On their first play from scrimmage in Sunday’s win over Montreal, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats did something unusual: they ran the football.
In the first 12 weeks of the season – with quarterback Zach Collaros at helm – the Ticats opened the game with a run only twice. As they jumped out to a 9-3 record, they did so with one of the league’s most anemic ground game both in terms of effort (16.1 carries per game) and production (76.3 yards.)
With one of the league’s best pivots behind centre – Collaros was leading the league in yards, touchdown passes and quarterback efficiency when he tore his ACL on Sept. 19 – that wasn’t a problem. But since Jeff Mathews has taken over, head coach Kent Austin and offensive coordinator Tommy Condell have tweaked their offence in order to take some of the pressure off a rookie quarterback who began the season with exactly zero pro starts on his resume.
Over their last three games – all Mathews’ starts – the Ticats have run the ball a total of 62 times, the most of any team in the CFL over that span.
This make sense for all kinds of reasons. Blitzing rookie quarterbacks like Mathews is standard operating procedure: identifying and dealing with pressure well is something that comes with age and experience, like ear hair and the ability to appreciate good scotch. But an effective running game keeps help attack-happy defences honest and off balance.
It also lowers the risk factor that inevitably comes with throwing the football. In his three starts, Mathews has thrown just one interception and fumbled twice – but that doesn’t the debacle against Edmonton when he came on in relief of Collaros and committed four turnovers. Ticat running backs, meanwhile, have fumbled just twice all season.
Which isn’t to say that Austin and Condell have turned Mathews into a game manager. He’s averaging 27 pass attempts in his three starts and while that’s down from Collaros’ 30 per game, he’s been entrusted to throw the ball with regularity. Like Collaros, Mathews possesses a skill that’s tough to teach: accuracy. The 24-year-old has completed 69 per cent of his passes this season, better than veterans Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly and Kevin Glenn.
Austin and Condell – with a little help from Collaros – have done an excellent job helping Mathews cut down on the mental clutter that often overwhelms young quarterbacks, streamlining his decision-making process. The receiving corps has been sure-handed, making catches of both routine and spectacular. Mathews has looked increasingly confident, going through his progressions and using his strong arm to make tough throws into tight spaces.
To win the East Division and earn a third straight Grey Cup berth, the Ticats can likely rely on their stalwart defence – second in the CFL in points against, first in takeaways – and standout special teams. Hamilton leads the league with six blocked kicks, possesses the game’s most dangerous return man in Brandon Banks and features Justin Medlock, the most accurate kicker in CFL history . That combination – along with a competent, turnover-averse offence – will win a lot of football games.
Michael Ford’s initial carry against Montreal went for a long gain, setting up the first of five Medlock field goals. Just as importantly, set the tone for a banner rushing day: the team’s 25 carries would be a season-high. And it led to yet another win by a rookie quarterback who doesn’t have to carry a team to victory all by himself.