Having lost eight straight to start the season and two of their last three in agonizing fashion, it was clear the Hamilton Tiger-Cats knew how to lose. With their playoff hopes dwindling away, the question remained: could they learn how to win?
Friday’s night’s hard-fought victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Friday night goes a long way to answering that question. The Ticats overcame the loss of kicker Sergio Castillo – whose arguably been their best player – to cement a road win against a team considered to be among the league’s best.
And they did it in no small part by – wait for it – running the football.
Head coach June Jones scripted his opening drive to start with two straight rushing plays and stuck with it despite facing second-and-seven. Running back Alex Green converted and on the very next play, Jeremiah Masoli hit Brandon Banks with a 60-yard touchdown pass. Consider the tone set.
And they stuck with it, running the ball a whopping 29 times, the most since they kept CFL stats on stone tablets.
“The fact that coach Jones believes in us up front, that he’s willing to repeatedly run the football and make this a two dimensional game, it changes a lot,” said centre Mike Filer.
The Ticats were moving the football well in the first half but had trouble finishing drives, settling for three field goals. They were also making small mistakes, calling unnecessary time outs and taking time count penalties – one of which forced them to try yet another three-pointer as half-time approached.
It proved costly. Castillo’s knee buckled as he chased the return man after a miss – what the hell was doing way down there anyway? – one of those non-contact injuries the Ticats have seen take down Zach Collaros and Andy Fantuz. Yeah, it could be that bad.
“It didn’t look good,” Jones said afterward. “We’re anticipating he won’t be back.”
Long snapper Aaron Crawford was happy to get the win but wasn’t grinning ear-to-ear: he’s watched Castillo earn the job in Hamilton, then shine after finally getting a long sought-after opportunity.
“You hate seeing anyone go down but someone like Serge, he’s a team guy and everybody loves him. He works hard and he has a ton of respect in the locker room,” Crawford said. “I work with him every day and you feel for him as a brother, a teammate and a friend.”
Up just six points at the half and now with an emergency kicker – Felix Flaubert-Lussier, who did great – it would have been easy for the Ticats to squander their meagre advantage. That is, after all, what bad teams are expected to do.
Instead, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli orchestrated two fantastic scoring drives in the final 30 minutes.
The first was just eight-plays but it started at their own five yard line and included a nifty on-side punt from Masoli to Brandon Banks, who led the team with eight catches for 104 yards and a score. It included an exceedingly bold 38-yard pass to Jalen Saunders on second-and-five from their own 10 yard-line.
But it was the second long drive that all but sealed the win, a 14-play monster that chewed up 8:35 of clock in the fourth quarter – it included eight runs – and ended with a Luke Tasker touchdown catch. The two-point conversion made gave Hamilton a three-score lead.
It was something that big-boy teams do.
“Struggling and not finishing the two games against Saskatchewan and then last week, you have to learn to win those kind of games,” Jones said. “We took a step up.”
Meanwhile, the Bombers fell to 10-4 on the season, and had their five-game winning streak at Investors Group Field snapped.
Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols, who entered the game as the CFL’s top-rated quarterback, left at halftime with a suspected hand injury and didn’t return.
“(He’s) in seeing docs right now and we’ll get him checked out again tomorrow, see how they wake up,” Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea said.
Having learned how to win tough road games – the win in B.C. was pretty impressive, too – the Ticats get the league-leading Stampeders next week at Tim Hortons Field. And the Ottawa Redblacks can take some air out of the balloon by winning on Saturday in Vancouver.
But with two games in hand and one more against Ottawa, the Ticats will control their destiny for at least another week: if they win their remain four games, they’ll make the playoffs.
“The offence was rolling so that makes it easier for us. It’s a team win, everybody showed up today,” said safety Courtney Stephen, part of a revamped secondary that held the Bombers to their second-lowest point total of the season. “It means we’re still alive and that’s the most important thing. All you have to do is get to the dance and then you got a shot.”