At the end of last season the two teams that probably intrigued people the most were the two teams that will meet tomorrow night in Regina, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Ticats, as we all know, got off to a horrendous 0-8 start in 2017 that cost Kent Austin his job as head coach. In stepped June Jones and the Ticats went on a mini-run, winning six of their final 10 games and nearly doing enough to crash the playoff party.
The Riders offer a different story. After finishing 5-13 in Chris Jones’ first year as head coach, the Riders reeled off 10 wins and made a run all the way to the East Final before they were finally felled by the eventual Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts.
So with both teams exceeding expectations somewhat — the Ticats in the second half of the season, the Riders all season — a lot was expected of both in 2018.
And that was before an off-season that saw the two teams make a couple of major trades. The Ticats sent both Zach Collaros and Charleston Hughes to Saskatchewan during the winter months, and while the Ticats mostly netted draft picks in return (and the since-released Vernon Adams) many saw these deals as wins for the Riders.
The Ticats spent their off-season mostly bringing back their own free agents — Ted Laurent, Luke Tasker, Brandon Banks, Jeremiah Masoli and Larry Dean are just some of the veterans who opted to return to Hamilton — that shine of that 6-4 finish had Ticats fans thinking big things could be on the horizon.
So with the moves both teams made over the winter it is fair to say a lot was expected of them. And here we sit on the precipice of their first of two head-to-head matchups and one team has quite possibly exceeded those expectations and one has come nowhere close to matching them.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats sit at 2-1 and in sole possession of first place in the East, and with the way they have looked over the season’s first three games they may never give up their perch atop the division. The Saskatchewan Roughriders, meanwhile, are 1-2 and coming off two dismal losses, the latest of which an embarrassing 23-17 home loss to the Montreal Alouettes, losers of their previous 13 games.
So why have the Ticats exceeded expectations while the Roughriders have not? It comes down to a few key areas.
Firs, as is always the case in football, is quarterback play. The Ticats have, in Jeremiah Masoli, the QB who is currently playing the best football of any player in the CFL. The Riders, conversely, have seen their starter go down — Zach Collaros has been out with a concussion for a game and a half, and will be out longer — and their backup, Brandon Bridge, playing so poorly in his first start that Chris Jones pulled him at halftime. The CFL is a quarterback-driven league (all football leagues are, really) and at the game’s most important position, the Ticats have a guy who is operating at an all-star level while the Riders have guys who are decidedly not.
Secondly, is offensive line play. It’s not all on the quarterback and a big part of the problem in Saskatchewan is the play of their offensive line. The Riders thought they found a solution to their o-line woes when they signed Travis Bond in free agency, but he was shown the door after training camp. Now the Riders are relying on Brendon LaBatte, who has started the downside of his career, one of the reasons I said he should not have been on the TSN Top 50 list, and Dan Clark to anchor a line featuring younger players. The results so far have not been good, and it is part of the reason Zach Colloras will be in civvies when his old team plays his new one.
The Ticats, however, have received exceptional line play, and this comes after the team dealt perhaps its best offensive lineman to move up in the draft. No one would have thought that anyone would be able to replace Ryan Bomben, but the Ticats are starting a rookie first-rounder in Darius Ciraco and the line hasn’t missed a beat. Add in that four-fifths of the line returns from a year ago, and the constant rotation of American players in both tackle spots has been stopped (the left side by Tony Washington, a gift from the heavens after Edmonton cut him last year; the right side by second-year man, and top contender in any Braun Strowman lookalike contest, Ryker Matthews) and you have a recipe for success.
Thirdly, it comes down to schemes and how one team is using its talent to the best of their ability while the other is… well… stubbornly still playing Duron Carter at defensive back. June Jones has cooked up some offensive schemes that are seemingly giving opposing CFL teams fits, most notably his deployment of six- and seven-man protection schemes. The Ticats have put a system in place to maximize Jeremiah Masoli’s effectiveness. By giving him more blockers it is allowing him to have more time to find his receivers and it allows the receivers more time to get open. No matter how good any defensive back is he can’t cover forever. Jones is giving Masoli that extra split second he needs to make the big play and it is working tremendously.
The Riders, on the other hand, are defining insanity by doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. The biggest one is defensively where Chris Jones refuses to find a corner to replace the ineffective Duron Carter. Yes, Carter has two pick-sixes in his three games at corner, but he has also been burned for two long touchdowns by speedsters Diontae Spencer and Chris Williams the last two weeks. With a matchup looming with the man whose nickname is Speedy, Brandon Banks, it seems now would have been a good time to make a change. But instead, the Riders will role with Carter at corner once again hoping for a better result.
But offensive play calling has also been an issue for the Riders with their seemingly abject refusal to establish a running game (and Ticats fans know all about how successful that game plan is). The Riders are middle of the pack in rushing yards, but three of the four teams behind them have only played two games. The only other team with fewer rushing yards than Saskatchewan that has played three games: Montreal. You do not want to be mentioned in the same company as the Alouettes.
Lastly, Canadian talent. The Ticats have masterfully used their Canadian talent so far in 2018. On offence, we have seen big games from Mike Jones, Mercer Timmis and Sean Thomas-Erlington, while the team has also deployed Landon Rice as a tight end (read: extra blocker). On defence, Mike Daly has stepped into a starting role at safety, with key contributions coming veterans Ted Laurent and Justin Capicciotti, and second-year man Justin Vaughn. We have also seen the team get stellar special teams play from rookies Jackson Bennett and Nicholas Parisotto, veterans Nic Shortill and Courtney Stephen, and second-year man Connor McGough. The Riders, meanwhile, are starting Sam Hurl at middle linebacker. Ask any Riders or Bombers fan what that says about a team’s Canadian talent.
Both Hamilton and Saskatchewan came into 2018 with designs on taking the next step. For one team, it looks like they have. For the other, it looks like that next step was a backwards one.