It’s not exactly Halley’s Comet, a crop circle or anything nearly as rare, so you don’t want to make too much of this back-to-back stuff.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders do it every year with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and later this season the Hamilton Tiger-Cats themselves will play the Toronto Argonauts two games in a row for the 10th time in the last 14 years.
But June Jones has never faced this before; there’s been a bye week wedged between the last time Hamilton and Saskatchewan met (18-13, Riders) on the prairies and Thursday night’s rematch here; and one Jones-ian head coach (June) is an offensive legend while the other (Chris) is a defensive one. Lots of room for counter-thinking and counter-counter-thinking there.
Plus, there’s a couple of important things on the line, as there usually are in a CFL match; a league record for consecutive 300-yard passing games and an early-season winning (3-2) record for the victors versus a losing (2-3) mark for the vanquished.
It would be a High Five indeed should the Cats prevail and exit their gauntlet through the Western conference above .500. Spot them that two months ago and they immediately answer, “Fine, let’s not even play the games.”
Thursday, the Ticats need to advance deeper into reclaiming the home field advantage they once wielded like a machete. They beat Winnipeg in the home opener, now face an offensively-challenged bunch they should have beaten on the road, then follow up at Tim Hortons Field next Saturday against Ottawa, their first eastern conference opponent of 2018.
As Jones, the June one, says, you have to win at home. Everyone else says it too.
To do that, Jeremiah Masoli may not need to break the nine-game 300-plus record he currently shares with his former head coach Kent Austin and the legendary Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry, but his offence is going to have to score touchdowns instead of the field goals they settled for out on the steppes.
“We’re good at moving the ball, we just have to score in the red zone, ” running back John White says, and he is not even close to being wrong.
To do that White, who last week played his first game since tearing his ACL with the Edmonton Eskimos last June, likely has to be more of a factor in this one.
A strong running game got the Ticats well-launched early in the first Rider game then it disappeared as if Penn and Teller suddenly showed up.
A more consistent run game would give the Chris Jones’ variety pack of where-the-heck-did-that-rush-come-from pause for thought, and so would stronger handling of the back side Rider blitz.
That combination would crack the door just a little wider for the deep pass which fuels the Ticat offensive appetite, and the underneath routes which often feed it.
But Masoli is still the fulcrum in all of this.
“He’s in an offence that’s kind of built to utilize his strengths, ” says Chris Jones, who had railed against his team’s sloppy practice attitude Tuesday then praised them for their mental readjustment Wednesday.
“His mobility is certainly something where he can extend football plays. He’s not just looking to take off with the ball every time; it’s easy to defend those kind of guys. The guys who are looking to move around and then put the football in the air down the field, they’re the ones who are most dangerous.”
The ascending Hamilton defence has once again had to prepare for two quarterbacks. This was supposed to be Zach Collaros’s return to Hamilton, but he’s still sidelined with a concussion.
The Riders are rotating Brandon Bridge, the Canadian whose two career wins as a starter are both against the Ticats, and David Watford like they’re on a spit. They switched quarterbacks six times against Hamilton, which the CFL stats folk haven’t seen in the nine years they’ve been tracking quarterback substitutions. They haven’t scored touchdowns – why isn’t Duron Carter on offence? – but they have beaten Hamilton.
Which brings us back to back-to-backs.
Both head coaches say that in an encore performance you need to tweak things you did well in the first game, then add an extra dash or two of surprise ‘gotcha’.
And – okay, stay with us here – you have to anticipate what they’re anticipating you’ll anticipate about them.
“You better, ” says Chris Jones.
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