Coming into the season, conventional wisdom said the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were a championship-calibre team coming off back-to-back Grey Cup appearances.
A last second loss to the Calgary Stampeders last Friday – a one-point heartbreaker that rubbed salt in a wound opened last November – has done little to shake that faith.
“If we compare to last year, we are strides ahead of where we were in the second week, ” said safety Craig Butler.
“That has to do with guys trusting each other and having the same guys around, same voices, same message.”
The team heads to Winnipeg for Thursday’s match up against the Blue Bombers looking to avoid a third straight 0-2 start under head Kent Austin. The 2014 campaign started with a 31-10 debacle in Saskatchewan and the next week Austin made a slew of roster changes, tearing apart the offensive line that gave up 10 sacks and shuffling the secondary.
This time around, the tweaks are more subtle: Jeremy Lewis takes over for Brian Simmons at right tackle, Adrian Tracy is in for Sam Scott at defensive end, and there’s the addition of Hugh O’Neil to handle the punting duties.
“There’s more familiarity and the familiarity equals an earlier identity, things the team embodies because of the consistency of the players, ” Austin said.
“We’re much further along in the continuity of our roster.”
Unlike past seasons under Austin and defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer, the coaching staff seems willing to allow the lineup time to find its feet.
So, for example, the defensive secondary is expected to remain intact, despite surrendering a late, game-winning drive.
“We’re still growing and as a coach you’re never satisfied, but I’m happy with their growth, ” Steinauer said. “Each year brings on it’s own set of challenges and you have to go at the pace that the players can understand and still play at a high level.”
If the Ticats already have a sense of who they are, Winnipeg is trying to develop a winning culture of their own. Now in their second season under general manager Kyle Walters and coach Mike O’Shea, the Bombers have the air of a franchise that’s finally emerging from the wilderness of several successive lost seasons. Steinauer both played and coached with O’Shea.
“It’s a new year, the Grey Cup (game) is there and I know their head coach – I know him like the back of my hand. He’s a winner and he’ll do anything to get his team prepared, ” Steinauer said. “They’ve got some stability there with their quarterback and their offensive co-ordinator and they’ve got some better talent.”
A week one win in Regina – a place the Bombers hadn’t won in since 2004 – did wonders for their confidence says Bomber defensive back and former Ticat Matt Bucknor. It was a practical manifestation of what they’d already come to believe: that they were better than most people gave them credit for. “It was huge, big for the morale. We have a confident group and we took care of business, ” Bucknor said. “We’re just as confident this week and we know we can get the job done.”
Before the season begins, assessments are made as to where clubs across the league will finish: this team will be good, this one will be bad, this one will contend for the Grey Cup. Then the games start and the truth begins to to emerge.
One game isn’t enough to be definitive about anything, says Butler.
“Last year, we were searching for an identity until Labour Day, then we established it. That’s carried over to this year, ” he said. “Now it’s a matter of sharpening the blade and perfecting everything we do.”
Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Investors Group Field, Winnipeg
Game time: 8:30 p.m. EST
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150
The storyline for Winnipeg: The Bombers are coming off a confidence-boosting 30-26 road victory over the Roughriders, winning in Saskatchewan for the first time in over a decade. Now in the second year under head coach Mike O’Shea, the Bombers are trying to establish a winning culture after missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons in 2014.
Key injuries: Canadian receiver Rory Kohlert (lower body) is off the roster, so sophomore Kris Bastien gets his second straight start, while Addison Richards will play his first career game. Safety Moe Leggett returns after missing one game with an undisclosed injury.
Five funky Winnipeg stats:
1. The Bombers won last week in Saskatchewan despite not recording a single quarterback sack. Only two teams were able to win without registering a sack last season.
2. Quarterback Drew Willy and the Winnipeg offence had zero two-and-outs in 10 drives versus the Riders, becoming only the fifth CFL team since 2009 to do so.
3. Winnipeg was tremendously effective on first down in Saskatchewan, gaining 343 yards on 34 plays for a stellar 10.1-yard average. That compares to just 5.7 yards in 2014, which was eighth in the CFL.
4. The rebuilt Bombers offensive line allowed only a single sack in their first game after surrendering a league-high and franchise record 71 last season.
5. All three of the teams who failed to make the playoffs last season – including the Bombers – posted a victory in the first week of the 2015 CFL campaign.
The storyline for Hamilton: The Ticats lost 24-23 to Calgary in their season-opener Friday, falling on a 50-yard field goal as time expired. The team has spent the week practising in Calgary and will look to avoid their third straight 0-2 start under head coach Kent Austin.
Key injuries: The Ticats got through the Calgary game without suffering a major injury, but are still missing running back C.J. Gable, receiver Luke Tasker, defensive end Eric Norwood and halfback Rico Murray.
Ticat roster changes (and what they mean): Defensive end Adrian Tracy and Canadian kicker/punter Hugh O’Neill have been added to the roster, while defensive end Sam Scott and defensive tackle Drake Nevis have been added to the one-game injured list. O’Neill may handle the punting duties after Justin Medlock’s spotty performance versus Calgary, while Tracy will be expected to generate some pass-rush after logging four sacks in the pre-season. The team will also make a change at right tackle, where Jeremy Lewis replaces Brian Simmons.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
1. The Hamilton offence had only a pair of two-and-outs against Calgary, but posted just 267 yards of net offence and failed to generate an offensive touchdown while making just two trips inside the opposition 20-yard line.
2. The Ticats won the turnover battle against the Stamps by a 5-to-1 margin. Teams with the edge in that category won 74 per cent of the time last season.
3. Andy Fantuz was targeted 10 times in the game against Calgary, making nine catches and going seven-of-seven in the second half.
4. Calgary completed three passes of 25 yards or more, including a pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Jeff Fuller for 28 yards to convert a third-and-18 with 25 seconds left.
5. The Ticats were penalized 15 times for 105 yards against Calgary, including once for illegal contact on a receiver. With new rules in place for this season, there were 13 illegal contact calls across the league in the first week, compared to just two in 2014. Overall, there was an average of 30 penalty flags per game (up from an average of 21.6 in last season.)
Last time these teams met:
Sept. 27, 2014, as Hamilton held on for a 16-11 win when the Bombers couldn’t punch it in from the three-yard line as time expired.
TSN play-by-play: Gord Miller and Matt Dunigan
Referee: Al Bradbury
The weather forecast: Partly sunny, 26 C with a 30 per cent chance of thundershowers and winds out of the west at 18 km/h.