What we learned in the Ticats’ devastating overtime loss to the Argos

The Ticats’ 2017 season is now on life support after a frustrating, heartbreaking and ultimately devastating 43-35 overtime loss to the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday night.

A lot went right for the Ticats until a lot went wrong — some of that their doing, some of it not — but the loss still counts the same, though this one stings probably more than any other this year. Yes, even the 60-1 loss that seems like a million years ago.

The Ticats dominated for most of the game and deserved a better outcome, but their undoing was a combination of going cold at the exact wrong time and some, shall we say, questionable decisions from the referees and, especially, the command centre.

So about the refs

Let’s get this out of the way first, because when history looks back at this game, the officiating will what comes up most. To put it bluntly, it was awful. I do not like to complain about the refs because it is the easiest (and laziest) complaint to make after a loss, but the crew led by Tom Vallesi last night was simply not up to snuff.

The one play everyone is going to go back to is the brutal pass interference call on Demond Washington that erased a Courtney Stephen interception.

If that is pass interference, you might as well take the shoulder pads and helmets off the guys and just play flag or touch. The CFL needs to take a hard look into removing pass interference from challengeable plays. When ticky-tack stuff like that is being called, the system is broken.

But it wasn’t just the PI call that irks some. On the drive where the Argos would tie the game late, it sure looks like S.J. Green is offside at the snap off the ball.

It was 3rd-and-17 and an offside call would have pushed the Argos back into 3rd-and-22. They may have still converted on the next play, but we will never know.

There were more calls, like the Declan Cross fumble that looked last touched by the Ticats; the Brandon Banks incompletion where it looks like he has possession on the ground and is down by contact, but the Argos defender swipes the ball away while Banks is on the ground; and what looked like a missed too-many-men penalty on an early Ticats punt where an Argo player (I believe it was Brian Jones) was running off the field as the ball was snapped. These things add up, and while the Ticats did enough to loss this game on their own, the refs did the Tabbies no favours.

Self-inflicted wounds

The refs were awful, but let’s not let the Ticats off the hook for their own miscues that cost them this game, and there were a couple big ones that need to be pointed out.

The first, and probably the one that the fans will most be angry about, was going from 1st-and-goal from the one to 3rd-and-27. A holding call on Ryker Mathews erased a Jeremiah Masoli touchdown run and by the time Masoli got called for intentional grounding, it didn’t really matter. But when you have a defense backed up to their one-yard line, you have to score a touchdown. In a game that ultimately went to overtime, those missed four points were huge.

Then, of course, the offense itself went into a bit of a tailspin late in the fourth and into overtime. On their last five drives, the offense never got a first down and picked up 10 total yards on their final five possessions, while allowing two sacks on their final three possessions, including overtime.

Yes, the refs played a a role in the outcome, but the Ticats could have made that a moot point by better executing on offense and making those horrific calls a non-factor.

The Ticats have a run game

A week after Alex Green rushed for 140 yards on 13 carries, the Ticats made the move back to C.J. Gable and many wondered if that was the right call. Here is something I wrote last week when talking about Green’s big game:

“I fully believe that C.J. Gable could have a similarly impressive game if given the chance.”

Well, I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but given the chance, C.J. Gable did have a similarly impressive game, rushing for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. He had six runs of 10 or more yards, including a 46-yard scamper that led to his own three-yard touchdown run.

The Ticats have refocused on the run game under June Jones and it is paying off with nearly 300 yards rushing over the last two games. It is a part of the offense that has been missing for years (probably since Gable’s rookie year in 2013) and it adds a critical dimension to what can be a very potent, very lethal, Ticats offense.

Wilder did not run wild

Speaking of running, all the talk heading into the game was about the amazing run that James Wilder, Jr. was on. He had 331 yards rushing in his previous two games and stopping him was going to be a tall task. But the defense was up to the task as Wilder was not much of a factor in the game, totally just 49 yards on 13 carries, with a long of just 12. If you had given me those numbers before the game, I would have taken them. Larry Dean was a human cape on Wilder all night, as five of Wilder’s touches ended with a Dean tackle.

Ray got beat up

We all knew Ricky Ray was one tough dude, but he took an absolute beating in this game. When playing Ray, you need to get pressure and hit him because it can throw him off his game, and the Ticats did all that and then some in this one. The sack by Nikita Whitlock was one of the hardest I have seen in Hamilton since Jamall Johnson plastered Buck Pierce to the old Ivor Wynne turf all those years ago. In total, the Ticats sacked Ray four times, pressured him an additional four times and just generally made things uncomfortable for him. But you have to give the future Hall of Famer credit for taking those licks and coming back.

Welcome back, ‘Tuz

And on the subject of coming back, boy was it nice to see Andy Fantuz back on the field. Nearly 11 months after suffering a torn ACL that likely scuttled his chances of being named the East Division’s MOP, Fantuz made his triumphant return to the Ticats lineup. He didn’t have a big game, just three catches for 23 yards, but it was still nice to see him back in uniform. We don’t have many years left of Andy Fantuz, so when need to appreciate every time we get a chance to see him.

Loud Argos fans

I want to give a major hat tip to the Argos fans who travelled down for the game because were they ever loud. I get inundated with tweets about invasions by other fanbases, but I barely hear a peep out of them from where I sit in section 204. But last night, especially early, those Argos fans that were sitting in the same area that other reportedly loud invaders sit in were as loud as I have heard an opposing fan base in Hamilton. They may not be a large contingent, but they are a boisterous one and you have to respect that.

Looking ahead

Hamilton’s playoffs hopes aren’t dead, but they are most definitely getting close. Catching the Argos is pretty much out now, and they will likely win the division, get to the Grey Cup where they will face Calgary and since the Stamps tend to choke in the big game, we might as well start coming around to the idea that the Argos are going to win the Grey Cup.

So now the race is to catch Ottawa and while that is hard, it is not impossible.

The Ticats’ next two games are at Winnipeg and home against Calgary. Those are two losses. The Redblacks’ next two games are at B.C. and at Saskatchewan. They are more winnable than Hamilton’s, but it is not unreasonable to think Ottawa will drop those two. Which, if that happens, leaves Hamilton five points back with three to play and two games in hand. Ottawa only plays Hamilton in the final three weeks of the season, while the Ticats also take on the struggling (and that is probably putting it nicely) Montreal Alouettes.

So unless the Ticats steal one over the league’s two best teams, or Ottawa finds a way to win on the road in the West, the season will come down to three East showdowns for Hamilton. Win those and the Ticats can punch their ticket into the playoffs. Lose one and the season is over. For a team that looked awful through the first eight games of the season, to still be in it, and have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs, is a miracle in and of itself.

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.