Ray gains redemption, leads Argos to CFL East semifinal

TORONTO - Chad Owens couldn't have picked a better time to score his first punt return TD of the season.

TORONTO – Chad Owens couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first punt return TD of the season.

Owens’s 59-yard punt return TD highlighted a record 31-point second quarter and led the Toronto Argonauts past the Edmonton Eskimos 42-26 in the East Division semifinal Sunday. Owens’ first return touchdown since October 2011 broke a 7-7 tie and provided a huge momentum shift in the contest.

“The defence fed off it, the offence started rolling,” Owens said. “The way the game was going we needed to do something and that’s the great thing about specials, we can be the eraser, we can be the cleanup crew if things aren’t going well.

“We can come out and make a play that can spark everybody and that’s what happened.”

Special teams and defence anchored the outburst — the most points scored in one quarter by one team in CFL playoff history — to delight of the Rogers Centre gathering of 25,792 with the roof closed due to the installation of camera rigging for the Grey Cup game Nov. 25.

Ricky Ray threw two touchdown passes and ran for another in the second for his first win in three games against his former team. Ray helped convert two Edmonton turnovers into 14 points in the quarter.

Ray’s 11-yard TD pass to Chad Kackert at 2:00 came after Toronto successfully challenged an end-zone interception by Edmonton’s Joe Burnett, which was overturned. That allowed the Argos to maintain possession after initially getting the ball when Ronald Flemons recovered former Argo Cory Boyd’s fumble at the Eskimos’ 27-yard line.

Marcus Ball’s 53-yard interception return to the Edmonton 29-yard line set up Ray’s 11-yard scoring strike to Maurice Mann at 9:06. Ray completed the onslaught with a seven-yard TD run at 14:59 that gave Toronto a commanding 31-7 half-time lead.

Argos head coach Scott Milanovich, who received a Gatorade shower from his players following his first playoff win, said Flemons’ fumble recovery was a turning point in the game but that Owens delivered the key play.

“The momentum started with that fumble . . . and Chad, it felt like, sent it over the top,” Milanovich said. “The sideline got electric after that.

“I think guys really started to feel good about the game.”

Ray certainly did.

“That was huge,” he said of Owens’ touchdown. “That was our first all year . . . and to get it in a game like this was a huge spark.

“He just grabbed the momentum for us.”

While happy to get the win, Milanovich didn’t feel it was deserving of a post-game shower.

“I said, ‘This isn’t the Grey Cup. This is one playoff win, it’s one of three steps we hope to take,”’ he said. “I wasn’t seriously upset but I’d like us to act like we’ve been there before even though we haven’t, I guess.”

Toronto’s second-quarter fireworks effectively quashed an impressive start to the contest by Edmonton, which outrushed Toronto 99-0 in the first. Joseph’s 11-yard TD pass to Cary Koch at 9:06 opened the scoring and capped a smart nine-play, 91-yard drive. It also marked the first time this season the Eskimos had scored a TD on their opening possession.

But Milanovich credited Ray with keeping the Argos on an even keel despite Edmonton’s early dominance.

“We couldn’t have started worse than we did,” he said. “That’s why it’s good to have a veteran quarterback that’s been in that situation and isn’t going to get rattled.

“Our defence stepped it up after that first drive and kept giving us the ball back and we had good field position basically from towards the end of the first quarter and throughout the second and were able to take advantage of it.”

Eskimos coach Kavis Reed said his team was its own worst enemy.

“It’s painful that we essentially gave up 31 points on our mistakes, on not tackling defensively,” he said. “We did not tackle very well.

“Special teams did not play very well in the second quarter. When you get down with a good football team with a lot at stake, it’s going to be hard to dig yourself out of it.”

The Eskimos stunned the CFL last December by dealing Ray, a two-time Grey Cup champion, to Toronto for journeyman quarterback Steven Jyles, Canadian kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first-round pick. The 10-year CFL veteran finished 23-of-30 passing for 239 yards in finally beating his former team.

“I don’t have any hard feelings,” he said. “Just losing to them twice in the regular season and not having that first win against your former team makes this one feel so much better.

“It’s kind of like getting a monkey off our back and being a playoff game makes it a little bit more special.”

Edmonton played without linebacker J.C. Sherritt. A finalist for the CFL’s top defensive player award after registering a league-record 130 tackles, Sherritt watched wearing a walking boot on his right foot.

The lopsided loss capped a season to forget for Edmonton, which entered the playoffs having lost three straight and eight of its last 10 regular-season games for a 7-11 record overall. And last weekend the club fired general manager Eric Tillman, who had been under tremendous fire in Alberta for trading Ray.

Joseph struggled in his first playoff game since leading Saskatchewan to victory in the 2007 Grey Cup game in Toronto and was replaced by youngster Matt Nichols to start the second half.

However, Joseph returned late in the third. Nichols guided Edmonton to a field goal on its first possession of the half but was carted off with a dislocated left ankle on the second, finishing 3-of-9 passing for 50 yards.

Joseph had a 16-yard TD run before finding Fred Stamps on the two-point convert at 11:08 of the fourth. He then hit Nate Coehoorn with a 39-yard touchdown pass and two-point convert to Cary Koch at 14:37 to finish 12-of-25 passing for 192 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

Toronto travels to Olympic Stadium in Montreal for the East final next Sunday, with the winner advancing to the Grey Cup at Rogers Centre. The Alouettes won the season series 2-1 but the Argos’ lone victory was a 23-20 decision at Molson Stadium on July 27.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Milanovich, who spent five seasons as an assistant on Montreal head coach Marc Trestman’s staff before coming to Toronto.

“They’ll be confident, they play well in that stadium, they’re rested and they too have a great quarterback,” he said. “Certainly we can’t get off to the same kind of start as we did tonight.

“This is not going to be me versus Marc or Anthony (Alouettes’ starter Anthony Calvillo) versus Ricky,” Milanovich said. “It’s going to be two football teams, it’s going to be a hard-fought, tough battle for 60 minutes.

“I think our guys are up to the challenge.”

Kackert finished with two touchdowns for Toronto. Swayze Waters added five converts, two field goals and a single.

Koch had Edmonton’s other touchdown. Shaw added a convert and field goal.

Notes: A moment of silence to commemorate Remembrance Day was part of a classy pre-game ceremony that also featured former Blue Jays star Roberto Alomar performing the opening kickoff. … The Eskimos and Argonauts were first and second in creating turnovers during the regular season, forcing 49 and 43 takeaways, respectively. … Three of Edmonton’s losses this season were by just one point.