“We had some work to get done, ” Mathews said. “It went a little long but we talked it through as a group and finished up strong.”
Mathews will make his second career start on Friday when the Ticats host the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and while a post-walkthrough chat isn’t commonplace, nothing about Mathews’ ascension to the No. 1 job has gone exactly as planned. Losing starter Zach Collaros two-thirds of the way through a stellar campaign was a dramatic deviation from the script, as was Mathews’ turnover-laden relief effort in the loss to Edmonton.
Then last week against Calgary, Hurricane Hortons made life difficult for everyone, drop-back passers and kickers in particular. Mathews played better – though in that wind it was hard to tell just how much better – but an interception combined with a crucial third-quarter fumble were contributing factors in a narrow three-point defeat.
“Ball security is always a focus, and obviously it’s a big focus for me right now, ” Mathews said. “But you can’t worry about those things, you just work on them. You can’t think about that stuff when you’re playing the game.”
Getting Mathews not to think is perhaps the biggest challenge. While he certainly has the work ethic and physical tools – particularly a strong, accurate throwing arm – life under the bright lights is different, says veteran receiver Bakari Grant.
“In a game you have adrenaline, you’re hearing and seeing 20 different things coming at you, ” Grant says.
“Jeff’s making reads, going through the process. He understands what’s happening, can explain his mistakes and studies the game. He just needs experience.”
A little extra help from his defence wouldn’t hurt, either. After generating 38 turnovers the first 11 weeks of the season – tops in the CFL by a wide margin – the Ticats’ defence has forced just one take-away in each of the last two games.
“We felt we were very poor tacklers against Calgary so we’re getting back to our fundamentals, ” said middle linebacker Taylor Reed. “But there’s no pressure: we’d still want to play well, whether Zach was out there or not. We believe in Jeff, we just have to do our job.”
Helping Mathews out is on Brandon Banks’ to-do list, too, along with a couple of other items. With four punt return touchdowns on the year, Banks is one behind the CFL record set by former Ticat-turned-Redblack Chris Williams, who registered five in 2012.
“I’m a competitor and I have ego problems: I feel like I’m the best at everything, I want to be part of the history books, ” Banks said, laughing. “I want two more, that way I don’t have to share the record with anybody.”
For Saskatchewan, the numbers are far more bleak. With just two wins on the year, they are already in must-win territory and must get a statistically-improbable amount of help to make the post-season. With an 0-7 record in games decided by four points or less – speaking of numerical oddities – quarterback Kevin Glenn says 2015 has felt like the year of the snakebite.
“I’m not necessarily a gambler, but when you look at the probabilities, you sometimes think, ‘Damn, what’s going on?'” Glenn said. “But you can’t get sidetracked by that stuff – the important thing is just go out and play well.”
If the Riders don’t want to contemplate the standings, the Ticats don’t really need to – at least not yet. Two straight losses have pushed them into a tie for first in the East but they are still well positioned to host a playoff game, either by winning the division or finishing second. What they really need to do is make sure Mathews is ready for the do-or-die scenario.
“He’s no different than other quarterbacks, ” said head coach Kent Austin. “He’s going to get better with time.”
Unlike the Riders, the Ticats still have that luxury. For now.
The storyline for Saskatchewan: The Riders are on the brink of playoff elimination, and a loss to Hamilton or win by B.C. on Saturday finishes them off. They’ve already fired their head coach, former Ticat defensive co-ordinator Corey Chamblin, and general manager Brendan Taman. They are playing for pride and future employment, which is plenty.
Key injuries: Canadian receiver Chris Getzlaf will return after missing seven games with a foot injury while Cory Watman will make his first start of the season at centre in place of Dan Clark, who is out with a concussion.
Five funky Saskatchewan stats:
1. The Rider defence ranks worst in the CFL in points allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, net offence allowed, sacks and interceptions.
2. Saskatchewan is 0-7 in games decided by four points or less in 2015.
3. Quarterback Kevin Glenn, a one-time Tiger-Cat, has a 14-7 record in 21 career starts against Hamilton. That’s his best record against any opponent. He is 90-87-1 overall as a starter.
4. The Riders blocked two kicks in their game at B.C. Place last week, the first time in over six years that a club had blocked two kicks in the same game.
5. Receiver Weston Dressler had 20 catches for 320 yards in his first three games of 2015, but only 29 for 270 yards in his last eight games.
The storyline for Hamilton: The Ticats have lost two straight and three of their last four games at Tim Hortons Field but remain tied for first in the East Division with an 8-5 record. Rookie Jeff Mathews makes his second career start at quarterback and must avoid the costly turnovers that have cost him since he took over the injured Zach Collaros. The matchup with the Riders is the first of three straight games against sub-.500 teams before a key home-and-home series with the Ottawa Redblacks to end the season.
Key injuries and roster changes: all-star defensive end Eric Norwood returns after missing a month with a knee injury and will take over from Adrian Tracy, who is likely done for the year with a knee injury suffered last week. Canadian defensive end Everett Ellefsen comes onto the roster for national linebacker Ron Omara. Receiver Terrence Tolliver is still on the 46 but didn’t practise this week and could be scratched in favour of Tiquan Underwood.
Five funky Hamilton stats
1. The Ticats are trying to avoid their first three-game home losing streak since Sept. 19, 2008, a span of 64 games.
2. With their 23-20 loss to Calgary last week, the Ticats fell to 0-4 in games decided by four points or less. Since 2011, they are 7-18 in those contests.
3. Linebacker Frederic Plesius is tied for fifth in the CFL with 13 special teams tackles on the season.
4. Justin Medlock’s 40.2-yard punting average is 10th among the 11 kickers in the CFL with at least 30 kicks. His 31.6-yard net average is dead last.
5. Medlock has made 88.2 per cent of his field goals this season (tied for second), has the second-longest average kick (34.2 yards) and leads the CFL in scoring with 137 points.
TSN play-by-play: Rod Black and Duane Forde with Matthew Scianitti
Referee: Dave Foxcroft
The weather forecast: Partly cloudy, 13 degrees with a 20 per cent chance of rain. Winds out of the north at 25 km/h gusting to 40 km/h.