The good and bad of Hamilton’s frustrating loss to the Riders

It feels like 2010 all over again.

For this that don’t remember, that was right in the middle of Marcel Bellefeuille’s tenure as Ticats head coach and when this franchise finally found its way back to respectability. They made the playoffs in 2009 and many thought they would take the leap in 2010. They didn’t. The season ended the same as the one before, a home loss in the East Semi-Final.

Fast forward six years and these Ticats find themselves in the same position as those ones.

The main criticism of the Bellefeuille-led Ticats was that they would never string it all together. They would win one, then lose one and a .500 record (twice 9-9, once 8-10) was about as high as they would get. And despite the two Grey Cup and three East Final appearances, the Ticats under Kent Austin have gone 10-8, 9-9 and 10-8. Right now, they sit at 6-7 and are looking down the barrel of another .500, or close to, record.

A year that many thought would turn around when a certain No. 4 returned to the lineup has not, but a horrible East Division means the Ticats, even at 6-7, sill sit in second (with the home playoff date that comes with such a finish) and are still well within striking distance of first. That says a lot about the pathetic nature of the teams east of Manitoba.

Bad: The tilt-a-whirl nature of officiating

So about that penalty call…

Here is the thing: every centre does what Mike Filer did. Every single one. On every single snap. Dan Clark, Saskatchewan’s centre, did it on their third-down gamble that set up the winning field goal. It happens every time the offense has the ball, so to see it called, and to have it called because Saskatchewan players were screaming “he moved the ball” is another example of the questionable officiating we have seen for far too long. Officiating has been a topic of conversation all season and will continue to be so. But this call was a joke. And I am sure the league will issue a statement saying the refs got it right, just like they did in that Ottawa-Edmonton debacle back in Week 1, but also like that explanation, it will satisfy almost no one. Perception is reality and the perception is that CFL officials are not good, to put it kindly. Is this call the reason the Ticats lost the game? Absolutely not, but it didn’t help, that’s for sure.

Bad: Here is why the Ticats lost the game, part 1: secondary

I am not sure how many times I have mentioned the secondary in these post-game pieces, but until the Ticats get it right, I am going to continue harping on them. Another terrible performance from the back end in this one and it boils down to one simple truth: the Ticats couldn’t cover anyone. Teams average slightly more than one pass interference and illegal contact penalty per game, and Hamilton has been nailed for 15 infractions of those kind in their first 12 games. The Ticats last night had zero. Normally, you would think “Hurray! They finally learned to be disciplined,” but you would be thinking wrong. This is not a testament to some new-found discipline, but an indictment of their ability to tightly cover opposing receivers. Week after week this problem persists. It is too late to keep shuffling in new personnel, so we might just have to accept that Hamilton’s secondary is terrible.

Good: Daly shows he still belongs

After filling in admirably in six starts last year, Mike Daly was relegated to a backup role when this season began. It was thought, at least by some, that Daly could be given a chance to replace the injured Craig Butler at safety, but the Ticats decided to move Courtney Stephen there and leave Daly as a key member of the special teams unit. Stephen has put together a great year, but when he missed this game due to injury, it gave Daly another chance to showcase himself. He didn’t light the world on fire — just three tackles and one pass knockdown that should have been an interception (more on that next) — be he also didn’t look out of place. Every time he has been given a chance to start he has played well. What the future holds for Craig Butler, no one knows, but if Daly gets a chance to become a full-time starter, I do not think we will see any dropoff.

Bad: Here is why the Ticats lost the game, part 2: swing plays

I mentioned last week that there are a handful of plays in every game that swing it one way or another. Last week, those plays went Montreal’s way, but the Ticats still found a way to win. This week, the Ticats lost the swing play battle once again and ended up on the losing side. Two dropped interceptions, one by Cassius Vaughn and one by Mike Daly, and a fumble return for a touchdown called back (correctly) are three such plays in the game that could have swung momentum Hamilton’s way. Had Vaughn or Daly held onto the ball, the Ticats get a big turnover and a chance to put points on the board, or if Mitchell Gale’s knee touches a split second later, Adrian Tracy’s touchdown stands and the Ticats go up 17-10 instead of a play later being down 17-10. This just further shows that in the grand scheme of things, that a small handful of plays are what decides winning and losing. Those plays went Saskatchewan’s way last night and the Riders won the game.

Ironic Good: No blocked punts

Brett Maher did not have a punt blocked against Saskatchewan. So the ignominious streak ends at four games. That’s worth at least a Bronx cheer.

