TORONTO — It has been quite a stretch run for Ricky Ray.
The Toronto quarterback has been outstanding his last four starts, a key reason why the Argonauts will face the Calgary Stampeders in the 100th Grey Cup on Sunday night at Rogers Centre.
The 33-year-old Ray has completed 95-of-130 passes (73%) over that span for 1,326 yards. More importantly, he has thrown 11 touchdown strikes against just one interception since suffering a knee injury versus Montreal on Sept. 23 that forced him to miss three straight starts.
The Argos had high expectations of Ray when they acquired him in the blockbuster deal last December with the Edmonton Eskimos. Not only did Toronto acquire a nine-year CFL veteran, but they got a two-time Grey Cup champion with a reputation for being a pinpoint passer.
While the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Ray struggled initially to become acclimated with rookie head coach Scott Milanovich’s offence, he did show a deft passing touch this season. Ray’s 68.6% passing completion was tops among league starters this season and he surpassed the 4,000-yard passing plateau for the seventh time in his CFL career.
But Ray has been at his best since returning from his knee injury Oct. 19. He has looked very comfortable under centre and surpassed the 300-yard passing plateau in three of his last four starts, including a 399-yard performance in Toronto’s 27-20 road win over Montreal in last weekend’s East Division final at Olympic Stadium.
Toronto has fallen behind in both of its playoff games this year but been buoyed by the even-keel, no-panic approach of its quarterback who has twice successfully rallied his team from 10-0 deficits to post-season victories.
Ray’s deft passing touch is a crucial element of a Toronto offence that relies heavily on the aerial game. The Argos were third overall in passing this season (285 yards per game) and last in rushing (89.6 yards per game).
It’s also no accident that with Ray under centre, Toronto’s Chad Owens was the CFL’s top receiver this season with 94 catches for 1,328 yards and six TDs. The Flyin’ Hawaiian — named the CFL’s outstanding player Thursday night — seems to step up into another gear with Ray at the controls, registering eight catches for 52 yards and no TDs in the three games Ray missed with his knee injury.
On Sunday, by comparison, Owens had 11 receptions for a club playoff-record 207 yards against Montreal.
An effective Ray is also a big boost to Toronto’s ground attack because he draws attention away from running back Chad Kackert. And that has made Kackert a dangerous weapon in the playoffs for the Argos.
The speedy running back had 88 yards rushing and a TD on 15 carries in Toronto’s 42-26 East Division semi-final win over Edmonton before adding 139 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against Montreal. The five-foot-nine, 198-pound Kackert could be the Argos’ X-factor against Calgary.
Calgary counters with a pretty good offensive punch of its own, finishing tied with Montreal for TDs (51 each) and second overall in scoring (29.7 points per game). Quarterback Kevin Glenn is a veteran and guided the Stampeders to nine regular-season wins after starter Drew Tate’s shoulder injury, then led the club past B.C. in the West Division final after Tate was diagnosed with a broken forearm.
Glenn accumulated more passing yards (4,220 to 4,059) and TDs (25 to 20) than Ray, but also had more interceptions (16 to 11). Calgary also boasted the better ground attack, anchored by CFL rushing leader Jon Cornish — the league’s top Canadian this yet. Slotback Nik Lewis added a league-high 100 catches.
But Glenn is a very streaky player capable of great highs and the lowest of lows whereas Ray has been very consistent of late. Glenn is also appearing in his first Grey Cup game while Ray will be in his third and was the MVP of Edmonton’s 38-35 overtime win over Montreal in the ’05 CFL championship.
Toronto not only swept this year’s season series with Calgary 2-0 but has won its last five head-to-head meetings. In both games this year, the Argos defence held Cornish under 100 yards rushing.
In the playoffs, Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones — who held that position last year with Calgary — has been a master of making adjustments on the fly to give Ray and Co. time to get on track. And Toronto’s offence has been able to, scoring a CFL-record 31 points in the second quarter against Edmonton before taking control of the conference final by outscoring Montreal 14-0 in the third to erase a 17-10 deficit.
Calgary is a slight two-point favourite in the game, surprising given the Argos’ record against the Stampeders and their having home-field advantage. But CFL teams are 6-6 overall as the Grey Cup host.
There’s something about this Toronto team that creates the belief it’s one of destiny, that the stars have all aligned this year for the CFL team with the most Grey Cup titles to add to its impressive total at home on the 100th anniversary of the iconic game.
If Toronto falls behind early, it will have the confidence to follow the lead of its quiet, unassuming offensive leader like it has the previous two weeks. And storming out to the lead in a one-game, winner-take-all affair will only serve to buoy the Argos’ confidence, especially with a rabid Rogers Centre gathering exceeding 50,000 spectators.
Prediction — Toronto by three points.