The Montreal Alouettes' quarterback carousel has taken a promising turn with 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith.
The former Ohio State star who only joined the Alouettes in August threw three touchdown passes in his first CFL start as Montreal downed the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 36-5 to tighten the race for playoff positions on Sunday afternoon.
"It's been cool," Smith said of his quick adaptation to 12-man football. "My teammates have helped me out tremendously.
"The adaptation is definitely still going on. I'm trying day in and day out to get things down pat. It's been fun."
The team announced this week that CFL all-time passing leader Anthony Calvillo, who has been out since August with a concussion, will not return this season. That made finding a starter to finish out the campaign and take Montreal into the playoffs has been a priority.
Tanner Marsh had a good stretch but then faltered, as did Josh Neiswander.
Now it is Smith's turn, and he passed the first test by completing 17 of 35 passes for 247 yards, three TDs and no interceptions.
"He did a great job," said coach Jim Popp. "I don't know if he was nervous.
"We didn't run everything right. It's great to be able to take what we did today and improve on it. We know there's a lot of upside to what we're doing. We were moving the ball and scoring and we got over that 30-point mark like we said we needed to do."
S.J. Green, with two, and Arland Bruce were on the receiving end of TD throws, while Tyrell Sutton ran one in. Sean Whyte had two field goals as Montreal won for the third time in four games.
The third-place Alouettes (7-9) are hoping to overtake Hamilton (8-8) for second place in the East Division and the right to play host to a playoff game. The teams meet again on Saturday in Guelph, Ont., with the winner taking the season series between the two clubs.
The Montreal defence held CFL offensive player of the week C.J. Gable to no yards on three carries and only 39 yards on six catches. It also limited Henry Burris to 106 passing yards before he was replaced by Dan LeFevour late in the third quarter.
Coach Kent Austin didn't know what to make of a team that was coming off winning its season series with first-place Toronto, who they can still catch for first place. They were anaemic on attack, and ruined a handful of positive plays with penalties.
"Just generally speaking, for whatever reason, we weren't ready to play and they were," said Austin. "They brought the game to us.
"They were more physical than us. They just whipped us in all three areas of the game. We weren't disciplined. We had too many penalties. I've got to figure out why we weren't ready to play like we have been the last couple of weeks. I've got to get to the bottom of it. I've got to get my team better prepared."
The Ticats' only scoring came from a Luca Congi field goal and a safety.
"We executed our defence," said Montreal linebacker Shea Emry. "We've had lots of games where we put that many points up and we let teams slip back in.
"There were times we almost did that, but then we didn't let them capitalize on those penalties or plays."
Smith has seen mostly spot duty since he signed, but after Neiswander struggled in a loss to Winnipeg last week, Popp decided to give the former Baltimore Raven and San Francisco 49er a start.
Smith, the fourth Alouette quarterback to start a game this season, didn't disappoint as he threw for 207 yards and three TDs in the first half as Montreal opened a 31-3 lead.
In the opening quarter, he hit Green for TDs of 64 and two yards. With his 11th and 12th of the season, Green reached a career high in TD catches in a season and passed the 1,000-yard mark for a third straight year.
After Congi's 26-yard field goal to open the second quarter, Sutton scored on a 19-yard run off tackle at 5:46.
Whyte added a 32-yard boot after a 40-yard punt return by Bo Bowling at 12:21 and Smith hit Bruce with a sideline pass for a 26-yard score just ahead of halftime.
Montreal slowed play down after the intermission, adding a field goal, while each team conceded a safety.
Smith admitted he was a nervous at the start. His first two possessions were two-and-outs.
But then he hit Bowling with a 12-yard pass and on the next play found Green wide open for a TD.
He also showed he could use his feet, both to buy time for a pass while scrambling or to gain 16 yards on three rushes.
"To start off, I was anxious," he said. "Some of my throws were not normal throws. The first completion to Bo Bowling was huge. Sometimes you just need something like that to get you going."