The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have accomplished quite a bit in the last two-plus seasons, a 10-game winning streak and two consecutive Grey Cup appearances chief among them. But here’s something they haven’t been able to do with any consistency: Beat good teams on the road.
The Ticats have won eight regular season road games since Kent Austin took over as head of all things football before the 2013 season, including two this year. But those victories have come almost exclusively against the tomato cans of the CFL, with opponents sporting a winning percentage of just .304 heading into those contests. In fact, the only team with a winning record the Ticats have beaten away from Hamilton is the Toronto Argonauts, who play just down the road.
So Friday’s showdown against Edmonton is a challenge of a different sort. At 5-2, the Esks are tied with the Calgary Stampeders for first place in the West Division and Edmonton has been just as dominant at Commonwealth Stadium as the Ticats have been at Tim Hortons Field, winning their last seven home games by an average margin of a whopping 27.1 points.
“It’s a big goal of ours to start taking these road games, especially out West. If we can start doing that, we’ll be laughing,” said centre Mike Filer. “This is a good test.”
The Edmonton defence leads the league in a number of statistical categories and has been particularly adept getting to the quarterback: They lead the CFL with 27 sacks on the season. Ticats pivot Zach Collaros is certainly familiar with what the Eskimo front four can do. Defensive end Odell Willis delivered a hit early last season that left Collaros with a concussion and forced him to miss five games.
The 26-year-old Collaros has looked much more comfortable in the offence this season — he was hurt in week two last year — and the team’s sack numbers are way down from 2014.
“I’m excited. They are a good defence and it’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Collaros said.
“They do multiple things: They’ll pressure you, then they’ll drop 10 guys into coverage on the next play.”
Getting the ground game going would certainly help. The Ticats have just a single 100-yard rushing performance on the season, courtesy of C.J. Gable, who is on six-game injured list. The team has inserted a second American running back into the lineup and Nic Grigsby is hoping to make the most of the opportunity that has been a long time in coming.
Grigsby was the team’s feature back in the Grey Cup last season but struggled with injury in training camp and was cut by the club in July. Re-signed after Gable went down in early August, Grigsby has been patiently waiting for another opportunity.
“I can’t tell you with a straight face that it hasn’t been tough,” Grigsby said. “But it’s a blessing to be here and we have a great group of players and coaches who are in my corner, encouraging me to keep after it.”
But Grigsby says he consciously avoided the me-first approach of linebacker Jasper Simmons, who took to Twitter this week to complain about a lack of playing time and was ultimately released by the Stampeders.
“There’s always adversity in football and a lot of players go through what I’ve been going through,” Grigsby said. “I’m ready to be unleashed. It’s coming.”
That confidence is in lock-step with the rest of his Ticat teammates, who are riding a four-game winning streak and have spent the last two weeks demolishing opponents. But defensive tackle Bryan Hall — whose first CFL game was a lopsided road loss to Saskatchewan last season — says the evolution is not yet complete.
“We know how it feels to lose on the road, we know how to get blown out on the road. We’ve done all that already,” Hall said. “Now it’s time to take it to next level and be the team we want to be.”
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (5-2) at Edmonton Eskimos (5-2)
Friday, Aug. 20
Game time: 9 p.m. EST
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150
The storyline for Edmonton: The Esks are tied for first in the West Division, largely based on the strength of their defence which is ranked at the top in the CFL in a number of statistical categories (points surrendered, yards against and sacks among them.) That’s helped offset some uneven quarterback play from Matt Nichols who is filling in for an injured Mike Reilly. Like the Ticats, the Esks are using this game as an early-season litmus test.
Key injuries: Receiver Adarius Bowman returns to the line up after missing last week with a hip injury – he was the team’s leading pass catcher before he got hurt. The Esks are also missing a pair of Canadian wide receivers in Nate Coehoorn and Shamawd Chambers.
Five funky Edmonton stats:
• the Eskimos have forced opposing teams into second-and-long situations (needing seven yards or more) 107 times this season, tops in the CFL. Opponents have converted just 26 per cent of those opportunities compared to 56 per cent on second-and-six yards or less.
• Edmonton has won their last seven home games by an average margin of 27.1 points, and all by margins of at least 17 points.
• over the last two seasons, the Esks have outscored the opposition by 91 points in the fourth quarter.
• last week versus Montreal, Edmonton held the Alouettes to two-of-17 on second down conversions, forcing them two-and-out 11 times.
• the Eskimos have trailed at Commonwealth Stadium for exactly 5:19 this season and their largest deficit has been just two points.
The storyline for Hamilton: The Ticats are the league’s hottest team right now, winners of four straight: they haven’t just been beating opponents, they’ve been breaking their will. All three phases are clicking as the team is getting production – and points – from offence, defence and special teams. But Edmonton represents their toughest test this season: a 5-2 team playing at home where they’ve been every bit as as invincible as the Ticats. Win here and the Ticats cement their status as an elite CFL team.
Key injuries: Receiver Bakari Grant and Canadian safety Craig Butler will both miss their second consecutive games and will be joined by a couple of depth Canadians in defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and running back Anthony Woodson. Starting corner Donald Washington has been added to the six-game injured list.
Ticats roster changes and what they mean: The absence of Woodson means the Ticats have added American running back Nic Grigsby, who share the ball carrying duties with Ray Holley. Rookie Everett Ellefsen will play in his first career game in place of Nadon while Ed Gainey, who started the year on the boundary corner, returns to that spot in place of Washington.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
• in the past two games, the Ticats have stormed out to 21-point leads after the first quarter, just the second time in 107 years any team has held consecutive leads of 21or more points after 15 minutes of play.
• the Ticats scored touchdowns four different ways last week versus B.C (passing, interception return, fumble return, punt return.) They are the first club to record three separate types of return TDs in the same game in 10 years.
• quarterback Zach Collaros has started the last 18 straight games with a winning percentage of .722 (13-5.)
• Hamilton is the only CFL club with five players with at least three sacks.
• The Ticats are riding a four-game win streak and another victory would give them their longest winning run since they won six in a row in 1998.
TSN play-by-play: Chris Cuthbert and Duane Forde
Referee: Tim Kroeker
The weather forecast: Cloudy, 12 degrees, winds out of the northwest at 25 km/h.