Alouettes linebacker Sankey doesn't see his team as underdog to Toronto in East final

Darnell Sankey has been here before.

Sankey and the Montreal Alouettes visit the Toronto Argonauts in the East Division final Saturday. The home team is the heavy favourite after sweeping the season series 3-0 and registering a CFL record-tying 16 regular-season wins.

But in May, Sankey was a member of an Arlington Renegades team that upset the D.C. Defenders 35-26 in the XFL final. Arlington finished the regular season with a 4-6 record compared to 9-1 for the Defenders.

"I guess looking from the outside in, it could look like we're an underdog but we don't believe that," Sankey said. "We're not concerned about outside noise because when it comes down to it and we're on the field, its 12 against 12 and it's go time.

"All of the records and analytics, none of that means anything. It's about who brings it that day."

Montreal (11-7) and Toronto (16-2) last met Sept. 15 when the Argos clinched first in the East with a 23-20 road win. Since then, the Alouettes have won six straight, including a 27-12 decision over Hamilton in last weekend's East Division semifinal as the Als' defence held the Tiger-Cats to four field goals.

Sankey had eight tackles, two sacks and an interception in that contest.

Sankey signed with Montreal on Sept. 11 and played against Toronto, registering five tackles. In six regular-reason contests, the six-foot-two, 250-pound Sankey recorded 31 tackles, a sack, an interception and two forced fumbles.

The 28-year-old joined the Renegades following two very productive seasons in Canada. The San Jose native was the CFL's leading tackler with Calgary (98 in '21) and Saskatchewan (122 in '22) before signing with Arlington shortly after hitting CFL free agency.

"Darnell lives and breathes football," said Kenny Kim of Summit Athletes, Sankey's Florida-based agent. "He won an XFL championship ring earlier this year and is looking to re-cement his status in the CFL while helping Montreal chase a Grey Cup."

Predictably, Sankey's transition back to the CFL was seamless because of his prior experience here.

"I think that (CFL experience) was why coach Thorpe (defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe) trusted me to play so quickly," Sankey said. "Obviously you have to think about the field being a bit bigger and it's 12-on-12 instead of 11-on-11 but it took, maybe, a practice or two get familiarized again."

Sankey and Co. will face a Toronto offence led by quarterback Chad Kelly, the East Division's outstanding player nominee and a CFL all-star. Kelly, the nephew of former Buffalo Bills star Jim Kelly, completed 270-of-394 passes (68.5 per cent) for 4,244 yards with 19 TDs and 15 interceptions while rushing for 248 yards and eight touchdowns.

Toronto was second overall in offensive points (29.3 per game), offensive TDs (56) and net yards (377.8). The Argos were tops in average yards per play (7.34) while allowing a league-low 19 sacks.

"He's a gunslinger," Sankey said of Kelly. "He likes to throw the ball, he has a great arm, he can escape the pocket when necessary and he's not afraid of contact.

"Those are all great qualities for a quarterback. I mean, he's doing something right, he was 15-1."

But Sankey remains confident about Montreal's defensive gameplan.

"I think we just have to play a complete game," he said. "They have many weapons they like to use, they like to spread the ball around and their run game complements their pass game.

"But I think if we go there and execute the gameplan, don't miss tackles and just hunt for the ball and create destruction and turnovers, that would be in our favour."

The two teams will play before the largest crowd ever at BMO Field since Toronto moved there in 2016. As of Friday, 25,000 tickets had been sold.

"That's great but we'll play in front of no people," Sankey said. "I'm sure they'll have a lot more fans than us because we're at their home stadium . . . but sold out or not, we still have to execute and do our thing."

Toronto will attempt to secure a second straight Grey Cup berth after edging Winnipeg 24-23 last season. Montreal hasn't been to the big game since 2010, when it won the second of two straight CFL titles.

Sankey said while Montreal players know what they're playing, none are looking past Toronto.

"Of course, you're thinking about playing in the Grey Cup, we're not ignorant of that," he said. "But it's in the back of your mind because, first and foremost, we've got a game to play against a great Toronto team.

"All of the focus is on Saturday."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press