That was one angry baby.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats used some bulletin board material from Eskimo defensive end Odell Willis — who referred to the Ticats as a “baby version” of the Edmonton D in a pre-game TV interview — to help fuel another impressive performance on Friday. They demolished the Eskimos 49-20 to run their record to an East Division-leading 6-2.
But while defence is certainly performing at a big-boy level — their 30 take-aways have generated an unbelievable 118 points so far this season — the Ticats are getting production from just about every single unit and position group.
Quarterback Zach Collaros leads the league in passing yards with 2,314 and arrives at the stadium ready to roll: the Ticats have outscored opponents 70-6 in the first quarter of their last five games, and held halftime leads of 31, 21 and 21 points the last three weeks. They also lead the league in touchdowns with 22 and points per game at 36.5.
Linebacker Taylor Reed, who had two forced fumbles on Friday, said the offence deserves more credit than it’s getting from opposing teams.
“Edmonton was worried about our defence, and that’s the wrong mentality — it’s not defence versus defence,” Reed said. “You need to be worried about our offence.”
Not only is Collaros putting up big numbers without three of his biggest offensive weapons — receivers Bakari Grant and Andy Fantuz as well as running back C.J. Gable are all on the injured list — but the offensive line is vastly improved. They didn’t give up a single sack against Edmonton, who came into the game leading the league, and have surrendered just 18 all season (second-best in the CFL).
“Of all the numbers, that’s the one we’ll talk about the most as an offensive line,” said centre Mike Filer. “There was a lot of talk coming into this week about their defensive line, and we wanted to make a statement. I think we did that.”
But man, that defence. They scored again versus Edmonton — that’s eight on the season — when defensive end Eric Norwood scooped up a fourth quarter fumble and took it 106 yards the other way for the score. The return was the longest in team history and the third longest in CFL history.
Head coach Kent Austin made a funny when he heard the numbers.
“I thought you meant because the clock was on him: it took the third longest ever to get to the end zone,” Austin said, chuckling.
The play, however, was no laughing matter at the time. Despite falling behind early and often, the Eskimos were threatening to make it a two-score game with over nine minutes left — an eternity in the no-lead-is-safe CFL — when Norwood went for his long saunter.
Austin, who talks constantly about constant improvement, pointed to that moment as another step in the team’s progression.
“It is a good sign,” Austin said. “We talk about seizing back momentum.”
There are, however, still a few concerns. Edmonton receiver Derel Walker had 14 catches for 183 yards, and Adarius Bowman chipped in with another 86. Ticats corner Ed Gainey had 10 tackles — a suspiciously high number for a defensive back — and big receivers continue to give Hamilton some trouble.
They’ll see another one on Thursday when S.J. Green and the Alouettes come to town. Montreal is coming off a road win in B.C., something they hadn’t done since 2000, but they still fired head coach Tom Higgins on Friday anyway. General manager Jim Popp, winner of the power struggle with Higgins, takes over on an interim basis for the fourth time in his 20-year tenure.
There’s no such hijinks in Hamilton. The biggest risk to the Ticats seems to be their recent press clippings, which tout them as the CFL’s best team and surefire Grey Cup contender. Such talk will wipe any smile from Austin’s face, and quickly.
“We don’t listen any of that — that stuff means nothing,” he said. “We can get a lot better, and we need to. There’s a lot of football left in the season.”
But this is a team feeling pretty darn good about itself right now, and with good reason. Even Collaros — an unlikely trash talker to say the least — couldn’t help but chirp a little when a sideline camera found him late in Friday’s game.
“Our babies on defence are playing pretty good, aren’t they?”