Bad: Here is why the Ticats lost the game, part 3: can’t tackle

Hamilton’s continued inability to wrap players up reared its ugly head against Saskatchewan. It seems these guys on defense are always going for the big hit, and opposing players are just bouncing off them and picking up more yards, getting first downs and extending drives. I lost count of how many times the Ticats had a Saskatchewan player dead to rights on first and second down, and allowed what would have been a two-yard gain to become an eight-yard gain. The Riders were able to pick up 145 yards after the catch last night, a 29 per cent increase from their season average of just over 112. If the Ticats would have wrapped up instead of trying to jack someone up, we could be talking about a much different outcome.

Good: John Chick, beast

One guy who has no problem making a tackle is John Chick. He looked like a grown man playing against boys out there last night. At least twice he dragged the ball carrier down with one hand. One. Hand. Think about how strong someone has to be to drag someone down with one hand on their jersey. Chick, who is now tied for the league lead in sacks with Shawn Lemon, Alex Bazzie and Charleston Hughes with 10, has been a force on defense for the Ticats in almost every game. Come award time, do not be surprised if No. 7 is the Ticats nominee for top defensive player. He may already have my vote.

Bad: Here is why the Ticats lost the game, part 4: everything else

Despite not having a punt block for the first time since mid-August, Brett Maher still had a rough day at the office. In a two-point loss, those two missed field goals loom large. As does Terrence Campbell getting his lunch eaten play after play by Jonathan Newsome. Zach Collaros didn’t face a ton of pressure last night — no one does when they play the Saskatchewan Roughriders — but he did face some when Newsome decided he wanted to play big-boy ball and just run over Campbell. Campbell replaced Brian Simmons two games ago and while Simmons was having a rough year, it might be time to go back to him after Campbell was manhandled constantly last night.

Good: Ol’ Reliable

With Luke Tasker, Chad Owens and Terrence Toliver all out last night, the consensus was that Zach Collaros was going to have to rely on Andy Fantuz. Rely on him he did and Fantuz delivered to he tune of nine catches for 113 yards, his first 100-yard game of the season. Injuries have defined Fantuz’s time with the Ticats, but he has not missed a game this year and is on his way to recording his first 1,000-yard season in black and gold, and his first since he led the league in receiving in 2010 and won Most Outstanding Canadian. It is a mini-comeback story that deserves more attention than it is getting. At 32 years old, Fantuz’s days as an elite receiver are probably behind him, but he is proving week after week that he still has a lot left and can be relied upon when needed. Depending on the severity of the injuries to Tasker, Owens and Toliver, No. 83 could be seeing a lot more action down the stretch.

Good: Playing to win

I liked the call by Kent Austin to go for it on third down with about five minutes left. Down by six at the time, conventional wisdom says you kick the field goal and cut the lead to three. Austin threw caution to the wind and gambled, and Zach Collaros found Andy Fantuz for eight yards and a first down. Two plays later, Jeremiah Masoli scampers 21 yards to the house to give the Ticats a late lead. The defense was unable to hold that lead, but Austin’s call to go for it rather than settle is the type of attitude I wished more coaches had.

Final Thoughts

In a game the Ticats needed to win to keep pace with the Ottawa Redblacks, they didn’t, and now find themselves, once again, a half game back of the Redblacks with Ottawa having a game in hand. Oh, and the 11-1-1 Calgary Stampeders, winners of their last 10, are up next. So making up that ground before the home-and-home with Ottawa should be no problem, right?

A lot will be made of the idiotic call on Mike Filer, as it should, but let’s not get it twisted. That is not why the Ticats lost this game. Two missed field goals (both of which were makeable), poor coverage and tackling, and the swing plays all going the Riders’ way is why Hamilton sits at 6-7 and not 7-6.

But the silver lining is the East Division is still mediocre at best and it is looking more and more likely that nine wins will win this division. The Ticats have six and with four winnable games in their final five, getting to nine wins is possible. Likely? Who knows, but the schedule makers gave favour to the Ticats and they need to take advantage of that. They didn’t last night and they can’t let any other games like that slip through their fingers.

If the Ticats fail to secure first place by season’s end or, heaven forbid, fail to make the playoffs, this is a game that everyone will look back on and go, “That’s why.” Injuries or not, the Ticats should not be losing to a two-win, now three-win, team.

But they did, and now the road to the Grey Cup might no longer go through Hamilton and they will have no one but themselves to blame for that.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.