All three phases click as Ticats beat Riders 30-15

CFL FootballAfter two tough losses to arguably the league’s two best teams, some Ticats fans were ready to call it a season. No championship was coming to Hamilton in 2015. And while that still may be true, the team showed last night that with good defense, solid special teams and an offense capable of capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes, as well as not making too many of their own, they can win football games, as they did last night in dispatching the now out-of-the-playoffs Saskatchewan Roughriders 30-15 at Tim Hortons Field.

Obviously the play of Jeff Mathews is where we must start. Say what you want about the quality of the opposition, but going 22 of 33 for 385 yards and three touchdowns with, most importantly, no turnovers is not something that can simply be dismissed because the Ticats were playing the lowly Saskatchewan Roughriders. Mathews looked poised in the pocket and wasn’t afraid to use his feet — not exactly his strong suit — to pick up crucial yards. But the biggest takeaway is that he did not turn the ball over. No interceptions, no fumbles, and the one turnover the team did have, on downs, came via a fake field goal that was unsuccessful. After turning the ball over nine times in the last two games, to see Mathews come away with a clean sheet was heartening. Hopefully this is the type of performance that he can build on.

A lot of Mathews’ success came because the offensive line was very good, keeping the pocket clean and allowing Mathews to make his reads and find the open receiver. The Ticats did surrender four sacks, but those came mostly due to coverage, not immediate pressure from the Riders. Considering the team was still without potential all-star Ryan Bomben, this was as good a game as one could expect.

While extrapolating too much from one game is usually foolish, once you add a second good game, I think it is fair to pump someone’s tires a bit. Michael Ford has been exactly what this team needed at the running back position. He may not put up big numbers, 10 carries for 54 yards and three catches for 11 yards against the Riders, but he is the type of runner who doesn’t dance around. He looks for the hole, puts his head down and hits it. In one case, literally putting his down and picking up five yards. Hamilton does not need Cornish-like production from their running backs, but to get solid, move-the-chain yardage from their rushers is something that had been lacking. Not now. Ford has shown that he belongs on the field, and the Ticats finally have some consistent production from the tailback position.

If not for Jeff Mathews’ big game, we might be talking about Terrell Sinkfield more. Take it back a year ago, and Sinkfield was a whipping boy. He made an all-time boneheaded play against the Toronto Argonauts, choosing to look at their sideline and taunt instead of staying focused and scoring a touchdown on a punt return that likely would have meant a Ticats win. But fast forward 12 months and Sinkfield has put that behind him, turning into one of Hamilton’s most consistent receiving threats. Against the Riders, he caught four passes for 163 yards, the biggest being an 87-yard catch, break tackle and run for a touchdown in the third quarter that pretty much put the game away. Sinkfield now leads the team in receiving with 825 yards and looks to become the first Hamilton receiver to notch a 1,000-yard season since Chris Williams did it in 2012.

But No. 14 wasn’t the only receiver who had a good game, so too did Tiquan Underwood, picking up the first 100-yard game of his young CFL career. But unlike Sinkfield, Underwood did make a couple of bad mistakes, namely dropped passes on very catchable balls, both of which ended drives. Underwood has been in and out of the lineup the last few weeks, and was only on the field last night because of an injury to Terrence Toliver. And while I would consider myself an Underwood fan, last night showed why he has not consistently made the game-day roster.

Drops were a bit of a problem last night, and not just from Underwood. Brandon Banks had a couple balls go off his hands — albeit one that looked like it was thrown a bit behind him and one, in the end zone, that came in tight coverage — but a young quarterback’s best friend is sure-handed receivers. While Hamilton’s pass catchers were mostly spectacular yesterday, and Underwood more than made up for his gaffes during the game, the score was a little too close for a game that was really dominated by one team, and the drops were one of the reasons for that.

Another reason that the Ticats only won by 15 was due to two big plays by the Saskatchewan offense. Two touchdown bombs, a 79-yard pass to Weston Dressler and a 68-yard pass to Ryan Smith, were all that stood in the way of a much bigger Hamilton win. The Dressler touchdown looked like a bust in coverage, as he just ran free into the secondary and hauled in the long bomb for the score. The Smith touchdown came on a nice throw by Brett Smith and a great route run by his receiver. But aside from that, and Saskatchewan’s first series which resulted in a missed field goal, Hamilton’s defense was on point. They stuffed the run — Jerome Messam had eight yards on five carries — and created turnovers, intercepting both Roughriders quarterbacks. It wasn’t a flawless game from the defense, but it was a really good one, and ones like this are what the team will need going forward.

Hamilton also got some great contributions from their special teams. Brandon Banks had a couple nice returns, though one was called back because of a penalty, and they had the big blocked punt that led to Hamilton’s first touchdown. They also did a pretty good job in punt coverage as well. Saskatchewan’s Nic Demski has turned into one of the league’s better return men, and Hamilton’s special teams unit held him in check, allowing a long return of just 14 yards for the rookie out of Manitoba. Special teams definitely had a big hand in last night’s victory.

Hamilton’s recipe for success this season has been getting big plays on special teams and defense, turning those plays into points, be it on their own our by giving the offense good field position, and jumping out to early leads. They did all of those things against the Roughriders and unsurprisingly took home the victory.

Last night’s game was not a must-win, but it was a gotta-win. And the Ticats went out and got a win. Now let’s see if they can build on last night’s performance, and continue to play as well over the final month of the season.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.