The highs and lows of the Ticats’ 31-20 loss to the Riders

Are the Hamilton Tiger-Cats bad?

That was the question that kept going through my head in the second half of their kind-of-embarrassing 31-20 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Thursday night.

They looked good early on, with them taking a 17-7 lead into halftime, but once the second half began it was all Riders. Saskatchewan scored 24 of the game’s final 27 points and ran away with the victory.

So while all that was playing out the question I kept asking myself was the one I posed to begin this: are the Ticats bad? And I’m not sure I know the answer. I do know that after five games the Ticats are under-.500 once again and have a big divisional matchup with the Ottawa Redblacks next Saturday.

But are they bad? I’m not sure I have an answer for that question.

Here are some more thoughts on the game.

Low: The second half, but mostly the third quarter

The Ticats came out of the half and stunk the joint out. There is no other way to put it, and while the entire second half was a horror show that would rival even the scariest movies you’ve ever seen, the third quarter was where this game came off the rails.

The Riders scored three touchdowns in the third frame, including an 80-yard sprint by former Ticat Marcus Thigpen on the quarter’s opening play and a punt return by Christion Jones that both found the end zone.

Offensively, the Ticats botched an onside punt and took an intentional grounding penalty on what was essentially a free play thanks to a delayed offside call on the Riders that killed two drives. It was one of the worst quarters of football from this team under June Jones, probably the worst since they went to McMahon Stadium in 2017 (I think we all remember how that game went), and completely no-showing to start the second half is why the Ticats left this game with another L.

Low: Masoli’s mistakes

This was not Jeremiah Masoli’s finest hour. The strange part is, he had one of his better completion percentage games (20 of 28), but failed to crack to the 300-yard barrier for the first time in 10 games. So that conversation, one that has seemingly dominated the conversation about Masoli for a few weeks now, is dead. And perhaps for the better, because now we can focus on his game overall instead of just relying on the “Well, he threw for over 300 yards again” talking point.

So let’s talk about his game against the Riders, and Masoli fans, be warned, this will not be pretty.

Point blank, Jeremiah Masoli stunk in this game. His 184 passing yards are the fewest he’s thrown for since the 2015 East Semi-Final and he has started to revert back into the turnover machine he was early in his career. One interception and one (really bad) fumble in this one means Masoli has turned the ball over at least once in every game this season. When he took over last year, Masoli threw just four interceptions in 10 games, including just one over the final seven games. This year he has thrown one in every game. He has more interceptions in five games than he had in 10 last year.

He failed to execute the onside punt mentioned earlier and his awful intentional grounding call killed another drive. Every QB has a bad game every now and then, but it is how they bounce back from a bad game that tells you what you need to know about them. It was a bad night from No. 8, and two weeks ago in Saskatchewan wasn’t great either, but it’s not time to push the panic button yet. If Masoli stinks out the joint next week against Ottawa then all bets are off.

Low: Gambles that don’t pay off

The Ticats took a couple of gambles in this one that didn’t pay off, so they will get pilloried for them. One deservedly, one maybe not so much.

First, the deserved one and that was the awful execution of a third-and-inches QB keeper. Instead of just hammering it up the middle for the, almost quite literally, six inches they needed, the Ticats opted to run to the outside and were stuffed by, and this is something people should know, a very good Saskatchewan defensive line. The Riders only managed a field goal out of the exchange, but the gain for the Ticats could have been more significant if they had just done the simpler thing and fallen forward.

So about the failed onside punt. This stance might be controversial, but I didn’t hate the call. At the time I did, and I even vocalized that to the people I was at the game with, but in thinking about it, the only problem with it was execution. My gut instinct was to say the Ticats should punt it deep and let their defence try to stop what is a less-than-great Saskatchewan offence. Chances are the Ticats win that exchange and get the ball at roughly where they had it to end the previous drive.

That said, given where they were on the field (midfield), the score of the game (Hamilton was up 17-14) and when it occurred (midway through the third quarter), trying to steal a possession with an unconventional play call isn’t the worst idea in the world. Had it worked, it’s a genius move, but it didn’t so it’s stupid. But I don’t think we should judge decisions like this strictly based on the outcome. I don’t love the call, I probably wouldn’t have made it if I was the head coach, but it’s not the terrible decision some are making it out to be. But it still didn’t work, and gambles like these that don’t work tend to be the difference between winning and losing.

High: Juan Blanco

It wasn’t all horrible, so let’s highlight one of the bright spots from Thursday’s dreary contest: John White is fun to watch.

His numbers don’t pop off the page — 12 carries for 55 yards — but he scored his first touchdown as a Tiger-Cat and it feels like the more comfortable he gets and the more reps he gets the better he will be.

While the Ticats don’t possess a traditional bell cow like Andrew Harris or William Powell, they do have a very talented running back group with White, Mercer Timmis and Alex Green. We have seen White be a Harris or Powell type in the past with Edmonton, and if given the chance with Hamilton I think he can become that again. Thursday night showed that when given the ball he makes things happen.

High: Special teams contributes

On the same day where I commented on the failings of Hamilton’s special teams unit, they came alive for the first time in 2018. The Ticats not only began a drive on the opposing side of centre, thanks to a no-yards call on a short punt by Saskatchewan’s Josh Bartel, they also got a couple good returns in the punt and kick game, including what was probably the highlight of the game for Ticats fans in the form of a 98-yard punt return touchdown by Frankie Williams. It was the first game this year where the Ticats got major contributions from the often-unheralded third unit of the team, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the offensive and defensive issues this team faced. But hopefully these types of big plays from the Ticats special teams will be more frequent going forward.

High: Thank you, Andy

Andy Fantuz officially announced his retirement on Thursday and the Ticats sent him off in style with a heartwarming look back at his career during the break between quarters in the first half. Fantuz, who spent six of his 12 CFL seasons with the Ticats, was given a rousing and much-deserved standing ovation by the crowd. It was kind of fitting that on the day Fantuz was honoured the only two teams he played for were going up against one another.

Many will talk about Fantuz’s career over the next little while, but here is what I think is indisputable: had he never played a single second of professional football he would be a Hall of Famer based purely on his collegiate career. Fantuz came into the CFL with a tone of hype thanks to his stellar career at Western and he more than lived up to it. He was the best Canadian receiver in the CFL for almost a decade, the best since Ben Cahoon retired, and he is in the conversation for the best Canadian-developed receiver of all time. All the praise going Fantuz’s way is more than earned, and it was a pleasure to get to see TUUUUUUUUUUUUZ play in person for so many years.

A fitting tribute for one of the best of all time. Thank you, Andy.

Looking ahead

This is a tough loss to swallow, and sitting under .500 again is not where I thought the Ticats would be after this game, but here we are.

Now the Ticats have finally rid themselves of what many touted as an impossible five-game Western gauntlet to start the year and they get ready to play their first East Division opponent of 2018, the Ottawa Redblacks.

Believe it or not, Hamilton has not beaten Ottawa at home since the Redblacks’ expansion year in 2014 and the Ticats actually have more wins in Ottawa at TD Place (3) than they do at Tim Hortons Field (1). So if the Ticats want to halt this two-game slide and get back to the top of the East Division they will need to reverse their luck against their rivals from the nation’s capital next Saturday.

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