What we learned from the Ticats’ hard-fought first win of the season

After one of the most difficult weeks in recent team history, the Ticats found a way to send the few fans that were still there after a two-plus hour lightning delay home happy by finally winning their first game of 2017, a 24-22 triumph over the Toronto Argonauts.

It wasn’t pretty, but that doesn’t matter. A win is a win, and while this team is probably still too far gone to make any type of post-season noise, it was still nice to leave Tim Hortons Field after a win for the first time in almost a year.

They have to do things the hard way

The ending of this game was typical 2017 Ticats, trying to find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Let’s recap.

After Lirim Hajrullahu missed a 37-yard field goal with 45 seconds left, the Ticats simply had to kneel the ball three times to win the game. Simple, right? Not for this team. After the first play, where the Argos were a bit aggressive, Ticats receiver Jalen Saunders received an objectionable conduct penalty, which stopped the clock with 36 seconds remaining. So now the Ticats have to pick up a first down to end the game. They did not, so they had to punt. The punt came with 11 seconds in the game, the Argos Martese Jackson was swarmed and the clock hit zero. Game over, right? Nope, another Ticats penalty and an incorrect clock gave the Argos two seconds and one play from their 35 to try to win the game. Luckily for the Cats, Cody Fajardo’s Hail Mary fell incomplete and the Ticats escaped with their first win of the season.

But man oh man, they didn’t make it easy on themselves. These calamities extended an already interminably long game and it left more than a few hearts in need of a defibrillator.

Give it up for your defense

Hamilton’s defense, much maligned all season, played a whale of a game on Labour Day. They beat the tar out of Ricky Ray and while they surrendered 325 yards through the air, they didn’t really allow the big play. The Argos longest play from scrimmage was 24 yards, a dump-off pass to Brandon Whitaker where he picked up 20 of those yards after the catch. It was an all around solid defensive performance and by far the team’s best of the season.

Richard Leonard, baller
Only one player has played every game in the Ticats secondary this season and it is for good reason. Richard Leonard just continues to make plays. He notched his fourth interception of the season, which ties him with T.J. Heath for second in the league, and tied for the team lead with seven defensive tackles. He has become the team’s top defensive back this season, and is a building block for any future secondary. The Ticats have found a few gamers in this somewhat lost season and Richard Leonard is one of them.

Not so much Masoli magic, but just enough

The numbers were hardly great — 19 of 33 (57.6 per cent), 219 yards, one touchdown, one interception and 11 rushing yards on two carries — but Jeremiah Masoli is the quarterback of record on Hamilton’s first win of the season. A lot of people will say the win justifies the move to go to Masoli and bench Zach Collaros, but no matter the outcome, this game was not going to be the ultimate deciding factor in that being a good or bad decision.

What we saw was typical Masoli, brilliant one play (the beautiful TD pass to Brandon Banks) and horrible the next (his interception or taking a sack with no time left in the first half). But Masoli did what he usually does, which was just enough, and because of that the Ticats are no longer winless. Now we need to see if he can put it together over multiple games before we anoint him the future franchise quarterback.

Getting those Labour Day bounces

The Ticats haven’t had many bounces go their way this year, hence the previous 0-8 record. But sometimes something special can happen on Labour Day and the team can get some good luck. Case in point, Felix Faubert-Lussier’s fumble recovery touchdown. This is the type of play that hadn’t gone the team’s way for most of the 2017 season, but on one glorious, rainy night, this bounce went the Ticats way and it was a major reason they took home win No. 1.

The Banks giveth and taketh

This is the second straight game where we have to both praise and admonish Brandon Banks. Speedy B showed he still has that top-end speed on his gorgeous 64-yard touchdown catch, but he also showed earlier that his hands are not as reliable as they should be. Much like against Ottawa, Banks dropped a key pass, and while this one wasn’t as much of a gimme as the one against the Redblacks, it was a big drop early in the game that stalled a Ticats drive. But you can’t hammer him too hard because that TD catch sparked a mini-Ticats run that saw them score 14 points in 25 seconds and they needed all of those points to get the win.

