Let’s go back, way back, to the last time the Hamilton Tiger-Cats lost a football game. It was July 16 and the opponent was the Montreal Alouettes. Terrence Toliver remembers it well.
The Ticat receiver had two chances to help his team eke out a win in the final moments, stumbling after making what looked like a sure touchdown catch, then fumbling with under a minute remaining to seal a 17-13 Montreal victory.
“It stuck with me for a bit – I don’t fumble, man. I’ll be using that game as motivation because I had a failure and we didn’t win as a team,” Toliver said this week. “I feel like I let my team down but my teammates stuck by me and we’ve been rolling since then.”
Have they ever. Since that loss in Montreal, the Ticats have reeled off five straight victories scoring at least 30 points in every one – the first time in team history they’ve accomplished that feat. The defence has scored eight times in eight games and is on pace to shatter the CFL record of 12 defensive touchdowns in a season.
And yet Ticat head coach Kent Austin addressed the entire team earlier in the week – something he rarely does – to reiterate his mantra of constant improvement. The team had just two days of full practice after the win over Edmonton last Friday.
“We’re pleased with our progress but we know it’s a long season and we talked about staying focussed on the things we believe in and staying the course,” Austin said. “There’s going to be a lot of media and we felt the need to reiterate the things that they know, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them once in a while.”
The Ticats are about to enter into a key stretch of games against East Division opponents. With a victory already in hand, the Alouettes could take the season series with win on Thursday. Hamilton will then face the Argonauts – who have an identical 6-2 record – in a back-to-back set starting on Labour Day.
Linebacker Taylor Reed says he’s aware of the math.
“We know what’s at stake here,” Reed said. “That’s what I love about this league: no lead is safe and every game is meaningful.”
The Alouettes are coming off a hard-fought road win in B.C. – a place they hadn’t won since 2000 – but that was quickly overshadowed by the shocking decision to fire head coach Tom Higgins and replace him with general manager Jim Popp. Despite leading his team to a 3-5 record without his two top quarterbacks – and clawing back from a 1-7 start last season – Higgins was shown the door.
Popp began his career as a wide receivers coach and director of player personnel with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1992 – when Austin was quarterback – and has taken over the Alouettes on four previous occasions.
“All I can say is that it’s worked and I’ve led this team to a Grey Cup, I’ve gotten us to the playoffs every time,” Popp said. “All I can do is show them the way. I feel like I have great leadership skills.”
Several veterans expressed surprised at Higgins’ firing and Paul Lambert, a former Montreal offensive lineman, told a local radio station this week that he didn’t think Popp deserved to be head coach – and that several current Alouette players felt the same way.
“I don’t know how former players even know what’s going on in our room. They can pretend, but that’s their opinion,” Popp said. “They are about as helpful as bubble gum on my shoe. I could care less.”
One beneficiary of the coaching change is veteran defensive lineman John Bowman, who will be re-inserted into the line up after sitting out the last two weeks. He said the Alouettes aren’t intimidated by the Ticats’ run of 10 consecutive wins.
“Everybody is talking about the streak. They’re 6-2 right now but the last team they lost to is us,” he said. “It was an impressive victory and defensively we held them to minimal [gains.]”
Reed said the Ticats are aware of that fact but aren’t necessarily inclined to post it on the bulletin board. The goal is simply to keep a good thing – maybe a great thing – going.
“The loss to the Alouettes really isn’t motivation – we’ve moved on,” Reed said. “Not to take anything away from Montreal, but we’re different team at this point.”
Notes: Former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is still on the Ticats’ negotiation but there are no immediate plans to trade him to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, despite multiple unconfirmed reports saying Boyd was on his way to Regina. The 24-year-old Boyd was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL this week and has stated a desire to continue his career in the CFL. He does not, however, currently possess a passport though he is reportedly in the process of acquiring one…
Montreal Alouettes (3-5) Hamilton Tiger-Cats (6-2)
Tim Hortons Field
Thursday, Aug. 27
Game time: 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150
The storyline for Montreal: The Alouettes are playing in their first game under new general manager Jim Popp, who takes over as head coach after firing Tom Higgins. The move was a controversial one, with several veterans voicing their appreciation of what Higgins had accomplished. Popp’s bona fides as general manager are indisputable – they’ve won four Grey Cups during his tenure – but his record as a head coach is just 17-24, including playoffs.
Key injuries: Leading rusher Tyrell Sutton is out while Aaron Lavarias is sidelined with a finger injury. Brandon Rutley and Stefan Logan will handle the rushing duties while veteran John Bowman returns to the line up for Lavarias.
Five funky Montreal stats:
• there have been 56 in-season head coaching changes in the CFL since 1956 and the new head coach has won their first game at the helm 25 times (a .446 winning percentage.) This is the eighth time it’s happened since 2006 and the third for Montreal in that stretch
• in their 23-13 win over the Lions last week, the Alouettes limited B.C. to just 217 net yards and 33 on the ground. Both were season-best defensive performances as was the 23:07 that the Lions controlled the ball.
• Montreal ran the ball 39 times against B.C., gaining 251 yards. It was the most rushing attempts by Montreal since July, 2001.
• Montreal quarterbacks Rakeem Cato and Tanner Marsh completed a combined 19-of-22 passes for 154 yards and a TD against the Lions. The team completion rate 86.4 per cent was the club’s second highest ever after Anthony Calvillo’s 86.8 per cent in July, 2007.
• at 95 per cent, first-year Montreal kicker Boris Bede is on pace to set a new CFL record for field goal accuracy. He is just ahead of the record set by Calgary’s Rene Paredes 94.7 per cent in 2013.
The storyline for Hamilton: They’ve won five straight, 10 in a row at home and are the consensus pick as the CFL’s best team at the moment. But Montreal can take the season series with a win: This is a sneaky-big game before Labour Day.
Key injuries: Receiver Bakari Grant and Canadian running back Anthony Woodson remain sidelined.
Ticats roster changes and what they mean: Hamilton is is shuffling their secondary with boundary corner Ed Gainey taking a seat after a rough outing against Edmonton. Rico Murray slides from halfback to corner with Johnny Sears, who has missed the last six games with a hamstring injury, takes over at boundary half. Canadian defensive back Craig Butler returns after missing two games but will be limited to special teams and some defensive packages with Mike Daly getting the start at safety.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
• quarterback Zach Collaros has led Hamilton to 14 wins in their last 19 games and a perfect 9-0 regular season record at Tim Hortons Field.
• Collaros leads the CFL in passing yards with 2,339, yards per drive at 27.9, points per possession, and 30-yard completions.
• in Hamilton’s first four games, Collaros led them to just six touchdwn drives in 48 possessions (12.5 per cent). Over the last four games, he has 16 TD drives in 53 possessions for a 30.2 per cent mark.
• Collaros’ passer rating in the first four games, 94.1. Last four games: 133.2.
• the Alouettes are the only CFL club that Collaros does not have a win-loss record of at least .500 or better. He is 2-4 in 6 starts against Montreal, 17-6 against the rest of the CFL.
TSN play-by-play: Rod Black and Duane Forde
Referee: Tom Vallesi
The weather forecast: Partly cloudy, 19 degrees, 20 per cent chance of rain, winds out of the west at 6 km/h.