Milton: Quick starts fuelling Ticats success

CFL Football

Under Kent Austin the Hamilton Tiger-Cats tend not to look behind them. Too much still lies ahead.

But if they had a rear-view mirror, they’d realize how much harder they used to make it for themselves when they didn’t score 21 points before a game was that many minutes old.

That’s the Ticats new modus operandi, at least at Tim Hortons Field, now routinely referred to by football writers across the country as the Doughnut Box.

And why not?

Visitors who dip into it, immediately get cream-filled.

Civic Holiday: by the 20-minute mark the Cats go up 21-7 on the Argos; the following Sunday: within the first eight minutes the Ticats take a 21-0 bite out of the Blue Bombers; and Saturday night: it’s Cats 21, Lions 0 by the end of the first quarter.

Those lightning-quick starts significantly alter the behaviour of just about everyone in the stadium. The delirious fans continuously maul each other (but in a good way), the opposing team begins acting like someone blew helium in their ears, and the Ticats defence zooms in more on the receivers and the poor, poor quarterback.

OK, the offence has tended to lose some of its rhythm and hard edge from sitting on a cushion, but a quick and direct halftime lecture from Austin corrected that one problem in Saturday night’s 52-22 blowout.

It’s all part of what’s becoming is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the east end.

The Ticats had built home momentum and enormous confidence by going undefeated in 2014 at Tim Hortons Field after finally getting access on Labour Day. They sailed into this season, with most of the same players back, riding a home-turf tailwind.

And they’ve amplified that, almost beyond belief, in their three home games. Last season the Box was a difficult place to visit; this year it’s a suicidal place to visit, because the visitors’ game plan, which took a week to create and perfect, is in shreds before they’ve had a chance to try it.

Then the heebeejeebies really burrow in and it feels to them like they’re playing against a team full of No. 68s. Viable options are reduced to two: the pass, and hope. The Ticats are the best team in the league against the run, and you can’t go there anyway because it takes too long to cover 110 yards by foot … once, let alone three times.

So, as Austin explained, the visitors tend to become one-dimensional. And the black and gold swarm of the Cat defence, detects the aroma they like best. The smell of blood.

They know the ball is likely to be in the air, and they know who’s going to put it there. Pressure on the quarterback, already a Hamilton long suit, becomes even nastier.

“Now you’re at risk of making mistakes, ” Austin said. “At some point you have to try to get back in the football game and, really, that is what causes some games to turn out like tonight. (The Lions) are a good football team, but when you’re playing from behind sometimes it becomes a little more of a risk.”

The opposing quarterback becomes more desperate, his confident pursuers more insistent. The pass defenders, already encouraged by defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer to “make plays, ” have more frequent, more predictable, opportunities to do so. Someone should translate Pick Six into Latin and make it the team motto.

“It definitely makes you one-track minded, so when you actually see a run, you react a little late, because they’re down and you think they’re not going to run, ” said linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who had one of the Cats’ four sacks and led the game with seven tackles. He, among others, credited Austin with preventing a possible lull into second-half complacency.

But even when the Cats react “a little late” to a run, it’s still pretty quick. Even against the good-run Lions.

It must be remembered that each visiting team has made self-contributions to its early demise. The Argos watched bewildered as Brandon Stewart took an onside kick into the end zone, the Bombers treated a kickoff like it was a punt – or a hand grenade – and the Lions offence allowed the ball to be stripped, fumbled and lugged by Eric Norwood over the goal-line. Three of those early TDs at Tim Hortons Field have been scored by the defence or special teams.

All those early ugly factors nestle into the visitors’ collective short-term memory, undermining the confidence required to mount a big comeback in a very hostile environment. And more mistakes generally follow.

It’s one thing to win all your home games, but you’re on a higher plane when you repeatedly coerce the opponents into help you do it. Those big early leads are keeping the Cats, at least for now, on that plane.