Simoni Lawrence usually calls the coin toss when the Ticats is on the road – always tails – but for Sunday’s East Final against the Ottawa Redblacks, he’s decided to turn the responsibility over to kicker and fellow team captain Justin Medlock.
“I’m going to let Medlock call it because Medlock has the juice right now,” Lawrence said. “He’s one that has to kick it anyway. I don’t want to get it wrong, then he has to kick his game-winner into the wind.”
Hamilton earned a spot in the final off last Sunday when Medlock hit a 47-yard field goal with zeros on the clock to give his team a 25-22 win over the Toronto Argonauts. The Ticats went into the game as serious underdogs, starting their fourth string quarterback and having lost five of seven since starter Zach Collaros went down.
Still, they found a way to eke out a dramatic victory – and give themselves a huge confidence boost in the process said veteran defensive end Justin Hickman. “The way we won was real team effort and I think it helped us, especially after losing three in a row to end the season,” Hickman said. “I feel like we kind of lost our mojo for second. Now we got it back.”
The challenges remain the same. The Ticats will be starting Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback for a second straight week but it’s just the third start of his career. Meanwhile, Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris – a former Ticat who helped take the team to the 2013 Grey Cup game – is in his 17th CFL season.
But head coach Kent Austin has embraced Masoli’s skill-set, installing a run-heavy game plan against Toronto while encouraging the strong-armed 27-year-old to be smart with the football.
“We know the most important thing is for quarterbacks to make great decisions and he’s been working at that,” Austin said.
Hamilton must also deal with the latest in a seriously long string of injuries to key players. Defensive end Eric Norwood is likely done for the season with a torn ACL suffered against Toronto and the team will rely upon Canadian Arnaud Gascon-Nadon (zero career CFL starts) and American Troy Davis (zero career CFL games) to replace him.
Given that Burris tore the Ticats to shreds in a 44-28 victory on the final week of the regular season, making him uncomfortable – and enticing his interception-throwing alter-ego Bad Hank to emerge – is a paramount. Bryan Hall says it’s pretty simple.
“Keep pressure on him and make sure we hit him,” Hall said. “A lot.”
Hall was part of last season’s Grey Cup run and there are a number Ticats who have been together for all three seasons under Austin. With a number of high-profile players due to hit free agency next February – including Hall, Hickman and Masoli – there is an increased sense of urgency to this season.
“This team will never be same and that’s what I told everybody last week: ‘let’s just do this one more time,” Hall said. “We’ve come this far and we have something special here.”
Then there is the question of experience. The Redblacks are in just their second year of existence and have 19 players on their 46-man roster who will be playing in their first-ever post-season game. Hamilton has just four. Receiver Maurice Price guaranteed a victory and both Burris and Chris Williams (another ex-Ticat) took shots at their former club this week.
The Ticats haven’t responded.
“The experience helps as long as you draw on it properly. Guys knowing the environment, being on the road in a big game – being familiar with that stuff helps,” Austin said. “But they need to focus and that means cutting out the noise, cutting out distractions, don’t worry about emotions.”
Hamilton is battle-tested but banged up, the Redblacks are healthy but inexperienced. Both quarterbacks, in their own way, are something of a question mark.
Sounds like a coin flip.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (10-8) at Ottawa Redblacks (12-6)
Sunday, Nov. 22
Game time: 1 p.m. EST
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150
The storyline for Ottawa: The Redblacks seem like a confident bunch after beating the Ticats twice to end the regular season and winning first place in the East Division. Receiver Maurice Price guaranteed an Ottawa victory, though coach Rick Campbell insists they’re the underdog. Quarterback Henry Burris has a huge advantage in experience but – as Ticats fans know – Bad Hank often appears at the worst times.
Key injuries: Coming off a first-round playoff bye, the Redblacks are certainly in much better shape than the Ticats. Running back Jeremiah Johnson may return (likely in a back up role) as will halfback Jerell Gavins, who started 15 games and had four interceptions.
Five funky Ottawa stats:
1. In their two wins over Hamilton to end the regular season, the Redblacks outscored the Ticats 56-34, won the turnover battle 7-4, led in sacks 10-3 and dominated the time of possession by almost seven minutes.
2. After winning just two games last season, the Redblacks 10-win improvement in 2015 is the second-highest year-over-year improvement in CFL history.
3 The Redblacks won four straight games to end the regular season and were 8-2 at home this season.
4. In their 12 wins, Ottawa averaged 433 yards of net offence; in their 6 losses they averaged over 140 less yards per game at 292 per game.
5. Running back William Powell started the final four games of the season and his 392 yards rushing were tops in the CFL over than span. He also added 110 yards receiving.
The storyline for Hamilton: This season started with Grey Cup aspirations and that hasn’t changed, despite a series of seemingly insurmountable setbacks. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli makes his second career start and the formula for winning remains the same: generate enough offence while looking after the football and let the defence and special teams do their thing. It was enough to beat Toronto. This time…
Key injuries and roster changes: Defensive end Eric Norwood is out with a suspected torn ACL so Canadian Arnaud Gascon-Nadon is expected to get the start, giving the Ticats ratio flexibility elsewhere (they may use four American defensive backs.) Rookie defensive end Troy Davis will likely play in first-ever CFL game in a special teams and reserve role. Receivers Luke Tasker and Terrell Sinkfield missed some practice time this week but are good to go, as is linebacker Simoni Lawrence.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
1. The Ticats are are now 4-2 in the post-season under head coach Kent Austin and will be playing in their fourth East Final in the last five years. They are now 42-44-1 all-time in the playoffs and 15-28-1 on the road.
2. The last time that Hamilton won three consecutive East Division playoff titles was 1984 to 1986 They won the Grey Cup just once in that span (’86.)
3. Jeremiah Masoli has two career CFL starts while Ottawa’s Henry Burris has 233 total regular season and playoff starts (119-111-3.)
4. Since 1960, no team has won the Grey Cup starting a quarterback with fewer than five regular season starts that season. The last team to win a title with a QB who with just a single regular season start is Winnipeg in 1959 with Ken Ploen.
5. The Ticats were 5-4 away from Tim Hortons Field this season but have lost their last two road games in Ottawa and B.C.. combined score of 84-41.
TSN play-by-play: Rod Black and Duane Forde with Matthew Scianitti.
Referee: Al Bradbury
The weather forecast: Partly cloudy, 5 degrees C, winds out of the southwest at 25 km/h.