WINNIPEG – About three hours before the start of his team’s 26-15 pre-season win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Friday night, Hamilton Tiger-Cat receiver Andy Fantuz posted a short video on YouTube.
“I’m excited to get over to the field,” said Fantuz, with a grin. “First of three times we’ll play there this year.”
Friday’s exhibition contest was one. The Ticats return to Winnipeg to play the Bombers in the second week of the regular season. But the only way Hamilton will be back a third time is if they make the Grey Cup, which will be played in this city on Nov. 29.
The offence certainly looks ready to do its part. The first unit scored on their first four possessions, putting up 20 points in the first 30 minutes as starting quarterback Zach Collaros completing 14 of 17 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. Now in his second year as Ticat, he looked in full command of the offence, moving through his progressions quickly and finding open receivers.
Running back Ray Holley, who scaled the depth chart after the team’s top three running backs were injured in training camp, may have earned himself the starting job regardless with 61 total yards on seven carries and three catches. Bakari Grant (five catches, 87 yards, one TD) and Fantuz (four catches, 45 yards) look ready as well while the starting offensive line provided Collaros with plenty of time to throw the football.
After a training camp that saw them lose a number of key contributors to injury, the Ticats elected to keep a number of defensive starters at home, including linebacker Simoni Lawrence, defensive tackle Ted Laurent and safety Craig Butler. But they rolled out four defensive backs who spent most of the week as the top unit in practice and while they gave up a long opening touchdown drive, they held the Bomber starters more or less in check.
Special teams were solid as well. Kicker Justin Medlock was a perfect four-for-four on field goals while hitting both of his 32 yard converts. Tim Smith, trying to make the club as a receiver and a return man, averaged 44 yards on three kick off returns, including a 68 yarder to open the game.
If there was an area of concern, it was a lack of discipline in key moments. An offside call negated a successful goal line stand by the Hamilton defence, while penalties also wiped two Holley touchdowns off the board in the first half.
Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli took over for Collaros with just over five minutes to play in the second quarter and went the rest of the way, completing eight passes on 17 attempts for 106 yards. Those numbers are unlikely to earn him the back up job, which is expected to go to rookie Jeff Mathews.
There was also good news on the injury front – both on and off the field. Hamilton appeared to get through the game without suffering an injury to an expected starter while word is the lower body injury suffered by Ticats receiver Luke Tasker last Sunday will not require surgery and he isn’t expected to miss extended playing time.
The Ticats have until 10 p.m. on Saturday to get down to the roster limit of 46 plus a practice roster of 10. The number does not include injured players and head coach Kent Austin will have to decide which players he thinks will be ready to go for week one. Any player placed on the one-game injured list won’t be available when the Ticats open on the road in Calgary on June 26.
That game isn’t just a rematch of last year’s Grey Cup but it could also very well be a preview of the 2015 version as well. The Ticats certainly look prepared to make a run at a third straight title game appearance – just as Fantuz predicted.