In a season in which they overcame huge setbacks, it was the little things that finally killed the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Ticats fell 35-28 to the Ottawa Redblacks in Sunday’s Canadian Football League Eastern final, a game that was – quite literally – within their grasp.
But a dropped interception and one horrendous defensive letdown later, and the season-long quest for redemption came to an abrupt and inglorious end.
Former Hamilton players Henry Burris and Greg Ellingson connected on a 93-yard touchdown with just over a minute remaining, the winning points in a wild game that featured multiple lead changes and just as many momentum swings.
It came just one play after defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon – making his first career start – allowed an errant Burris toss to tumble from his hands to the turf.
“It never comes down to one play, ” a composed coach Kent Austin said afterwards. “We had plenty of opportunities to win the football game. We had them beat a couple of different times.”
Indeed, there were myriad small details left undone.
The Tiger-Cats, leading by three late in second quarter, got backed up by a couple of special-teams penalties, then watched as receiver Tiquan Underwood inexplicably stepped out of bounds after a reception to stop the clock.
Hamilton surrendered a two-point safety and a field goal as well, turning a lead into a 19-17 deficit at halftime.
Both offences were stuck in the mud for much of the third as Ottawa adapted to Hamilton’s run-heavy attack. But quarterback Jeremiah Masoli – tasked with replacing the irreplaceable Zach Collaros – showed off his throwing arm, racking up 349 yards on 30 of 42 passing and two touchdowns. He ran for another.
But a touchdown pass to Luke Tasker was called back on an offside (Tasker was over the line as the play began) and the normally reliable Justin Medlock missed a fourth-quarter field goal attempt. Similar to last week’s gutsy win against Toronto, it was tough to tell whether the Ticats were hanging in or hanging on.
Still, when Masoli hit Tasker with a gorgeous rainbow to tie the game at 28 with just over 90 seconds, it felt like the Cats had all the momentum. The home crowd, large and raucous all day, was virtually silent.
Then Burris almost ‘Bad Hanked’ the game away. His pass hit Nadon in the hands and seemed poised to give Hamilton, at the very least, perfect field position for a game-winning field goal. Instead, the ball tumbled to the turf.
“I turned around, saw the ball, tried to get my hands on it, thought I had it … just got to make that play, ” Nadon said afterward.
The Redblacks were still in trouble. Facing second and 25 after a penalty and deep in their own zone, the Ticats were in good shape to get the ball back and orchestrate a drive of their own. Instead, Burris corralled a bad snap and hit Ellingson streaking down the sideline. Hamilton defensive back Ed Gainey had fallen, and all-star halfback Emanuel Davis couldn’t make the tackle.
“The difference is, we didn’t make the plays, ” Austin said.
It was a cavalcade of mistakes for a veteran, battle-tested playoff team, and Austin had trouble explaining exactly why.
“You’d have to ask the player. All we do is coach them to do what we ask them to do, ” Austin said. “I’ll probably look back and see if I hit every item on the checklist and how often did I do it. I’ll certainly be thinking about that.”
With a raft of free agents set to hit the market in February – including Masoli, Medlock and all-star defensive tackle Ted Laurent – the Ticats are expected to look much different next season. The run for this group, the core of which made two straight Grey Cup appearances and came within a play or two of another, has come to an end.
“I’m unbelievably proud of the guys in that room. We have an unbelievable football team. I’ve never been prouder of a group of men than these guys today, ” said Austin.