Every season, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats find new a way to break hearts.
On Sunday — a year after losing the Grey Cup in the final moments on a penalty call — the Ticats fell to the Ottawa Redblacks 35-28 in similarly spectacular fashion, giving up a game-winning touchdown with just over a minute remaining.
“There are no words,” said veteran defensive end Justin Hickman. “Just disappointment.”
In truth, there were many who believed the season had ended long before — not on a cold, grey afternoon in Ottawa, but on a late summer night in Hamilton: Sept. 19 to be exact.
That’s the day quarterback Zach Collaros was lost for the year with a torn ligament in his knee. At the time, Collaros was the best player in the league and the Ticats were among the CFL’s elite, poised for a run to a third straight Grey Cup berth.
Without Collaros, they cycled through three quarterbacks before settling on Jeremiah Masoli, a third-year player making just his third career start on Sunday. He was supposedly the weak link, an Achilles heel on a team otherwise destined for greatness.
Except he wasn’t. Masoli played brilliantly against Ottawa, throwing for 349 yards and two scores, including an all-world touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter that tied the game. He battled through pain — a wonky ankle injured in the first half — to put his team in position to win.
Head coach Kent Austin heaped praise on Masoli, who started the season buried on the depth chart as the team’s No. 4 quarterback, almost an afterthought.
“What you saw in Jeremiah is what we’ve seen in him and why we wanted to keep him. The man has grown immensely through his experiences,” Austin said. “He played well enough for us to win.”
The Ticats continued to believe they were championship-calibre team after Collaros’ injury, despite winning just two regular season games after he went down. But they found a way to manufacture a last-second win over Toronto in the Eastern semifinal and came within a play or two of a third straight Grey Cup appearance.
A different exit strategy, but an exit all the same.
“Every loss is difficult, especially a game that you thought you had a chance to win,” Austin said. “As disappointed as I am for our guys, I’m happy for the Redblacks. It’s good for them and it’s good for our league.
That’s undoubtedly true — the Redblacks are going to the title game in just their second year of existence and packed TD Place stadium to the rafters on Sunday. But there’s at least some irony that the duo that did in the Ticats — Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris and receiver Greg Ellingson — are former members of the Black and Gold, cast aside as Austin remade the roster.
“It’s nice to play against my old team,” Ellingson said afterwards. “But it’s more about going to the Grey Cup and winning it.”
That’s something the Ticats — and their fans — won’t get to experience, the Grey Cup drought now 16 seasons and counting, a pair of devastating losses the most recent chapters in an extended run of championship futility.
“Last year was so tough because of how the game ended. This year it feels … it feels like we should have had one more game to see what we could do,” said receiver Luke Tasker. “It seems like it got cut short.”
The Ticats had their share of opportunities to win this game, no question. They gave up five points late in the first half. Defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon dropped what looked a sure interception in the fourth quarter — just one play before the Burris and Ellingson heroics.
Against the odds, the Ticats had a chance to make it back to the only game that matters.
“All this talk that we should have won this football game. We don’t believe that. We could have, but we didn’t.” Austin said. “I told the team, it isn’t always going to work out. Welcome to the game of life.”