Mistakes, Burris sink Hamilton’s first-place hopes

Brandon Sermons Tiquan UnderwoodTwo things crushed Hamilton’s hopes of hosting the East Final at Tim Hortons Field: an inability to stop Henry Burris and mistakes at times where they could have flipped the game in their favour.

Firstly, the mistakes, because those were the most glaring. The key error was the fumble after the fumble by Jeremiah Masoli. The Ticats had just scored to cut Ottawa’s lead to 31-26 on a brilliantly executed onside punt, and looked to have snatched momentum away from the Redblacks after they scored two touchdowns early in the third quarter. Things looked to be going Hamilton’s way when Bryan Hall forced a fumble, which was scooped up by Simoni Lawrence and taken 52 yards to Ottawa’s 19-yard line. The Ticats looked primed to take the lead, when disaster struck on the ensuing play. Shawn Lemon, who has been excellent since returning to the CFL in the summer, stripped Masoli of the ball and Ottawa recovered. In a game that was still very much anyone’s for the taking, the Ticats committed a killer error at a critical juncture. It was one of four turnovers for the team in a game where they needed to be at their best protecting the football. They failed, and the fumble inside Ottawa’s red zone is the mistake that stands out the most.

Secondly, the Ticats simply could not stop Henry Burris. Aside from one second quarter interception that led to a Ticats touchdown, Burris played mistake-free football, throwing for 386 yards and six, yes SIX, touchdowns, four of which went to ex-Ticats (three to Greg Ellingson, one to Chris Williams). It was a masterful performance from Burris, and one that likely clinched him the league’s Most Outstanding Player award. With an offensive line that gives him time, a revamped receiving corps and an aggressive offensive coordinator, Burris has Ottawa on the verge of their first Grey Cup appearance since 1981. If the Redblacks play like they have been the last few weeks, and especially last night, they aren’t going to face much resistance from the other two teams in the East playoff bracket.

A lot of talk heading into the game revolved around Hamilton’s quarterback situation, with third-year player Jacory Harris being named starter. He didn’t last long, as the Ticats yanked Harris in the second quarter for Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli, despite a couple of horrendous fumbles, didn’t play all that terribly, and this was easily his best game as a Ticat and maybe his best game since he was starting in college at Oregon. The bar was set rather low, but Masoli finished 11 of 21 for 148 yards and a touchdown pass, while adding 27 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. It was not the performance that will see statues erected of him at Tim Hortons Field, but it wasn’t the disaster that his previous outings were.

Hamilton’s special teams did their job in trying to get the Ticats a much-needed bye. The previously mentioned onside punt was a thing of beauty that left many in the TD Place crowd stunned silent. The Ticats are no strangers to successfully attempting an onside punt, but this might have been their best one to date. Medlock placed it perfectly, Rico Murray scooped it up off the bounce running at full speed and was in the end zone before many even knew what happened.

The team also got a great return to set up the final touchdown of the first half, when Terrell Sinkfield took a punt 62 yards to the Ottawa three. One play later, the Ticats were in the end zone via a pass from Masoli to Andy Fantuz and they had completely erased Ottawa’s 17-point first quarter lead.

The Ticats also created history when Brandon Banks took a missed convert 127 yards the other way for two points. It was the first ever missed covert return in league history. It might not be the most glorious of records — returning a convert does mean you allowed a touchdown, after all — but history is history and this was historic.

Defensively, the Ticats were just not on their game. They had numerous chances to tilt the game back in their favour, and failed to do so. They did create a couple of turnovers, and were put in some bad positions due to turnovers by their offense, but they were unable to get stops when they needed them. The situation that stands out most was when Hamilton had pinned Ottawa deep in their own territory, but on Ottawa’s first play from scrimmage, the Redblacks executed a picture perfect flea flicker that got Ottawa out of trouble. A few plays later, Chris Williams beat the press by Mike Edem and put the final nail in Hamilton’s coffin. When the team needed to defense to make a stop, they didn’t.

And I guess this is the part where we have to talk about the referees, because once again an officiating blunder played a role in the outcome of the game. Tiquan Underwood got called for what many believe was a completely unjustified offensive pass interference penalty late in the second quarter. The call potentially took a touchdown off the board for the Ticats, as Underwood was knocked out of bounds deep in Ottawa territory. The Ticats had to settle for a field goal, but the game was invariably altered by the botched call. This is the second week in a row an officiating error harmed the Ticats, who did not need any help from the zebras in costing them the last two games. Officiating has been a hot-button issue all season long — with maybe the most egregious error occurring in Winnipeg a few weeks back — and the league will seriously need to look at ways to correct officiating errors or just the officials in general. The integrity of the game is in question, and that simply cannot be allowed to continue. Let me be clear, the blown call on Underwood DID NOT cost the Ticats the game, but Hamilton had seized all the momentum from Ottawa at that point, and a touchdown there instead of a field goal could have changed the whole dynamic of the game. We will never know, and that might be the biggest shame of all.

Hamilton got good play from their special teams, and some turnovers from their defense, but it still wasn’t enough. When Zach Collaros got hurt, the thought among many was that the Ticats two other units could pick up the slack for an offense that was surely to struggle. But last night showed that the Ticats need more than that, just like every other team. It was naive of anyone, including myself, to think this team was still the one to beat following Collaros’ season-ending injury, at last night and the past few weeks have proven why.

The Ticats now face an uphill climb to get back to the Grey Cup. The first step in their journey comes in one week at Tim Hortons Field in the East Semi-Final against the Toronto Argonauts.

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.