It should also be noted that Banks was not on the kickoff team, and he ended the game as the team leader in targets, catches and yards, so perhaps we are seeing Banks trying to carve himself out a role on the offense. We will have to watch for this in future games.

The refs were… not great

So we have to talk about the officiating. Point blank: it was not good. There were a number of questionable calls both ways. Here are just a few:

  • a couple roughing the passer penalties against Hamilton were borderline from where I sat
  • there was a horrendous unnecessary roughness flag thrown on the Ticats when the Argos player, Martese Jackson, was just tackled hard on a punt return
  • the Argos were called for a no-yards penalty when it did not look like anyone was within five yards of Brandon Banks
  • the command centre, which has been spotty for years now, seemingly blew a review on what looked like a fumble by Jeremiah Masoli

And those are just the ones I remember, I am sure there were more. I have long defended Andre Proulx as being the best ref in the CFL (and I stand by that claim), but him and his crew were not at their best on Labour Day.

But I do not want to hear about how the refs aided the Ticats or cost the Argos. Both of these teams did more than enough to lose this game, the Argos just did it more often.

Injuries hit hard

The Ticats took it on the chin again in the injury department and these ones could have serious ramifications going forward. Receiver Giovanni Aprile left the game after the opening kickoff and running back Mercer Timmis, who was seeing a lot of time on offense, looked to have done some serious damage to his leg. Neither player returned and both could be lost for significant time. Hamilton’s Canadian depth has been tested this year, with defensive stalwarts Ted Laurent and Michael Atkinson already on the shelf, special teams aces Mike Daly and Nick Shortill having missed significant time and we can’t forget that Andy Fantuz, the East’s top Canadian from a year ago, is still recovering from his torn ACL suffered late last season. Add Aprile and Timmis into that mix and the Ticats Canadian contingent is getting woefully small. It is bad enough losing any player to injury, but when those players are Canadian, it makes matters even worse.

Hat tip to all the fans

I do not blame anyone who decided to leave when the rain and lightning came, but to all the fans that stayed, you did a helluva job. Tim Hortons Field got loud, and I don’t know if that was fans making up for the ones that left, but it was impressive nonetheless. Your patience was rewarded with a win, so while we were all wet, cold, hungry and maybe even a little grumpy, I have to say it was all worth it.

Still undefeated on Labour Day at Tim Hortons Field

In a terrible, and likely lost, season, at least the Ticats are still undefeated on Labour Day at Tim Hortons Field. Oh, and the Argos have still yet to win a game in Hamilton since old Ivor Wynne bit the dust. The Argos are 0-7 at the Donut Box (five losses against the Ticats, and two in games they played in Hamilton in 2015 when the Blue Jays playoff run booted them from the SkyDome) and the Ticats have a chance to make that 0-8 when these these two teams clash on September 30. The Ballard Cup will be on the line in that one, and while the Grey Cup is unlikely to find its way to Hamilton this year, keeping the Ballard Cup for a third straight year at least means the Ticats would win something.

Looking ahead

The Ticats cannot rest on their laurels as the turnaround is quick and a date with the rested Redblacks is next up on the docket this Saturday.

I am not going to spend too much space complaining about the competitive disadvantage the Ticats face in this one, but it does need to be pointed out. Ottawa played Thursday in Montreal, which gives the Redblacks an extra four days of rest and prep over the Ticats. Add in that the Ticats are the travelling team, and all the makings for a major-league butt kicking are there. And all of this says nothing of Ottawa having won three straight and looking like a much better team than they did earlier in the season. The CFL schedule has its quirks, and Ottawa dealt with them earlier this year, but a team playing two games in nine days and the other playing two in five is ludicrous when it does not need to be that way.

But for as terrible as Saturday may be, the 2017 Labour Day Classic will be a game fondly remembered. It may not have been the best Labour Day game, and it was definitely not the prettiest, but after eight straight losses to start the year, this win was as sweet as it gets for the Ticats and their fans.

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.