This season, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were supposed to win games like this.
It wasn’t just that they were coming off a bye week and had ample time to prepare for a rookie quarterback making his second career CFL start; it was the implied promise that the third year of Kent Austin’s reign would be different than the first two.
The 2015 campaign is about regular season dominance, no more of this one-step-forward, one-step-back business that has been the modus operandi in a pair of 9-9 campaigns. It was good enough for two straight Grey Cup appearances, sure, but it’s an awfully tough way to get there.
And you certainly can’t win championships while committing 16 penalties and coughing up the ball five times as they did in Thursday’s 17-13 loss to Montreal.
Hamilton surrendered three sacks but couldn’t bring down Alouette quarterback Rakeem Cato — a guy who should have been wearing the kitchen sink — a single time.
Austin took some veiled shots at the officiating after the game and, well, fair enough. The calls that went against the Ticats varied from questionable — the illegal block call on Bakari Grant that wiped out the Brandon Banks kickoff return touchdown — to downright weird: the illegal participation infraction levied against offensive tackle on Joel Figueroa, who played without his helmet for a few seconds. How do the officials figure he lost his lid in the first place? (Answer: a Montreal player knocked it off with illegal hands to the face.)
But seven of those 16 orange hankies fell on procedure calls and that’s a discipline issue, not an officiating one. Under Austin, the Ticats were most penalized team in the league last season and were fourth in 2013, so the issue is hardly a new one.
Consistency in the coaching staff and on the roster were supposed to bring a certain consistency in play that has yet to emerge this season. That said, there are some mitigating factors that are probably worth mentioning.
Quarterback Zach Collaros, who threw three interceptions and looked out of sorts much of the night, is still just 26 years old and in his second full year as a starter. He’s played so well since last year’s Labour Day Classic it’s easy to forget that growing pains are still part of his development process. This is a complex offensive scheme that requires the receivers and quarterback to read and react in lockstep and on at least one of the picks, that didn’t happen: not every INT is the fault of the QB.
The secondary, which was already missing three starters — Rico Murray, Johnny Sears and Courtney Stephen — took another hit when halfback Emanuel Davis was injured in the first half. Hamilton was already playing roster (and ratio) roulette before Davis went down, and his departure seemed to open things up for Cato.
There’s also certainly some bad Ticat mojo in Molson Stadium. The Ticats have not won there since 2002 and there have been a number of wonky losses in that span: six years ago, then-Hamilton quarterback Kevin Glenn threw for more than 500 yards — and lost, 41-38.
Speaking of Mr. Glenn, the Ticats are expecting to see him a week Sunday when they take on the Roughriders in Saskatchewan — another place that hasn’t been particularly kind to the Ticats recently. They got blown out 37-0 in Austin’s first year at the helm, fell 31-10 in last season and — oh, yeah — lost the 2013 Grey Cup in a frigid, frothing Regina.
That championship appearance felt like an unexpected gift: Austin was fresh and new and the team was coming off a woeful 2012. But things are different now and this team is expected to play like a contender each and every week.
They still might. But they aren’t yet.