In late August of 2014, the Green Bay Packers brought in a few quarterbacks for a workout. Jeff Mathews was one of them. So was Jonathan Jennings.
Neither was signed that day – Mathews would soon be inked by the Indianapolis Colts – but they spent the day chatting and formed an instant connection: two guys from small U.S. colleges trying to make it in the pro game.
“We talked about what we were doing and he mentioned that he was thinking about coming up here,” Mathews said. “It’s a grind when you’re not on a team and trying to make it.”
Fifteen months later, they are well on their way: two rookie starting quarterbacks generating plenty of buzz in a league desperate for an infusion of talent at its most important position. On Friday they’ll face each other as Mathews’ Hamilton Tiger-Cats take on Jennings’ B.C. Lions squad in Vancouver.
The game has serious playoff implications for the Lions who are stuck on five wins after losing a season-long series of heartbreakers: they’ve lost a league-high five games when leading after three quarters. Tied with Winnipeg for third in the West – the Bombers hold the tie-breaker, the Lions have a game in hand – the Leos are also battling five-win Montreal as they look to crossover from the East Division.
“We know what’s at stake – we have to try and solidify ourselves in the playoff run,” said B.C. defensive back Ryan Phillips. “I’m used to winning ball games, I’m used to being in the playoffs. It’s up to us.”
The Ticats have already punched their ticket to the post season but are still chasing the top spot in the East and first round bye. They are coming off a win against the Alouettes last Sunday but are playing on short rest after a long cross-country flight. The team flew out to Vancouver a day early to try and get adjusted to the time change as the game starts at 10 p.m. Eastern time.
One guy who won’t mind the trek: running back C.J. Gable, who makes his return to the line up after missing 10 games with a dislocated elbow. Known for his all-around versatility, head coach Kent Austin says Gable is one of the best pass protectors in the league.
“He’ll go and close the window on a rusher very quickly along the line of scrimmage which keeps the integrity of the pocket,” Austin said. “It makes it easier for the quarterback to stay in there.”
That’s particularly important for Mathews, who is making just his fourth career CFL start: more of a pocket passer, he doesn’t have the escapability that helps Jennings get out of trouble. But both players are accurate passers with completion percentages in excess of 65 per cent, something Austin says is rare for young quarterbacks.
“We feel like you’re naturally accurate or you’re not,” Austin said. “You can modify that some with fundamental teaching and proper techniques but you can’t teach a guy to know innately when that window is coming open.”
Mathews and Jennings have kept in touch since the workout in Green Bay, exchanging the occasional text and chatting before the Ticats’ win over B.C. in Hamilton on Aug. 15. They aren’t exactly friends, Mathews says, but there’s a certain commonality of experience and purpose.
“He’s a good dude and we’re kinda on the same journey so that’s cool.”
Notes: Ticat quarterback Zach Collaros had surgery on Thursday to repair the ACL and meniscus is his right knee. “”We’re pleased with where he is,” Austin said. “There is no indication that he won’t have a full recovery.”… veteran defensive back Rico Murray will take over the boundary corner from Jalil Carter against the Lions.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (10-5) at B.C Lions (5-10)
Friday, Oct. 23
Game time: 7 p.m. EST
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150
The storyline for B.C.: The Lions are locked in a three-way battle with Winnipeg and Montreal for the only remaining playoff spot left in the CFL: third place in the West. Each team has five wins but the Bombers hold the tie-breaker over B.C. so the Lions need to win at least one of their remaining three games to make the post-season (they do have a game in hand over Winnipeg.) Rookie Jonathan Jennings makes his fifth start at quarterback (he’s 1-3 so far.)
Key injuries: The Lions lost all-world linebacker Solomon Elimimian to a season-ending knee injury the last time these two teams played, a 52-22 Hamilton win on Aug. 15. Quarterback Travis Lulay started the opening nine games before suffering a knee sprain in early September. He’s back on the roster but appears to have lost his job to Jennings.
Five funky B.C. stats:
1. Jennings is averaging 312 passing yards in his four starts and is one of only six quarterbacks in history to amass 1,000 yards passing in his first three games.
2. The Lions lead the the league in two-and-outs with 95.
3. B.C. has allowed a league-leading 52 “big plays,” including 14 rushes over 20 yards, 25 passes over 30, and a league-worst 13 kick returns of over 40 yards.)
4. Should the Lions fail to make post-season, it would snap a streak of 18 consecutive years with a post-season berth, the third-longest in league history.
5. Andrew Harris was limited to just two yards on six carries last week in the loss to Edmonton and he has five catches in his last four games.
The storyline for Hamilton: The Ticats have locked up a playoff spot – their sixth in the last seven seasons – but are still gunning for first place and first-round bye. They hold a one-game lead over Ottawa and Toronto and can clinch at least a home playoff date with a win and an Argo loss. But they’ll need to win at least one of their two remaining games against the Redblacks to take the East Division.
Key injuries: Receivers Bakari Grant and Terrence Tolliver are still a week or two away, as is offensive tackle Joel Figueroa. Running back Michael Ford was injured against Montreal last week and is out.
Roster changes and what they mean: Running back C.J. Gable returns after a 10-game absence with a dislocated elbow, the latest in a long string of injuries that have forced him to miss 25 of the last 27 contests. Defensive back Rico Murray is also back after missing five games with strained hamstring. He’ll take over from Jalil Carter at the boundary corner spot.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
1. With four consecutive wins, the Ticats are on their longest road win streak since 1981.
2. Six blocked kicks gives Hamilton the league lead in that category and it’s the most by any team since 2001. The team record is seven, set in 2000, and the CFL record is eight (Edmonton, 1986.)
3. The Ticats have led at the end of the first quarter a CFL-leading 12 times this season and have gone on to win nine of those games.
4. Receiver Terrell Sinkfield is 85 yards short of his first career 1,000 yard season while Luke Tasker needs 142 yards to crack the same mark.
5. After leading the league early in the season, the Ticats are now third in the CFL in penalties with an average of 12.4 per game. The still lead the CFL in offside and procedure calls, however, with 59.
TSN play-by-play: Chris Cuthbert and Glen Suitor
Referee: Al Bradbury
The weather forecast: Indoors