In last Sunday’s win over Winnipeg, Hamilton Tiger-Cat defensive end Justin Hickman had three sacks. His counterpart on the other side, Eric Norwood, had two. Tackle Ted Laurent also had a pair. And Bryan Hall, the fourth member of Hamilton’s fearsome defensive line?
“It was one of the saddest, happy days ever. Those guys did a great job last week and I want to show my leadership through production too, ” said Hall, laughing as always. “But the No. 1 stat is winning. I’d rather be 4-2 with zero sacks than have 10 sacks and be 0-6.”
Hall and friends will face a different kind of challenge on Saturday when the B.C. Lions come to town. The Lions feature the league’s leading rusher in Canadian running back Andrew Harris, who is coming off back-to-back games with at least 100 yards rushing. The Ticats feature the CFL’s best-run defence, allowing just 71 yards per game.
“One of mantras is ‘you have to earn the right to pass rush, ‘ and you do that by stopping the run, ” Hall said. “As defensive linemen, the thing we pride ourselves on is sacks. As long as we can stop the run, we can rush the passer all night.”
Getting an early lead certainly helps. In their last three games, Hamilton has outscored opponents 35-3 in the first quarter and has surrendered just 18 points in two contests at Tim Hortons Field this season.
The home winning streak sits at nine games and counting.
“It just gives us more confidence. It feels like a place where we don’t know how to do anything but win, ” said receiver Luke Tasker. “I don’t feel it as a pressure. It’s just been a help to us knowing we’ve won all kinds of games here.”
With just 22 career starts, Tasker is suddenly the Ticats most experienced receiver. Veteran Bakari Grant will join Canadian Andy Fantuz on the sideline due to injury meaning rookie Tiquan Underwood and third-year man Terrell Sinkfield – who is getting another shot to prove he can produce consistently – will have to step up.
“We’re all going to have to play like veterans and I think confidence-wise we’re already there, ” Tasker said.
“I put a little bit on myself, especially in terms of the communication that we have as receivers.”
The offence struggled in the second half against Winnipeg, producing just 100 yards of net offence.
But head coach Kent Austin said he remains pleased with the progression of quarterback Zach Collaros, who came into the week second in the league in passing yardage and tops in completions that net a first down.
“He’s executing at a higher level with his decision-making which the No. 1 thing we try and develop in our quarterback, ” Austin said.
“He’s a little less antsy in the pocket because he has more faith in what we’re doing but he still has the playmaking ability to extend plays.”
Austin talks constantly about growth both from an individual and team perspective and this year’s Ticats have certainly started stronger: they got off to a 2-4 start in 2013 and were 1-5 at this point last season. Their development process appears to be linear, as opposed to the one-step forward, one-step back approach of previous seasons.
“We are making fewer mistakes and playing better overall as a team, ” Austin said. “But we have a long way to go and there’s a lot of improvement that needs to take place for us to have a chance.”
The storyline for B.C.: The Lions were an enigma coming into the season. They have a new coaching staff, led by Jeff Tedford and offensive co-ordinator George Cortez (a former Ticats head coach.) And there were concerns regarding health of quarterback Travis Lulay and his wonky shoulder. But Lulay has played decently, running back Andrew Harris leads the league in rushing and the defence is led by two outstanding linebackers in Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill. They haven’t looked great in the early going – their minus-18-point differential is third worst in the CFL – but they’ve found ways to win.
Key injuries: The Lions are remarkably healthy, with just seven players on the injured list (the Ticats, by comparison, have 19.) The only one of note is offensive lineman Hunter Steward, who would be the starting left tackle but is on the six-game with a foot injury.
Five funky B.C. stats:
• Last week, the Lions came back from 13 points down to win over Edmonton, their largest comeback win in six years.
• Linebacker Adam Bighill leads the CFL in tackles with 46, which puts him on pace for the second-highest total in CFL history (138).
• Andrew Harris has rushed for 100-plus yards in each of his last two games and has at least 20-plus carries in both.
• The Lions have scored three times on their opening drives, tops in the CFL. They have also opened the second half with a touchdown twice this season.
• B.C. is the worst red-zone team in the CFL, scoring touchdowns on just 46 per cent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
The storyline for Hamilton: The Ticats are 4-2 and are being referred to by many pundits as one of the CFL’s top teams. They are riding a nine-game home winning streak and will be playing in front of yet another sell out crowd. Can they keep the momentum going – they travel to Edmonton next week for a marquee match up with the Esks – or are they due for a letdown?
Key injuries: Veteran receiver Bakari Grant joins Canadian pass catcher Andy Fantuz and running back C.J. Gable as yet another top offensive contributor on the sidelines. On defence, safety Craig Butler will miss his second straight game.
Ticats roster changes and what they mean: The biggest move may be the one the Ticats didn’t make, electing to stick with American running back Ray Holley over Nic Grigsby after the two split reps in practice this week. Rookie receiver Tiquan Underwood steps in for Grant while Terrell Sinkfield replaces Junior Collins.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
• The last time Hamilton won nine straight home games was across 2001-2002 when they had 11 in a row at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
• In the last three games, Hamilton has outscored opponents 35-3 in the first quarter. They scored 21 points in a span of 4:49 last week to open the 38-8 win over Winnipeg. No opponent has led at any time in the last two games.
• Hamilton has turned the ball over nine times in the last five games but opponents have scored just three points off them.
• Since the CFL started tracking second-down conversions in 2008, Hamilton is the first team to convert at least 55 per cent in six straight games.
• Quarterback Zach Collaros has six touchdown passes in his last two games.
Referee: Dave Foxcroft