Not all wins are created equal.
They all count for the same two points in the standings, sure. But some victories have the capacity to change the direction of a season and establish a sense of identity that can be galvanized into something greater than the win itself.
Last season, it happened on Labour Day when a 1-6 Hamilton Tiger-Cats team christened its new stadium with a hard-fought 13-12 victory over archrivals, the Toronto Argonauts. It was the first declarative statement from a team that was 1-6 and badly in need of both Ws and confidence. That win sparked a run that took them all the way to a second straight Grey Cup appearance.
Sunday’s Canadian Football League win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders by the Ticats may well prove to be a pivotal point of the 2015 campaign, the moment when this year’s squad defined itself. It wasn’t pretty or effortless. But the 31-21 come-from-behind takedown of an increasingly dispirited Riders team showed some serious mettle: It was the type of game legitimately good teams find a way to win.
There were plenty of positives, starting with the play of running back C.J. Gable, who turned a previously one-dimensional attack into a dual-threat juggernaut. He played so sparingly last year – just seven games due to ankle and shoulder injuries – that it was easy to forget just how good he can be. The Ticats knew, though: They handed Gable a three-year contract extension in the off-season.
Here’s a weird fact: Before Sunday night, Gable and quarterback Zach Collaros had played just one full game of football together, the dreadful season-opener in Regina last season. Collaros went down with a concussion early in Week 2 and Gable was hurt when he returned on Labour Day. They were together for one play against Edmonton on Sept. 20 before Gable was lost for good.
The Hamilton defence had some worrisome stretches against the Riders but still held them to just 21 points while limiting the potent Saskatchewan rushing attack to a measly 84 yards. Canadian defensive tackles Hasan Hazime and Mike Atkinson filled in admirably for injured all-star Ted Laurent and, with Brian Bulcke and Linden Gaydosh already hurt, the Ticats are demonstrating one of the most important things in the CFL: High-quality national depth.
And it was the Rico Murray interception on the final play of the third quarter that swung the momentum back to the Ticats for good. Saskatchewan quarterback Kevin Glenn threw the ball while backpedalling from a pass rush that had been laying him out all night. Glenn hurt himself making the tackle and the Riders seemed doomed from that moment on. Indeed, if the Ticats showed heart, Saskatchewan did not.
The Riders have been dealt more than their share of adversity this season, losing key players to injury and blowing games they probably deserved to win. But Sunday night was the first time it seemed to get to them, as if Glenn going down was just more than they could take.
The Ticats still have their issues, as well. While they had a season-low 11 penalties Sunday, several were of the exceedingly dumb variety, including a half-dozen defensive offsides and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Brandon Banks that could have been a game-changer. Banks has never shown a predisposition for selfishness and so this transgression can be forgiven.
And red-zone efficiency remains a riddle, as it has been for two-plus seasons. The Ticats racked up 449 yards of offence but were just 1-for-3 inside the scoring zone and relied on Justin Medlock’s booming leg – his average field-goal attempt was 39 yards – for more than half of their points. As good as this team may be, it needs to convert its scoring opportunities or it will inevitably be costly, as it was in last year’s championship game.
But this team could be really good. Even with their team a winless mess, the Rider faithful make Regina one of the toughest road games of the season and Mosaic Stadium had been ruthlessly unkind to Ticats head coach Kent Austin and his team since his return to the CFL, including a devastating Grey Cup loss. So this game meant something. It was the vanquishing of old demons, to be sure, but more importantly it could mark the start of the 2015 season in earnest.
The Tiger-Cats showed us something Sunday and it wasn’t just the ability to put another check in the win column.