Ticats v. Als preview: Banking on return TDs

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It’s a crazy thought but Brandon Banks wrote it down anyway: 18 for 18.

As in 18 punt return touchdowns in 18 games.

That seems ludicrous, especially given that the CFL record for an entire season is five, shared by Hall-of-Famer Henry “Gizmo” Williams and some guy named Chris Williams, who did it while wearing a Hamilton Tiger-Cat uniform in 2012. But Banks has a punt return touchdown in each of his first two games this season and heads to Montreal for this Thursday’s matchup a confident man.

“I decided that if I’m suiting for all 18 games, then it’s possible,” Banks said, who put pen to paper during the bye week. “I feel like our system is clicking and that guys are believing in me. I think we’ve hit our stride.”

Banks’ hot start is as actually a continuation of a scoring streak he started late last season. In his last seven games going back to Oct. 25, 2014, Banks has registered nine touchdowns: four receiving, one kickoff return … and four punt returns.

Two of those punt returns came the last time these teams met, the Ticats’ 40-24 Eastern Final win over Montreal. In fact, Hamilton has ended the Alouettes’ season the last two years and quarterback Zach Collaros says some animus has developed between the clubs.

“It seems like it’s been the same guys there since I’ve been in the league and they’ve been a very good defence the entire time. They’re smart, they’re physical, they’re nasty,” Collaros said. “Even when I was in Toronto, I didn’t like playing Montreal. That’s a credit to them.”

The Alouettes are 1-2 to start the season and are dealing with a rash of injuries that have included their top two quarterbacks. Rookie Rakeem Cato was spectacular in a week two win over Calgary, completing 80 per cent of passes while connecting on two touchdowns. While he threw two interceptions in last week’s loss to Winnipeg, Ticat head coach Kent Austin — who knows a little something about quarterbacks — says Cato seems to have the necessary tools to succeed.

“I saw a guy that’s pretty accurate, he has enough mobility to get out of trouble, he seems calm in the pocket,” Austin said. “Those are the types of things that you look for in a guy that’s new in this league.”

The Ticats have injury problems of their own. The team is missing two starting defensive backs — Canadian corner Courtney Stephen and halfback Johnny Sears — and will have to both shuffle their ratio and insert first-year Ticat Donald Washington into the lineup. The secondary could be a trouble spot given that Montreal’s S.J. Green leads the CFL with 285 receiving yards and has essentially owned the Ticats of late.

But Banks’ special teams production can help mask a number of a flaws, including the fact that the Ticats have scored a league-low three offensive touchdowns this season. He says the rule changes in the punting game — which limit the number of players who can race downfield before the kick — have made a noticeable difference.

“They aren’t on top of me as fast this year. My focus is catching the ball and getting upfield, then I start gauging where the players are so I can set up the blocks,” Banks said. “It used to be you had to catch the ball, make somebody miss and then take off.”

After signing a three-year contract extension in the off-season, Banks has embraced his role as team ambassador and he’s always been a fan favourite. He’s set lofty personal goals — and says there’s only one team goal — only because he feels they’re attainable.

“I know the system, I know where to be, I know what the expectations are,” he said. “I’m comfortable on and off the field. But I still want to hit those numbers.”


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Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1-1) at Montreal Alouettes (1-2)
Molson Stadium, Montreal
Game time: 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150

The storyline for Montreal: After losing their top two quarterbacks and winning a game with Rakeem Cato, the Alouettes need to know whether his return to earth last week in a loss to Winnipeg was an aberration or just the reality of life with a rookie QB.

Key injuries: Quarterbacks Jonathon Crompton is on the six-game injured list while former Ticat Dan LeFevour is done for the season after both suffered shoulder injuries in the season-opener. Linebacker Bear Woods is out for the year while safety Kyries Hebert is one the six-game as well. The team added field-stretching receiver Cody Hoffman this week.

Five funky Montreal stats:

1. Montreal leads the CFL in several defensive categories including run defence and passing touchdowns allowed (one.)

2. The Als two defeats have each been for a total of six points ( 20-16 to Ottawa, 25-23 to Winnipeg.)

3. Montreal’s six turnovers have led to 26 points by their opponents, the most in the CFL. The Ticats, meanwhile, have scored a league-high 33 points off eight takeaways.

4. Montreal has two opening-drive touchdowns thus far this season – this rest of the CFL has one.

5. Montreal is one of just two teams without a two-point convert thus far this season, failing in their only attempt.

The storyline for Hamilton: The Ticats are 1-1 after a solid showing in a week one loss to the Calgary Stampeders and the butt kicking the handed Winnipeg before the bye week. They have two more away games – no team in thew modern CFL era has started with four straight on the road – before returning to the friendly confines of Tim Hortons Field.

Key injuries: Add defensive back Johnny Sears to the long list of injured Ticats that includes receiver Luke Tasker, running back C.J. Gable and defensive end Eric Norwood. Corner Courtney Stephen will miss his second straight game, forcing ratio hijinks.

Ticat roster changes (and what they mean): Donald Washington comes on to replace Sears and will likely start at boundary corner, with Ed Gainey sliding over to halfback. Finally healthy, Joel Figueroa makes his first start of the season at right tackle with Jeremy Lewis likely to be scratched and Brian Simmons moving to the one-game injured list. Defensive end Sam Scott will likely start in place of Adrian Tracy, who missed two days of practice this week while defensive tackle Mike Atkinson replaces injured safety Neil King in a swap of Canadians.

Five funky Hamilton stats:

1. The Hamilton offence is the most unbalanced in the CFL with just 12 per cent of their yardage coming via the run. They have rushed the ball just 32 times – only B.C. has less with 29 – and are averaging a league-low 49.5 yards per game.

2. The Ticats are coming off a bye and in 2014, teams coming off a week off rest went 12-6 overall. Hamilton was 1-1 last season.

3. Kicker Justin Medlock is a perfect seven-for-seven in one-point convert attempts and has hit all five of his field goal attempts thus far this season. Only Montreal’s Boris Bede has more points (26 to 25.)

4. While penalties are up this season – the CFL is averaging 29.5 flags per game – the Ticats are sixth in the league with 15.5 infractions per game after leading in that category for most of last season.

5. Head coach Kent Austin has yet to throw a challenge flag season while around the CFL, calls are being overturned 46.7 per cent of the time thus far in 2015. Austin was successful on four of 13 challenges last season (30.7 per cent) while the league average was 33 per cent.

TSN play-by-play: Rod Black and Duane Forde

Referee: Kim Murphy

The weather forecast: Sunny, 21 degrees C, winds out of the southwest at 5 km/h.

Drew Edwards is the founder of 3DownNation but has since wandered off. Beard in the photo not exactly as shown.