Another season, another loss in Calgary and another 0-1 start.
The Ticats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last night with a heartbreaking 24-23 loss thanks to a last second field goal by Calgary’s Rene Paredes. It is a tough loss to swallow because for most of the game the Ticats were the better team. In the end, however, the defending Grey Cup champs found a way to pull it out. Let’s get into some of the positives and negatives of last night’s clash between two CFL titans.
There can be nowhere else to start except with the tremendous Ticats debut of one Johnny Sears, Jr. The former Blue Bomber opened the scoring for the Ticats with a beautiful interception for a touchdown, but he did not stop there. Sears notched another interception later in the game, picked up a quarterback sack and notched three defensive tackles. Sears was part of a ballhawking secondary that forced Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell into posting his first ever three-interception game — Craig Butler had the other pick — after throwing just eight all last season. It was a great debut in black and gold for Sears, one that is sure to earn him defensive player of the week honours.
As good as Sears was individually, the front four was just as good, if not better, collectively. Twice the Ticats stuffed the Stamps on 3rd-and-short, once on the goalline. Rarely are teams stopped when going for it on 3rd and 1 or less, but the Ticats were able to clog the middle and end a pair of Calgary drives in dramatic fashion. The line, and the defense, also did a great job of containing Jon Cornish, holding the three-time Most Outstanding Canadian to just 70 yards on 13 carries. He wasn’t completely shut down, but he never felt like much of a factor in the game, either. The Ticats have now held Cornish in check in their last two meetings and maybe they have found the magic elixir for making the 2013 Most Outstanding Player a non-factor.
Finally, what more can be said about Brandon Banks? Speedy B took another punt to the house and showed why he is the most electrifying man in Canadian football. It was another dipsy-doodle return, similar to his second punt return against the Montreal Alouettes in the East Final, that you knew he was going to the house once he got past the first wave of defenders. A great start to the year for the diminutive former Kansas State Wildcat, and the first what should be many highlight-reel returns.
Hold on to your butts, because there are going to be a lot of negatives. Firstly, the red zone woes continue for the Ticats. They pitched another goose egg in terms of scoring touchdowns once they reached the red zone. Actually, that is not entirely true. A touchdown was scored when the Ticats were inside the 20, unfortunately it was scored by Calgary’s Keon Raymond off an interception that he took 95 yards the other way. The Ticats had two drives stall in the red zone and came away with just three points. In a one-score game, continued failures inside the 20-yard line are magnified.
Part of the trouble in the red zone stems from their complete lack of a running game. Ray Holley, who from all accounts looked great during training camp and in the preseason, showed why he was put on the practice roster to start the season. He had just 24 yards on eight carries, and while the sample size is small, the output was just not there. He did not seem to find the hole or have any burst through the ones that were there. Sure, the offensive line did him no favours (more on that in a second), but he did not seem to have the wherewithal to be a starting tailback in the CFL. The team desperately needs Nic Grigsby and C.J. Gable to get healthy, because if they are to avoid these gut -punching one-point losses, they will need to start pounding the rock.
As mentioned, the offensive line was far from a dominant unit last night. The hogs rarely made holes for Holley and also had a hard time dealing with Calgary’s strong front four, especially at the beginning of the game. While not as porous as the unit that started last season’s season opener in Saskatchewan that gave up a whopping 10 sacks, the line did not give Collaros much time early. That said, they seemed to play a little better in the second half — Collaros seemed to be more comfortable in the pocket in the game’s final 30 minutes— but it was still far from the type of performance many were hoping for from this revamped group.
A player who had a pretty tough night was defensive back Ed Gainey. Gainey had the unenviable task of being the first man to try to fill the role left empty by the departure of Delvin Breaux and, in not so many words, he failed. He led the team in tackles with 11, but he was lined up against Jeff Fuller, who torched Gainey for the vast majority of his nine catches and 148 yards. Fuller was a beast out there and he did most of his beasting against Gainey. A team never wants one of their defensive backs to be their leading tackler, and Gainey was that not because he had a great nose for the football, but because the man he was covering had a career game.
While it is foolish to say one play cost the team the game, one has to wonder just what defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer was thinking on the 3rd-and-17 play near the end of the game. When the Ticats brought pressure in the second half, they usually got to Mitchell. With the game hanging in the balance, all the team needed to do was get off the field on 3rd and 17. Steinauer calls off the dogs and Mitchell hits Fuller for a big 28-yard pick up that helped set up Paredes’ game-winning field goal. Steinauer called a fantastic game up until that point, figuring out the tendencies of the Calgary offense and matching Stampeders offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson step for step. So it was surprising to see Steinauer essentially blow it with a curious call in what may have been the game’s most important play.
Lastly, we have to talk about penalties. For a team that was pretty clean during most of the preseason, the flag-fest that ensued during the game really hurt the Ticats. The Tabbies finished with 15 penalties for 105 yards, with many of them being of the drive-killing or drive-extending variety. Calgary scored their first and only offensive touchdown after an offside penalty kept their drive alive and Hamilton negated few of their own big plays due to penalties. It was a sloppy performance, and it is one area the team will need to improve in if they hope to avoid a repeat in next week’s game.
For awhile, it really looked like the Ticats were going to pull this one out, but then it ended up being what is becoming a typical loss for the black and gold: play good enough to win, but still find a way to lose. When a team gets a defensive touchdown and a punt return touchdown, they should win. Getting just one of those is usually enough. Add in that the Ticats won the turnover battle by a five-to-one margin and the outcome should not have been a loss. Unfortunately, the Ticats did just enough wrong to find a way to lose this game.
The loss is tough to swallow, but the team showed enough that there should not be any panic in Tigertown. The defense looked amazing, with the front four earning their moniker of best defensive line in the CFL, and all that needs to happen for this team to go on a winning streak is for the offense to find its rhythm and for the team to find ways to score touchdowns when they get inside the 20s.
So the Ticats were unable to snap the duelling 2004 streaks of opening week losses and losses in Calgary, and both will live on for at least another season. Now it is on to Winnipeg for a date with the Blue Bombers next Thursday night. If the Ticats can fix their problems, or at least minimize their mistakes, they should go into their bye week at 1-1. If not, they will once again dig themselves into an early season hole.