There have been big wins at Tim Hortons Field — the Labour Day opener in 2014, the East Final that same year that turned Brandon Banks into a superstar, the 2015 East Semi — and while Hamilton’s 31-17 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Friday night probably won’t live in the annals like those games, it is what it represents that makes it matter.
The Ticats came into this game with fans and pundits, myself included, still unsure if this team was for real. They looked decent, if unspectacular, in a loss to the Stampeders, but looked significantly better in a blowout win over Edmonton. So many wonder what Ticats team was the real one.
We got that answer on Friday night.
For the second straight week the Ticats dominated from basically the opening kickoff until the final whistle. That’s not to say Winnipeg didn’t put up a fight, because at times this game was close, but this was the Ticats’ game and they pretty much exerted their will, especially in the second half.
These types of games — at home, versus an equal or better opponent — are the types of games good teams win and great teams win convincingly. I’m still not sure if the Ticats are a great team, but they are definitely on the cusp of being just that.
Here are some more thoughts.
High: *Yawn* Jeremiah Masoli makes it look easy
Don’t take that *yawn* as being dismissive because it’s not. It’s just that any doubt about whether Jeremiah Masoli was a legit starter has been dead for a long time and him putting up monster numbers is becoming old hat. Masoli is not exceeding expectations by playing terrifically, he is simply doing what is expected of a player who has performed at a high level for as long as he has. Sure, there are always going to be doubters (as I point out almost every week), but Masoli being spectacular isn’t a surprise any more. It’s just who Masoli is. The numbers show it.
Speaking of his numbers, we had another game over 300 yards passing (369 to be precise), his eighth consecutive game over the three century mark, one shy of tying the CFL record. He did toss for just one touchdown, and one interception, but it was his ability to tear apart the Bombers’ soft-zone coverage that showed how good Masoli has become. He took what the Bombers gave him, which was a lot, and made the most of it, connecting on over 75 per cent of his passes. He is doing it all, and has been since Labour Day last year. Friday night was just another notch in his belt, and while I know it is waaaaaaaaay too early to be thinking about this, but if you needed to have a clubhouse leader for MOP after three weeks, the guy wearing No. 8 for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats would be it.
High: H-to-the-O-V is B-to-the-A-C-K
I think it is fair to say that Simoni Lawrence had a lacklustre 2017. His numbers last year were the lowest of his career since he became an every-game starter and people started to question if maybe Lawrence had lost a step. If Friday night is any indication it looks like any step he lost he has found again. It was vintage HOV from No. 21 against the Bombers, as he led the team with seven defensive tackles while flying all over the field seemingly being in on every play (or at least it felt that way). It was the type of game you came to expect out of Lawrence before last season, and it was nice to see him be that playmaking force on defence that Ticats fans love.
High: Breaux Island, Population 1
After two games I think it is fair to say that Delvin Breaux hasn’t lost even half a step. A week after keeping inarguably one of the game’s five best receivers, Derel Walker, in check, the Breaux Show locked in on Winnipeg’s Darvin Adams, who had even less success than Walker did a week ago.
Adams, who is one of the league’s best boundary receivers was held to just one catch for 10 yards. That catch came on the game’s second play and wasn’t against Breaux. Winnipeg QB Chris Streveler only targeted Adams three times in the entire game and that is simply a product of being covered by Delvin Breaux. There is a reason why you pay a player like Breaux what you pay him because he clamps down on the opposing receiver and just doesn’t let him get anything. It’s early, but it sure looks like Delvin Breaux has once again established himself as the league’s premier boundary corner.
High: Literally everyone else on the defence… no seriously, the defence is really good
The #Strevelation or #Strevelution (or whatever Bombers fans were calling it) was an accurate descriptor of rookie QB Chris Streveler’s play the first couple of weeks. And it made a great story and was fun to see, but Streveler was bound to have a down game and that came against the Ticats. The Ticats defence made Streveler look every bit the rookie he is and his numbers show it, with just 146 yards in the air on 17-of-30 passing (56.7 per cent) and zero touchdown passes. The Ticats made life miserable for Streveler, but he wasn’t the only Bomber to achieve very little.
Andrew Harris had a modest night by his standards, with just 66 yards on 14 carries. He didn’t get a ton of work because of the lopsided nature of the score, but whenever you can keep the league’s best dual-threat back to under 100 total yards — Harris added another 17 yards through the air to give him 83 yards from scrimmage on the night — then you consider that a good night.
But that’s not all, the defence kept Winnipeg from gaining a first down from early in the second quarter until early in the fourth quarter, the Bombers had just eight yards of offence in the entire third quarter and ran just five plays — yes, five plays — in the third frame. The Ticats held Winnipeg to just 273 yards of offence, won the time-of-possession battle by exactly 15 minutes and Winnipeg’s leading receiver (Weston Dressler) had just 55 yards. That is a recipe for success if I have ever seen one.
High: S.T.E. is a B.M.F.
