Als are on top, ‘but I don’t want to get too excited,’ Higgins says

TORONTO — The Alouettes aren’t out of the woods yet. While they’ve won six of their last seven games and technically sit first in the East Division — tied with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but holding the tiebreaker if necessary — they’ve yet to secure a playoff berth.

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Montreal was in a virtual must-win situation this weekend and defeated the Toronto Argonauts 20-12 on Saturday, improving its record to 7-8 with three games remaining — including two more on the road, Friday at Ottawa and the season-ending match at Hamilton. The Als entertain the Argos in between.

Considering the Als launched their season with seven defeats in eight games, the transformation into a respectable team has been staggering. At that juncture, following close defeats at Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, Montreal head coach Tom Higgins figured his club required an 8-2 record to qualify for post-season play. The Als are 6-1 since then — all since Jonathan Crompton became the team’s starting quarterback.

“When the season progressed, we controlled our own destiny. We did that by winning tonight. We’re sitting in first. People have to chase us. That’s a nice feeling, but I don’t want to get too excited,” Higgins said.

“As silly as it seems, it was expected. We can do this,” he continued. “There was a confidence that occurred between Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. We can do this if we apply ourselves. We have talent. But we still can’t make any mistakes.”

When the history’s written on this season, it will be noted management could have panicked when the Als were 1-7. It would have been easy at that time to start making sweeping personnel changes and to start the rebuilding process for 2015. Instead, general manager Jim Popp hired Jeff Garcia and Turk Schonert as offensive consultants, the two eventually being promoted to quarterbacks and receivers coach, respectively.

And, of course, after trying Troy Smith for six games, and then Alex Brink, albeit briefly, Higgins and his offensive assistants gave Crompton an opportunity — one that he has seized.

“Patience, caring, trust. All of those things start to pay dividends,” Higgins said. “Early in the season, some players were under the illusion this was just a season to throw away because we’re going to make all these changes and get ready for next year. Under no uncertain terms, that’s unacceptable to think that, to believe that.

“They hung in there with us. By not panicking and having the same message, all of a sudden the light came on. We made some changes at the right time, and here we are — one game away from being 8-8. People would have said you’re crazy. We’re starting to learn how to win, on the road.”

The Als under Crompton remain a work in progress offensively. The first-year starter has yet to dazzle anyone with his statistics; he passed for 219 yards and one touchdown against Toronto. But Crompton wins games and has come to realize that if he puts the ball close to his tall receivers, Duron Carter, S.J. Green and Brandon London will make the plays, especially if they get man coverage against smaller defensive backs.

“It wasn’t one of (Crompton’s) better outings,” Higgins said. “He turned the ball over when he ran. Some passes should have been easier to complete. But there were signs of brilliance again. You take that with a young quarterback.

“He’s now 6-1. That’s pretty darned good. And he’ll continue to get better.”

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