This will be hard for any diehard Hamilton Tiger-Cat fan to swallow but here it is anyway: the Toronto Argonauts are going to the Grey Cup.
The Argos punched their ticket to the championship courtesy of a 25-21 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday’s Eastern Final at BMO Field with Ricky Ray staging a last-minute drive to pull out an improbable win.
Remember that Sept. 30 game against the Ticats when Ray converted on third-and-15, then threw the game-tying touchdown, a two-point conversion and then won it in overtime? The loss that put a major dent in Hamilton’s ultimately futile Grey Cup hopes? It was like that, except with a much larger stack of chips on the table.
Ray drove the Argos down the field with the game on the line, completing seven-of-eight passes including a nervy third-down conversion and virtually impossible throw between four defenders to set up the game winning score, a one-yard run by short-yardage quarterback Cody Fajardo.
It was vintage Ricky Ray, tearing the heart out of an opponent with the coolness of a practiced assassin.
“There have been times where I’ve been guilty where you think you have to make this special play, ” said Ray.
“But we had plenty of time. We weren’t in a rush.”
The win ruined the Roughriders remarkable comeback, capped by Christion Jones’ 79-yard punt return touchdown with under three minutes remaining. The Riders overcame three first-half interceptions by quarterback Kevin Glenn and stormed back from a 15-point deficit but ultimately fell short.
Kevin Glenn as a playoff goat: Ticat fans have seen that one before, as well.
Glenn led Hamilton to three straight playoff appearances from 2009 to ’11 but with the exception of a sublime performance on the road against Montreal in his final season with the Ticats, underachieved in the post-season. This wasn’t an interception off the hands of Arland Bruce with the game on the line – that was 2010 – but it was close.
Glenn finished six-of-13 for 87 yards and a quarterback rating of zero in the latest in a series of playoff disappointments. The 17-year CFL veteran has never won a Grey Cup.
“We just didn’t have a good outing, myself included. That’s why this is a team sport. Our defence played very well, Brandon came in and put us in position to win the game, ” Glenn said. “If you play professional sports you understand that some days are just not your day. Today it wasn’t mine.”
The pick six was a mistake that was, unfortunately, vintage playoff Glenn. He locked onto receiver Bakari Grant – another former Ticat – in the middle of the field and didn’t see linebacker Terrance Plummer as he dropped back into coverage. Plummer stepped in front of the pass and returned it 39 yards the other way to pay dirt.
If Ticat fans can get over the awfulness of seeing their arch rival playing for yet another championship – if they win in Ottawa this week it will be Toronto’s third Grey Cup title since Hamilton last won in 1999 – Sunday was a good day for football in Southern Ontario and the CFL as whole.
The announced crowd was 24,929, the largest ever for a Toronto Argonauts game at BMO Field and the game had the appropriate level of high-tension electricity that playoff games should have. Without expressing too much optimism – it’s the Argos after all – maybe, just maybe this is the foothold the team needs on their long march back to relevance.
And Brandon Bridge might just be a cannon-armed football unicorn: a bona-fide Canadian quarterback who can start in this league. The 24-year-old Mississauga native finished with 141 yards on 11 of 21 passing with the one score and didn’t throw an interception. He was also Saskatchewan’s leading rusher with 43 yards.
His fourth quarter toss was the first playoff touchdown pass by a Canadian since Ottawa’s Russ Jackson in the 1969 Grey Cup game. Of course, Ticat fans know a little bit about Bridge too: he strafed them for 231 yards and three touchdowns in a Rider win on Sept. 15 (that didn’t help the playoff push, either.)
There will be storylines for Hamilton fans to follow this week. The Argos have several former Ticats, most of them doing well. But the main one – can Ricky Ray lead his team to one final win – is one they already know the very painful answer to.