One week after Mercer Timmis had his breakout game another Canuck tailback had his. Sean Thomas-Erlington, who converted to slotback during training camp, became Hamilton’s feature back against the Bombers and did not disappoint. He finished with 92 yards on the ground on 11 carries and threw in a few highlight-reel plays for good measure. Thomas-Erlington went in the eighth round of 2017 draft, a place where a team does not normally find a player with starting capabilities (don’t believe me, just check out who else went in the eighth round of last year’s draft), so if the Ticats are getting meaningful contributions from him it just tells you how deep this team actually is.
High: June Jones is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers
Many wondered if June Jones’ offence could reproduce some of the magic from late last season and early indications are not only positive, but overwhelmingly so. The Ticats are doing things consistently that other teams do occasionally and the wrinkles that Jones adds weekly to his schemes are things of beauty.
The biggest schematic change that the Ticats have utilized has been six- and seven-man protections schemes, usually with backup offensive lineman Landon Rice as a tight end and running back/defensive lineman Nikita Whitlock blocking in the backfield. That limits the amount of receivers, usually four, that Masoli can throw to, but if he gets protection, which he has more often than not, then he can take his time and find the open receiver, which he has done more often than not. Teams bring pressure, but Masoli is rarely rushed and that is a credit to the way June Jones has developed this offence and maximized the talent at his disposal.
Speaking of maximizing talent, the other aspect of Jones’ system is that it doesn’t rely on one player to dominate, and in fact it seems as if every week it is a new player who takes the bull by the horns, so to speak. In Week 1, it was Mike Jones; Week 2 saw Mercer Timmis explode; and we already talked about the game Sean Thomas-Erlington had. But this extends offence wide as you never know which receiver will be the go-to guy in any given week. The Ticats have a plethora of playmakers on offence and everyone seems to be getting theirs
Low: Banks’ drops, Masoli’s interception
It wasn’t a perfect game, but any negatives are really just picking nits. Brandon Banks had a couple of bad drops — one of them early when the ball hit him square in the hands, but it looked like he peaked to see what he could do after he caught the ball — and Masoli’s interception brought his season total up to three, which is just two less than he had all of last year. When you win a game by two scores, the tiny things aren’t as big of a deal as they are in a close loss, but these are still areas where the Ticats have to clean things up if they want to be the team hoisting the trophy at the end of the season.
High: This receiving corps, yo
Banks’ drops aside, how good is this receiving corps right now? As of this writing, the Ticats have the league’s third (Jalen Saunders), fourth (Brandon Banks) and fifth (Luke Tasker) leading receivers, while Terrence Toliver sits just outside the top 10 at No. 11 (after only two games) and Mike Jones finds himself just two spots behind Toliver while also being the league’s top Canadian pass catcher after three weeks. With a group this talented, it is hard for teams to scheme to take one away. Bracket coverage to Banks’ side, Toliver will get you. Clog the middle so Tasker and Saunders can’t operate, Banks will beat you deep. Try to jam the smaller guys at the line and Masoli looks to the 6’5” Toliver. Take all of them away and Mike Jones (WHO!?) MIKE JONES! is left alone ready to make plays. No offence is unstoppable, but sometimes if feels like the Ticats’ offence is.
With the home opener now in the books, the Ticats once again travel west, this time to the flat lands of Saskatchewan to take on the Roughriders in the first game of a back-to-back series between the two clubs.
When the schedule came out and following the trade that sent Zach Collaros to the land of green, a lot of people had this pegged as a Collaros revenge game or the first of many Collaros-Masoli matchups (one that TSN likely really wanted). But unfortunately, Collaros was injured a week ago against the Ottawa Redblacks and instead of facing his old club it will be Brandon Bridge under centre when the two teams on Thursday.
But before Ticats fans starting marking this game a win, keep in mind that just last season Bridge got a surprise start for the Riders against the Ticats and had probably the best game of his career, going 21 of 31 for 231 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Riders to a 27-19 win at Tim Hortons Field last September.
There is also the tough part abut playing in the loud confines of Mosaic Stadium. Playing in Regina is never a picnic, and while Saskatchewan’s home-field advantage is a bit overblown — they are 6-4 in their new digs — a road trip on a short week before a bye is the type of game the Ticats typically drop. But the one thing in Hamilton’s favour is that under June Jones they have been road warriors, winning five of the seven games they have played outside Hamilton since Labour Day 2017, so who’s to say the Ticats can’t make it six of eight.
The Ticats have started 2-1 for the first time in nearly a decade, and will look to go 3-1 to start the season for the first time since 2004 with a win on Thursday. Easier said than done, but recall that just three weeks ago many were convinced the Ticats would start the season with multiple losses — perhaps even as bad as 0-5 because of the tough, Western-Only schedule — and we sit here now after three games have been played talking about the Ticats as one of the best teams in the league. If the Ticats can find a way to win in Regina even the most ardent naysayers will have to come around and give the Ticats the respect they have earned.