What we learned in Hamilton’s heart-pounding win over the Redblacks

Don’t look now, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have suddenly gotten themselves right back in the thick of the playoff race in the putrid East Division.

After jumping out to a 23-7 halftime lead, the Ticats hung on for a 26-22 win over the Ottawa Redblacks at TD Place on Saturday. It was a hard-fought win where the team led early and never relinquished the lead. It was easily the best this team has played in a game this season and built off a decent, though unspectacular, Labour Day performance.

With the win, the Ticats up their record to 2-8 and are now right back in the hunt for a playoff spot, sitting just two games back of the idle, second-place Toronto Argonauts. The Ticats also have a game in hand on both the Argos and Montreal Alouettes, and two games in hand on the Redblacks. Hamilton has a chance here and that is not something we would, or could, have said just two weeks ago.

The Ticats showed a resolve in this game that they hadn’t all season long. Ottawa chipped away at the lead, but the Ticats never panicked and made plays when they needed to. On paper, this was a tough game for the Ticats to win, coming in after playing Monday when Ottawa last played Thursday, but win they did and now all of a sudden the team has a pulse.

Do we dare believe?

I know the idea that the Ticats are very much back in the playoff hunt after starting 0-8 will only give more ammo to the one-division crowd, but the Ticats are very much back in the playoff hunt. They have not conceded the season series to any team in their division and just won two straight against division opponents. If they keep this up, they may just find themselves hosting a game at Tim Hortons Field in mid-November.

All gas, no breaks

C.J. Gable had his best game in a very long time, and hopefully his usage will continue to go up as the Ticats implement their new offense. The former USC Trojan picked up 102 total yards and two touchdowns on 14 touches (11 rushes, three receptions). Carrying the ball 11 times is not a lot, but it is for the Ticats and Gable made the most of his opportunities. If Gable continues to see the ball around 15-18 times, the Ticats are going to win a lot more games.

Line gave time

I think the Ticats may have found their offensive line. After a decent outing on Labour Day, the Ticats o-line continued to improve and gave Jeremiah Masoli plenty of time to make his reads, find his receivers and throw deep. The Redblacks registered just five quarterback pressures and one sack on Masoli, which given the beating Zach Collaros took in the first eight games, is a major improvement. Newcomers to the team Ryker Matthews, in just his second career start, and Tony Washington, in his second Ticats start at left tackle, have been stellar. We know the three interior linemen are pretty good, but now that the team has bookends we are seeing what this team can do offensively when the quarterback is given time.

L’homme Nikita

The Ticats have a nice, new Swiss army knife defender and his name is Nikita Whitlock. The former starting fullback for the NFL’s New York Giants came to the Ticats in August and has carved himself out a nice role on defense. His two sacks, including one on Ottawa’s final drive, will be what stands out, but don’t think Whitlock is just a one-dimensional player. He created pressure from both tackle and end, while also dropping back into coverage. An undersized player by NFL standards, Whitlock looks like the type of football player whose skill set is tailor made for the Canadian game.

Davon Coleman, QB killer

I want to start off by saying I hate when good players get hurt. Seeing Trevor Harris on the sideline with a sling on is not a good look, even if he is the opposition’s quarterback. The CFL is better when its best players are playing and Harris is one of the league’s brightest stars.

That said, Davon Coleman is kicking the ever-loving hell out of opposing quarterbacks this season. We have seen him lay licks on Harris, Ricky Ray and probably most notably, Mike Reilly. And he mostly does it within the rules (he has been flagged for roughing a few times this year), which matters. He is not a dirty player, but a physical one, and while taking players out of the game is never the goal, hitting them hard is and Coleman does that. He is becoming a wrecking ball in the middle for the Ticats and opposing quarterbacks need to watch out.

Secondary shows improvement

I have fawned over Richard Leonard all year, but now it looks like the rest of his secondary mates are starting to join him. Not a single Redblacks receiver went over the century mark, just the second time all season a team has failed to produce a 100-plus-yard receiver against the Ticats. Greg Ellingson, the league’s top receiver and a legitimate MOP candidate, was held to just 47 yards on three catches and was pretty much a non-factor in Saturday’s game. If the secondary finally becomes even league average, the Ticats defense could become a force in the back half of the season.

Masoli doesn’t have to be the magic man

Jeremiah Masoli played a lot better against Ottawa than he did against Toronto, and he was magnificent to open the game (his first incompletion came because he hit the goal posts), but he slowed a bit in the second half. This is not to say that Masoli was in any way bad — he was not — but he continued to show the same tendencies he has throughout his career. One play in particular that stands out is late in the game, with the Ticats nursing a four-point lead, Masoli opted to throw a deep out on second down when he should have tucked it and ran for the first down. Masoli is not adverse to running the ball, as we all know, and he had success doing so in this game, picking up 73 yards on seven carries, but in a crucial situation when running the ball would have been the prudent move, he tried to make the big play. It is that decision making that scares me with Masoli. But he has helped guide the Ticats to their first two wins of the season, so it is hard to get on his case too much.

Kicking matters

In a four-point game, we can look at the performances of the kickers and see that the Ticats had a huge edge in that department. Former Ticats kicker Brett Maher missed two field goals, while Hamilton’s Sergio Castillo, the man who replaced Maher, went four-for-four. The Redblacks left four points on the field due to Maher’s misses, while the Ticats left none. Not hard to see who won the kicking battle in this one, nor is it difficult to surmise that the Ticats made the right move going with Castillo.

Local kid makes a big play

When Justin Vaughn was drafted in the fifth round out of Fordham, many in Hamilton were thrilled. Vaughn is a local product, having gone to high school at Sir Allen McNab, and it is always nice to see local players play for their hometown team. Vaughn has played a lot more this season than anyone would have expected, and while he still has a lot of growing to do, he made one of the biggest plays in the game against the Redblacks. Clinging to a late lead, Vaughn came up with a huge sack on Ottawa’s penultimate drive, forcing Ottawa to punt with a little over three minutes remaining. It wasn’t a game-sealing play, but it was important nonetheless. It was also the first sack of his CFL career and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Looking ahead

Now the Ticats hope to take their two-game winning streak and stretch it into three when they host the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Friday night at Tim Hortons Field. The Riders won the previous matchup between these two teams all the way back in Week 3 by a score of 37-20, and the Riders are winners of three of their last four, so this is going to be a tough test for the Ticats.

But history is on Hamilton’s side (for as much as that is worth) as Tim Hortons Field has been a house of horrors for the Riders. Saskatchewan has made three visits to the Ticats’ new home, and they have left with three defeats by scores of 28-3, 30-15 and 53-7. This Riders team is not those Riders teams — this one is actually playing some really good football — but as the Ticats have started to turn things around, perhaps some of that old Tim Hortons Field magic can appear.

In any event, if the Ticats find a way to beat the Riders and push their win streak to three, things are going to get super interesting not only in the Hammer, but in the entire East Division.

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.