The Hamilton Tiger-Cats opened their season with a big win over their fiercest rivals, a 42-20 evisceration of the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field on Thursday night.
There was a lot to like about this game, and a little not to like, so let’s get to it.
Incredible: The HOV and ‘Soli Show
As great as the team was for most of the game, the two standouts from last night’s win were Simoni Lawrence and Jeremiah Masoli. Lawrence had one of the best games a defensive player has ever had and Masoli silenced a lot of critics with his play, especially in the second half.
Let’s start with Lawrence. In the first half, No. 21 was an unstoppable wreaking ball. It seemed like he was in on every other defensive play. Then he opened the second half by hauling in a tipped pass and scoring the first touchdown of his CFL career. A player can’t win defensive player of the year in the first game, but Lawrence seemed to be trying. He finished with seven tackles, two sacks, an interception and a touchdown. It was one of the most dominant defensive performances I have ever seen.
Lawrence cooled off slightly in the second half, but that’s like saying a sprinkler cooled off a volcano explosion, but when he did, Jeremiah Masoli took over on the other side of the ball. Many wondered how the offense would look with Masoli at the helm and we got the answer: pretty darn good. After a couple lucky breaks in the first half — his TD pass to Andy Fantuz probably should have been knocked down and Argos DB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah had two passes hit him right in the hands — Masoli lit it up in the second half. After the Argos scored to make it a five-point game, Masoli orchestrated back-to-back drives where he went 15-for-15 for 176 yards and two scores. On the first, he executed an absolutely beautiful pump-and-go to Brandon Banks in the end zone to cap the drive. But it was the second that was truly a thing of beauty. After a gorgeous punt from Lirim Hajrullahu that pinned the Ticats at their own six-yard line, Masoli drove the Ticats the length of the field in nine plays, finishing things off with a touchdown toss to Chad Owens that put the game out of reach.
He would finish 27-for-37 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. It continues his stellar play that began after his benching midway through last year’s East Semi-Final. He has now put together back-to-back games where he has outperformed two future Hall of Famers. Simply put, Masoli was on another level last night and that has got to make Ticats fans happy.
Good: Specials set the tone early
Hamilton’s special teams, as has been the case for years now, was a major contributor to the team’s win. Though he didn’t break any for scores, Brandon Banks had a few nice returns and showed that missing the first couple weeks of training camp didn’t affect him at all.
Mike Daly continues to make plays no matter what the team asks of him. Last night, he started the game by making a beautiful tackle on Brett Maher’s first punt (more on Maher in a second) that pinned the Argos inside their own five-yard line. The Ticats defense stood tall and forced the Argos to concede a safety. Daly then followed that up with a blocked punt that set the Ticats up deep in Argos territory. Daly was magnificent on specials and his play, and the unit’s play, set the tone early for the Ticats.
Good: Justin who?
There was a lot of concern with the Ticats kicking game entering this one, but at least for one night, those concerns have been alleviated. Newcomer Brett Maher was fantastic against the Argos. His punt placement was great for most of the night and he was clutch on field goals, going four-for-four, including a 50 yarder in the second quarter. If Maher keeps this up, fans will start asking, “Justin who?”
Bad: Mental errors still a problem
It wasn’t all perfect for the Ticats as mistakes by the team kept the Argos in it in the first half and allowed for them to make a game of it in the third quarter. The 18-6 halftime score flattered the Argos as a pair of penalties wiped away a Luke Tasker touchdown and a John Chick interception. Had those plays stood, the game would have been over at the half.
Then in the third quarter, after a beautiful Ray-to-Hazleton touchdown, Brandon Banks fumbled the ensuing kickoff and allowed the Argos to get first-and-goal from the Ticats’ 10-yard line. The Argos punched it to make the score 25-20. The Ticats responded, but within 30 seconds, the Argos made things tighter than it should have been.
The Ticats also had a time count that cost them a down and a no-end penalty on the ensuing punt, as well as an illegal kick to open the third quarter. These things can be glossed over when you more than double up you opponent, but these are still things that need to be corrected. Mental errors like these were an issue in the preseason as well, so you can bet that Kent Austin is not happy to see them return in Week 1.
Good: Ticats dominate trenches on both sides
It is often said that football is won in the trenches and that was on full display last night. Both Hamilton’s offensive and defensive lines stymied the Argos all night long. The o-line allowed very little pressure and allowed Masoli to make his reads and find his open man. The unit as a whole was excellent, and if that continues the Ticats will win more than they lose.
The losses of Justin Hickman, Brian Bulcke, Bryan Hall and Eric Norwood seem to have been overblown as the Ticats front four abused a very good Argos offensive line all game. Drake Nevis, the man tasked with replacing Hall, was a force, creating pressure and wreaking havoc all game long. Michael Atkinson, who was playing in place of the injured Ted Laurent, was magnificent. He formed a duo with Nevis that wrecked shop all night. Ricky Ray rarely looked comfortable and a lot of that was because of Hamilton’s front four.
Good: Chick and Owens, you’re Ticats now
We had long ago welcomed Chad Owens and John Chick to Hamilton, but yesterday was their official unveiling as Ticats and they both passed with flying colours. While my prediction of Owens having a monster game did not come to fruition, he did haul in what would be the backbreaking touchdown that put the game out of reach. He was targeted a game-high 11 times and it looks like he will be a big part of the offense.
I admitted back when he was signed that I had reservations about the Ticats signing Chick, but he put those to rest last night. He was all over the place against the Argos, forcing a Ricky Ray fumble in the first half and picking up a big sack, one of the team’s six total sacks, in the fourth quarter. He also had the aforementioned interception that was called back by a penalty. Great first game for the former Rider.
Bad: Sears in coverage
There wasn’t much to dislike about Hamilton’s performance, but one player who did not have a great game was Johnny Sears, Jr. He wasn’t terrible, don’t get me wrong, but his coverage left a lot to be desired. He started at halfback, which was a surprise. I expected him to play SAM linebacker, but the team went with Rico Murray in that spot (and he was great in it). Sears was a bit of a liability out there, but the 22-point win will mask that. But he needs to be better in coverage if he is going to stay as one of the team’s halfbacks.
Terrible: Speedy recovery for Jermaine Gabriel
It was a scary sight as Argos special teams ace Matt Black collided with teammate Jermaine Gabriel late in the fourth quarter. Gabriel laid on the turf for a long time being attended to by the Argos training staff before being carted off. He waved to the crowd as he was being taken off, which is a good sign. You never want to see something like that, so hopefully Gabriel can make a full recovery and get back on the field making plays before too long. Speedy recovery, Mr. Gabriel.
Is it possible that we underestimated this Ticats team? All the talk has been about who isn’t here — Zach Collaros, Justin Medlock, Erik Harris, Terrell Sinkfield, a slew of defensive linemen — instead of who is here and perhaps we focused on the wrong thing heading into the season. The Ticats dominated the Argos for all but 30 seconds of this contest. They looked like the Ticats who ran roughshod over the league during the summer last year. Considering that this version of the team doesn’t have all those above mentioned players, it is scary how efficient they were against the Argos. It was an incredible all-around performance. This team showed they are still a force to be reckoned with.
So for the first time since 2004, the Ticats open the season with a win (yes, it has been that long since the Ticats began a season 1-0). They will look to start 2-0 when they take on the BC Lions in their home opener on Canada Day.