The last time the Hamilton Tiger-Cats won three straight games was 2015, when they won five straight on their way to a 7-2 start. That team was the peak of the Kent Austin / Zach Collaros era, a veritable offensive juggernaut that was also stout defensively while playing excellent special teams. They talked constantly about playing “complimentary football.”
Over the previous two games, the 2018 Ticats had shown some of those same traits: an efficient Jeremiah Masoli leading a seemingly unstoppable offence, a swashbuckling defence playing aggressively with strong kicking and coverage units. Putting all phases of the game together is what allows a team to string together wins.
But they aren’t there yet, clearly.
Thursday night’s performance in Saskatchewan wasn’t a complete regression, the giant two-steps back that have accompanied signs of progress during the last decade or so of Ticat football. But it was enough of an unraveling to cost Hamilton a road win and to put some of the old questions about this team back on the table.
Let’s start with coaching. June Jones has been lauded, and rightly so, for his old school offensive schemes that somehow seem refreshed in the CFL. His willingness to use extra offensive linemen in six and seven-man protections to buy time for Masoli had the added benefit of stimulating the running game while a fleet set of receivers made the passing game work, even with diminished numbers.
But Riders head coach and defensive coordinator Chris Jones found a way to thwart the Ticat attack: say what you will about his unorthodox personnel management decisions but the man can flat out coach. The Riders brought relentless pressure, stymied the Hamilton run game, generated a key turnover and deployed an unusual match up scheme that saw Duron Carter, the receiver turned newbie DB, following receiver Terrence Toliver around the field.
Masoli got his ninth straight 300-yard passing game-tying Sam Etcheverry and (somewhat deliciously) Austin – but it came with a 54 per cent completion percentage and no offensive touchdowns. And for the second time in four games, Masoli had the game in his hands as the clock wound down and couldn’t find a way to get it done. Again, he’s been generally good in the clutch during his career but hasn’t found the magic so far this season.
The other tight loss came against Calgary, another team with a creative defensive coordinator and the personnel to execute. And if there’s a larger concern, then this is it: that DeVone Claybrooks and now Jones have established a blueprint to put the clamps on the CFL version of the run-and-shoot. The Ticats aren’t catching teams by surprise anymore and the smart coaches are catching up.
Defensively, the Ticats did a good job containing whatever that was the Riders were doing on offence with a two-quarterback system that features essentially the same quarterback in two different bodies with two different passports. Most days, limiting a team to 12 first downs, under 300 yards of total offence and controlling the ball for almost 33 minutes will get the job done.
But Hamilton generated just one turnover and while it was a touchdown-saving doozy, they are still among the worst in the league in takeaways: the offence still hasn’t started a drive in enemy territory through four games and they have zero points off turnovers.
That is not a compliment and it isn’t complimentary football, either. And if we’re going to impugn Masoli for his lack of late-game heroics, it should be mentioned that the defence couldn’t protect a slim lead when it mattered and allowed former Ticat Marcus Thigpen to waltz into the end zone untouched for the winning score.
During that 7-2 start in 2015, the Ticats felt more-or-less invincible, the offensive execution and defensive excellence a foregone conclusion. These Ticats don’t have that aura, at least not yet, and until they do games like this – wins that dissolve inexplicably into losses – will always be on the table.