The Hamilton Tiger-Cats closed out the preseason by looking as sharp as ever, dispatching the Winnipeg Blue Bombers by a score of 26-15. Just like against Ottawa, the Ticats jumped out to an early lead and cruised the rest of the way. If this was a tuneup for the regular season, the team and its fans had to be happy with how things played out. It was a great performance all around, so let’s get into positive and negatives of last night’s win.
So Zach Collaros looks pretty good, eh? Seeing his first action since last year’s Grey Cup, all Collaros did was march the Ticats offense up and down the field pretty much at will, completing 14 of 17 passes for 183 yards and one touchdown pass. Astounding! Collaros was in command of the offense during his time in the first half, and both he and the team have to be happy with his superlative performance.
Two other veteran players who impressed were Bakari Grant and Andy Fantuz. They were Collaros’ go-to guys during their time on the field together, with Grant hauling in five passes for 87 yards and Fantuz making four catches for 45 yards. Grant also caught the lone touchdown pass for the Ticats on the first drive of the game. Both players were in sync with their quarterback, and Grant was especially explosive out of the slot. With Luke Tasker nicked up, Grant could see an expanded role in the first few weeks of the season, and if last night was any indication, opposing defences better look out. Fantuz did his regular Fantuz thing, and it is tantalizing to think what kind of numbers he could put up if he plays 16-18 games this season.
It seems that no matter what, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats just find running backs that produce. With Mossis Madu, Nic Grigsby and C.J. Gable all out, the Ticats turned to training camp star Ray Holley to carry the load. The former Louisiana Tech Bulldog scored the second of the team’s two touchdowns, and finished the game with 37 yards on eight carries. Holley could be a real find, and his play is reminiscent of former Grey Cup MVP Chad Kackert. With Madu gone for the year and Gable expected to miss at least a couple game, Holley could see some action in tandem with Grigsby to start the season.
With two all-start defensive ends already on the roster, the Ticats were not exactly looking for more pass rush help, but Adrian Tracy continued to make a case to be on the 46-man roster for Week 1. After recording a trio of sacks against the RedBlacks, the William & Mary product picked up another sack last night and was able to constantly find ways to penetrate the Winnipeg backfield. Justin Hickman and Eric Norwood are safe in their starting roles, but Tracy showed during the preseason that he can be a solid rotational player that can help keep the Norwood-Hickman tandem fresh over the course of the season.
This is less about last night and more about the preseason in general, but you have to be impressed with the play of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defense. They allowed 25 total points, and just two touchdowns, over their two preseason games. The most impressive thing might be that many of Hamilton’s starters never saw the field in either game. The Ticats look to once again have the makings of a stellar defense.
Even in victory there are some things that the Ticats did not do particularly well, and the biggest problem from last year reared its ugly head again last night: the team’s red zone offense. Hamilton converted two of their four trips inside the red zone into touchdowns. Settling for field goals 50 per cent of the time when they get that close is not something the team wants to do, and it is a carryover from last year when the team converted just 40 per cent of the time inside the 20. There were some flashes of brilliance, and penalties negated a pair of touchdowns last night, but the team simply needs to execute better in the red zone. It was an issue last year and it appears as if it might be an issue once again this year.
Discipline was also a problem. In addition to the penalties that took two touchdowns off the board, the defense shot themselves in the foot on what was a great goal-line stand. The Ticats were called for offside and gave the Bombers a fresh set of downs at the one-yard line. The Bombers would convert for their lone major of the night soon after. While people are quick to say that the score does not matter in the preseason — and to an extent, that is true — the hows and whys of a team scoring are important. The Ticats had a chance to blow the game open on both offense and defense, and penalties nullified two majors — the Ticats kicked field goals instead — and aided in one being scored by the opposition. That is a 15-point swing. When the scores do matter, those types of discipline issues will hurt the club.
Last night was a chance for Jeremiah Masoli to assert himself in the race for the No. 3 quarterback spot (yes, I am basically ceding the No. 2 spot to Jeff Mathews). While Masoli did not have to wow the Ticats staff, he did need to prove he can be a viable contributor going forward. After last night, it is tough to say if he accomplished that. Masoli finished the game going eight of 17 for 106 yards. Not terrible, but not great either. Having a completion percentage under 50 per cent, regardless of if you are playing with perennial all-stars or with guys who are battling just to make the team, is not good. Masoli did nothing to separate himself from Jacory Harris, who did not see the field last night. It will be interesting to see if Masoli is still around after final cuts.
The Ticats finish the preseason as one of three teams to go 2-0, the other two being the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos. While winning both preseason games means nothing, it does show the remarkable depth that teams like Hamilton, Calgary and Edmonton have over their fellow league mates. It is no wonder that those three teams are almost universally considered to be the three best squads in the league heading into the season.
With both preseason games in the books and training camp officially over, the team has until 10 p.m. tonight to make their final cuts. It will be interesting to see who makes the team and who is sent home. This is as deep a team as any in the CFL, and more than a few players that are cut will probably be picked up by other CFL squads. There are some tough decisions ahead for Kent Austin and his staff.
But it is on to the regular season. In six days the Ticats will start their quest for a third straight Grey Cup appearance by taking on the team that beat them back on the final day of November, the Calgary Stampeders.