WINNIPEG — Mike Daly almost forgot his Winnipeg souvenir.
The Ticat safety registered his first career interception in his team’s 52-26 win over the Blue Bombers on Thursday but was so caught up in the moment that the football was almost lost forever.
“I was about to hand it back to the ref but a couple of the guys were like, ‘Hey, you have to keep that,'” Daly said afterward, the ball safely tucked away in his equipment bag. “I’m glad I did.”
Now in his second season with the club, the former McMaster Marauder was inserted into the starting lineup only after starting corner Courtney Stephen went down with a calf strain late on the Ticats’ final day of practice. The injury forced Hamilton to make a number of changes in order to comply with the league’s ratio rules that requires each team to start seven national players.
With no viable Canadian backup for Stephen, head coach Kent Austin and defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer elected replace him with veteran American defensive Brandon Stewart, move safety Craig Butler to strong side linebacker, and drop in Daly to square up the ratio.
The problem: the team hadn’t taken one snap of practice with the new alignment.
But Austin and Steinauer have been preaching versatility and flexibility since joining the Ticats before the 2013 season, and both Butler and Stewart spent much of training camp lining up at different spots in the secondary. So while the lineup might have been new, it wasn’t exactly unfamiliar.
“I think it’s really important to have as much versatility as we can so we can reconfigure the pieces of the puzzle to make us the most competitive team we can be each week,” Austin said.
While both Daly and Stewart produced interceptions – Stewart’s returned his for a touchdown – it was Butler who had the biggest adjustment to make. He spent last season exclusively at safety, and while he’s played linebacker in the past, the strong side spot has a myriad of pass coverage and run support responsibilities.
“I’m used to being the guy who knows what everyone’s doing but there were a couple of plays where I had to be told where to be,” Butler said. “We don’t just say that we’re flexible on defence, we truly mean it.”
While the final result was spectacular, the early returns were less than promising. The Bombers put together a nine-play opening drive and capped it with a 13-yard touchdown run from Paris Cotton. The Ticats looked out of sorts as it worked to get the right personnel on the field and contain the Bombers.
“‘Discombobulated’ would be a good word. We were trying to adjust to the new players and they caught us off guard with a couple of things,” Butler said. “There was adversity early but we were able to overcome it.”
The tide was turned in part by Daly, whose interception of Winnipeg quarterback Drew Willy came just three plays after the Ticats had committed their one and only turnover of the game. The Ticats scored on the next series, converting on third down from the three-yard line and rolled from there.
Given the defensive letdown during the Week 1 loss to the Stampeders – the Ticats gave up a game-winning drive, including a conversion on third-and-17 – the resilient effort under difficult circumstances was some measure of redemption.
“It was tough in Calgary, so to bounce back and have such a definitive win, it says a lot about this team,” Daly said.