Ticats return to a familiar role: underdog

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Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
– Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen.




Freddie Mercury’s voice blasted out of the locker room after practice on Wednesday, the opening lines offering a convenient allegory for the challenge facing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Losers of three straight and down to their third (or fourth) string quarterback, the Ticats have gone from the darlings of the East Division — they were 8-3 the moment starter Zach Collaros got hurt — to a team that many are counting out of Sunday’s playoff match up with Toronto Argonauts.

Just how they like it.

“I think it’s better this way, being underdogs again. It felt wrong to be a front runner, a favourite,” said linebacker Taylor Reed. “Like coach said, this is the Hamilton Tiger-Cats: we like to do things the hard way.”

In his two previous campaigns at helm, head coach and general manager Kent Austin has pushed his team’s psychological buttons this time of year, signalling the transition from the regular season — where he preaches consistency and effort — to the high-intensity and harsh reality of playoff football. And it’s worked, to the tune of two straight championship appearances.

But it hasn’t been a cake-walk. Last season, they needed a late run to not only lock up a playoff spot but vault themselves into the top seed in the East. The year before, they were forced to win a tight semifinal game against the Montreal Alouettes — in Guelph, no less — before shocking the Argonauts at the Rogers Centre.

“This feels like 2013 when we had to battle our way to the Grey Cup,” said linebacker Simoni Lawrence. “We have a lot of guys that have playoff experience and are prepared for moments like this.”

The main difference, of course, is at quarterback. In 2013, it was veteran Henry Burris at the controls (with a little help from Dan LeFevour and/or Jeremiah Masoli) while the second half of last season was essentially a coming out party for Collaros.

This season… well, who knows?

The Ticats closed practice on Wednesday, their first of the week, and Austin declined to name a starter when he met with media afterwards. So it could be Jacory Harris, who began last Saturday’s loss to Ottawa at the helm, or Masoli who took over after just 10 offensive plays.

“We’ll probably prepare two but you can’t even do that completely,” Austin said. “The decision hasn’t been made and we’ll mix up the reps to get the guys ready according to what the game plan determines.”

Both Masoli and Harris say they are fine with the uncertainty – the entirely predictable response – though Masoli allowed for a moment of possible insight to sneak out among his otherwise concise, even monosyllabic, responses.

“It can be difficult if you let it,” Masoli said. “It’s really how the individual player approaches the practice.”

Austin said that Jeff Mathews, who started five games at quarterback after Collaros went down, attended Wednesday’s session but didn’t participate in any meaningful way. He’s still dealing with the after effects of a concussion suffered Nov. 1 against Ottawa and is unlikely to be ready.

It is the uncertainty at quarterback that makes this playoff run different from the last two and it’s the primary reason why the Ticat band wagon features plenty of empty seats. Again, there’s little to do but try and turn an unfortunate set of circumstances into something resembling an advantage. Anyway the wind blows, as Freddie would say, it doesn’t really matter to me.

“We know what we can do,” is how Reed puts it. “Only this team, only this city believes we have any type of chance.”

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