was done for the day. Gerry Organ kicked a ten-yard field goal to make it a three-point game at 16-13. The doctors told George Brancato that Watts should not go back into the game. That left the result in the hands of Ottawa’s back-up quarterback, Kevin Starkey. The Lansdowne Park faithful would have to continue chewing on their fingernails, if they had any left.
The next time Ottawa got the ball, Starkey would be put to the test. And he would pass it. He moved the ball around well and finished off the drive with a 35-yard touchdown pass over Dumars to Tony Gabriel to put his Riders ahead 20-16. The only problem for the team and their fans was that there were still more than ten minutes left in the game. There was still a lot of time for the talented Montreal offense to flex their muscles.
But Ottawa’s defense and the messy field conditions would contributed to them giving the Alouettes every bit of fight they could the rest of the way. Montreal certainly had their opportunities, but they could not capitalize.
On one occasion, Montreal had the ball on the Ottawa 21-yard line with just under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. It was third down and inches to go. Ken Johnson looked to the sideline for the signal. Jim Eddy waved at him, which, to Eddy, meant quarterback sneak. Johnson, however, thought Eddy was telling him to call his own play. He gave the ball to the usually reliable David Overstreet.
A lane opened up and Overstreet went toward it. But Ottawa’s defensive tackle Mike Peerman was the guy who cleared that lane so that linebacker John Glassford could head into that gap and tackle Overstreet for a two-yard loss and end the Als’ threat. Ottawa got the ball back but couldn’t do anything with it. After a time count violation and a poor punt, Montreal had the ball again on the Ottawa 31-yard line and 1:12 still on the clock.
They advanced to the Ottawa nine-yard line. This time it was third down and four yards to go. There were 36 seconds still left in the game. The Alouettes needed a touchdown to win the game and they were going to go for it on this play. The call was I-Right, Regular Screen Left, 49.
The play was designed to send David Overstreet to the left behind an armada of blockers. Ideally, he was to get a screen pass and rumble the rest of the way. If he was covered, Johnson would look over the middle where slotback Chuck McMann would curl just inside the goal line. The way Ottawa’s defense saw that play develop, many of their men went to Overstreet on the side. That left McMann one-on-one with linebacker Rick Sowieta.
A receiver alone with a linebacker is supposed to be a mismatch in favour of the offense almost all the time.
Johnson read Ottawa’s formation and when they had a good chunk of their players move over toward Overstreet, he tossed the ball toward what he saw as an open McMann. It was the only pass thrown his way the entire game. As the ball was in the air, Johnson was sensing a touchdown. He was sensing victory. He was thinking about a trip to Hamilton for the Eastern final.
“I felt a real moment of elation,” Johnson told reporters after the game. “I was sure the ball was complete. We had them man on man and I thought we had a score.” The ball got to McMann and hit him in the hands. At the same time as the ball arrived, so did Sowieta. And Sowieta was joined by defensive back Larry Brune so that McMann never really had the chance to close his hands on the ball.
But as the three men were falling to the ground, the ball still hung there. Alas, it went just beyond McMann’s hand and fell into the muck. The pass was incomplete. The crisis, for the Riders and their fans, was averted. Montreal was not going to Hamilton. They were going home. It was Ottawa that was moving on. The final score was 20-16.
The most surprised man in the stadium may have been the Riders’ coach, George Brancato. But the man who was grilled by the press after this one was over was Chuck McMann. McMann sat in the visitors’ locker room at Lansdowne Park after the game and answered the questions from what must have seemed like wave after wave of the reporters there.
Could you have caught the ball? “As soon as it touched my hands, I was hit. It was a tough play,” McMann answered.
Would you have had a better chance if there had been other passes thrown to you in the game? “Who knows?”
Are you the goat? “One play doesn’t make a football game. It’s the same as one play early in the game.”
Question after question, McMann sat in there and listened and answered each one.
Over in the Ottawa room, Sowieta explained how he saw that decisive play unfold. “He (McMann) went down and in. I had him right until he came in and got a stop on me. Fortunately, Brune came up and hit him as the ball arrived. If not, it would have been six points and ‘nightmare city’.”
Brancato was asked if he was confident that his team would be able to hold on the lead and come out on top as the game was winding down. “No I was not confident. I thought they were going to score both times,” Brancato told the press. “But the line penetrated the first time forcing Overstreet to go sideways and not off tackle. And Glassford made a hell of a play.”
“It was a street fight and that was the only way we could win,” Brancato said.
Over in the Montreal room, Jim Eddy wasn’t going to use the poor field to make any excuses. “The field was a factor but the most important aspect of the game was our inability to convert good opportunities. That’s a sign that we aren’t mature yet as a football team. Championship teams don’t make those kinds of mistakes and it’s why Ottawa won. They did something with their chances.”
Als’ stellar linebacker Tom Cousineau was asked about the field and he refused to use it as an excuse as well. “We could use the field as an excuse but it was the same for both teams. Give the credit to Ottawa. They came from behind to win and they made the plays when they had to.”
Indeed, the Rough Riders did make the plays when they had to. The team and their fans would have to wait until the following week to see how much gas they had left in the tank as they were to face Joe Zuger’s and Frank Kush’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Eastern final game.
In the west, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers went into their semi-final game against the B. C. Lions as a 7-point favourite. The Bombers had destroyed the Leos 49-22 and 46-10 in their two meetings in 1981. But it was the Lions who strolled into enemy territory and came out with a 15-11 victory.
Winnipeg got a touchdown in the first quarter, but that was their only major. The Lions were the ones who made the proper adjustments and then, Joe Paopao played a steady game the rest of the way. He threw a second quarter touchdown pass to Tyron Gray. Lui Passaglia kicked a pair of field goals, a couple of singles and had the extra point on the Gray score.
The Lions’ reward for upsetting the Bombers was a meeting with the Edmonton Eskimos at what would be a sold out Commonwealth Stadium the following Sunday.
So a pair of underdogs came from behind to advance to their respective division finals. Both would face vastly superior clubs the following week. Would either live to play another day? We would all come to know seven nights down the road.
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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa. Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese, here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.