They are the decided underdogs for Sunday’s East Semi-Final but for Kent Austin’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, that’s nothing new.
They were supposed to be cannon fodder in 2013 when they went into Rogers Centre and beat a favoured Argonauts team in front of raucous band of invading Ticat fans. Little was expected last season when, robbed of their star quarterback, the team staggered down the stretch and were slated as an easy out come playoff time. They were anything but.
This year, against an Edmonton Eskimos club that has won five of their last six and are the defending Grey Cup championships, the Ticats are three point underdogs, quite the indictment of their home-field advantage. The sentiment from both the pundits and the masses – a league-run pick ’em game has Hamilton with a 18 per cent chance – is overwhelming pro-Eskimo.
And yet… This has been a team that usually finds a way at this time of year.
“I like being the underdog, I like being underestimated, I like proving a point,” said return man Brandon Banks. “Anytime you have everybody against you, the chip on your shoulder gets bigger. That will be our mentality.”
But for the annual miracle to be realized – they’ve made three straight East Final appearances, winning two – they’ll need a few things to happen.
First, they’ll need to protect Collaros so he can try and take advantage of a suspect Edmonton secondary. The Ticat receiving corps has been decimated by injury and features plenty of inexperience – don’t sleep on the unknown Brian Tyms – but the passing attack remains this team’s most dangerous weapon.
To do that, rookie offensive lineman Brandon Revenberg will have to hold is own against Eskimo pass rushers Odell Willis and Marcus Howard (with a little help from running back C.J. Gable.) Edmonton likes to get pressure with their front four and containing them will allow Collaros to take his shots downfield.
That said, Hamilton has its own problems on the back end. After a season full of line up changes – some injury-related, other due to performance – the Ticats will come into the most important game of the year with yet another new look.
Defensive back Cleshawn Page, who played four games with the club last season but was released in training camp, will get the start at the boundary corner spot after re-signing last month. He has not played in a CFL regular season game this year but replaces Cassius Vaughn, whose struggled at times during his nine games this season.
Page will be charged with trying to help stop Edmonton receivers Derel Walker and Adarius Bowma, who, in addition to leading the league in receiving yards, eviscerated the Ticats this season to the tune of a combined 32 catches for 393 yards, three touchdowns in the two games.
Austin has a 48-42 regular season record as a head coach but is 6-1 in the playoffs (7-3 if you include the Grey Cup.) For all their faults this season – and there have been many – the Ticats have been a resilient bunch, rallying from 15 or more points to win on three occasions this season, the most of any club in CFL history.
“It’s kind of like the city – we always go the hard way. It’s just the Hamilton story,” Banks said. “We seem to wait until the playoffs to start playing our best football.”
In many respects, Banks is the perfect allegory for this star-crossed Ticat season. He missed the start of training camp with an ambiguous “family issue,” played well in spurts – he had three kick return touchdowns and is the East Division’s nominee for Most Outstanding Special Teams Player – then missed two games after being suspended under CFL’s drug policy for testing positive for a recreational drug.
“I’ve been frustrated because this hasn’t been my best season, I haven’t been happy with it,” Banks said.
“But I can change it that real quick in these playoffs.”