While it was hard to call a late-August game against a western opponent a “must win,” the Ticats had little margin for error if they did fall to Edmonton on Thursday night at Tim Hortons Field.
After going up 10 early and watching that lead not only evaporate, but go in the complete opposite direction in a second quarter horror show, the Ticats did something they are not known to do: made a late-game comeback.
Piloted by the arm of Jeremiah Masoli and the hands and legs of Luke Tasker, the Ticats erased their own 14-point deficit and came back to beat Edmonton 25-24 in a game that could be what kick starts Hamilton’s season.
Think back to about 13 months ago, when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were down 12 with under two minutes to play versus the Montreal Alouettes. The Bombers were understandably left for dead, but made one of the greatest late-game comebacks in recent CFL history to stun the Als 41-40. That win jump started the Bombers’ season, which saw them win 12 games and host the West Division Semi-Final. It was a huge win, and that is what Thursday night’s victory for the Ticats could be for them.
With the resiliency the Ticats showed on Thursday, it could be the spark this team needed to really take them to the next level. Many of us have thought Hamilton has the talent to be an upper echelon team this season, but they hadn’t been able to prove that. Still under-.500, the Ticats now have the chance to prove that Thursday night was not a fluke, but a spoiler for what the rest of their season will like.
Masoli once again shuts people up
I’ve long since given up on convincing people Jeremiah Masoli is a viable starting quarterback, but Thursday night saw him do something he had never done before (and one was on the things his critics most latched onto): he led a fourth-quarter comeback, and did so on the final drive.
Clutch is a word that gets thrown around too often, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. Masoli takes the heat for the loss if Luke Tasker doesn’t make a spectacular catch-and-run late in the game one play after Mike Jones (WHO!?) has one of the worst drops maybe ever. Is it Masoli’s fault Jones had a ball, that was thrown perfectly, hit him in the face? No, but yet the #JeremiahsFault people would have still placed the blame on him. But all Masoli did was orchestrate two late scoring drives and do everything right on the final drive to set the Ticats up to win. He did his job and did it well, so maybe it is time we cut the guy some slack. So far this season Masoli has outdueled Mike Reilly twice and Bo Levi Mitchell once. He gets another crack against Mitchell in September, but for now the last two MOPs have been outplayed by a guy people constantly downplay.
How do you spell “baller”? T-A-S-K-E-R
If I handed out a player of the game in these columns this week’s would unquestionably go to Luke Tasker. The stat line was his best of the season — nine catches for 156 yards and one massive touchdown — but it was also the spots in which he caught the ball. As I outlined earlier, Tasker’s TD catch came one play after Mike Jones (WHO!?) dropped a golden opportunity to waltz into the end zone himself. The moment is never too big for No. 17, but he makes the most of every single opportunity he gets with the football. Luke Tasker didn’t need a coming-out party, but in the game where the Ticats needed him the most (thanks to injuries), Luke Tasker came up big.
Chris Williams’ injury
When Chris Williams went down, untouched, you knew the injury was bad. June Jones said it is an expected Achilles injury which is exactly what it ended up being, meaning Williams’ 2018 season is done. It was a scary sight as well as an unfortunate one. This was the first game where Williams, likely do to the absence of Jalen Saunders, seemed comfortable in the Ticats’ offence. He had three catches on six targets for 33 yards before he went down and actually picked up a first down on the previous play before his injury occurred. It’s an awful break for Williams, and another long-term injury for a guy who has been bit by the injury bug too many times recently.
But that opens up a question of what the Ticats do to replace Williams in the lineup. In house, they have Rashad Lawrence, who started a game for the Ticats a few weeks ago. Outside the organization, Duron Carter’s name had come up, but he signed with the Argos. I know sentimentality has no place in football, but the eruption you would hear from Hamilton if the team was to repatriate Bakari Grant, who has been out of football since being a training camp cut of the Riders, would be deafening. Grant has long been a fan favourite, and remained so even after he left the team following the 2015 season. While he is obviously a very different player than Williams and wouldn’t be able to replace what Williams offered, at 6’4” he would add some much needed height to Hamilton’s receiving crops. We will have to wait and see over the next few days what, if anything, the Ticats decide to do with Williams out for the remainder of the season.
Apple and a roadmap time
The other blight on this game was the play of Mariel Cooper. Thrust into the starting lineup due to another injury to Richard Leonard, Cooper was lit up by the duo of Derel Walker and Duke Williams in the first half. All three of Edmonton’s scores came on passes where Cooper was the primary defender, and Cooper even took a pass interference penalty to set up one of those scores. It was one of the worst halves of play from any Ticats player this and resulted in Cooper taking a seat on the bench and being replaced by the recently added Josh Johnson. Maybe it was coincidence, but maybe not, that the play of the defence improved dramatically once Cooper was replaced. It was a brutal and it will likely be a very long time before you see Cooper back on the field for the Ticats.
Save for the play of Cooper and some big chunk plays, Hamilton’s defence stymied Edmonton almost all night. The second quarter was 15 minutes to forget, but the other 45 will be worth remembering, especially the final 30 where the Ticats’ defence pitched a shutout and didn’t allow Edmonton’s offence to find any sort of rhythm. Edmonton had just 29 yards of offence in the third quarter, and just 151 overall in the entire half. And 61 of those yards came on one C.J. Gable run. The Ticats won the time of possession battle by over 10 minutes and you could tell Edmonton’s defence was getting tired as the game progressed. Hamilton’s stellar defensive effort in the second half had a lot to do with that.
Brandon Banks’ blocking
He didn’t show up on the stat sheet much — just three catches for 27 yards — but Brandon Banks played a significant role on two of Hamilton’s biggest plays in the second. The first was the 84-yard bomb from Masoli to Mike Jones (WHO!?) that set up a Lirim Hajrullahu field goal. On that play Banks sprinted downfield to throw a block for Jones, which was a sign of things to come. His second big play came on maybe the biggest play for the Ticats in the game, Luke Tasker 51-yard, catch-and-run touchdown to cut the Edmonton lead to two. On that play Banks once again bolted downfield to throw a block, which helped Tasker find the end zone and get the Cats right back in it. So Brandon Banks didn’t have much of an impact in this with the ball in hands, he certainly did when the ball was in someone else’s.
Sticking with the run
A few weeks ago June Jones spoke about how the team had gotten away from having a balanced attack, namely that the Ticats had stopped running the ball with any regularity. Since then the Ticats have committed to pounding the rock, and it paid major dividends in this one. Alex Green has been nothing short of fabulous since his return to the lineup, picking up 241 yards and five scores in three games this year, with 104 of this yards and one of those scores coming Thursday night. It’s not only that Green is the best back for this offence, it is that the Ticats don’t get away from running the ball when it doesn’t work. Green had a couple short carries early, but exploded for some longer runs later in the game. It’s that type of commitment to the run that makes Hamilton’s offence better. When the Ticats can keep opposing defences on their toes, they have a much better chance of being successful.
We have officially hit the midway mark of the season, and while the Ticats sit in second in the East, their 4-5 record is not one that will install confidence in a fan base hungry for a consistent winner. But 4-5 is way better than 1-8, which is where the Ticats were after nine games a season ago, so I guess it’s at least progress.
But now comes the biggie, Labour Day in Hamilton against the hated Toronto Argonauts. With Toronto’s loss to the Montreal Alouettes on Friday night, the Ticats are in sole possession of second in the East and could put a stranglehold on that position over the next two games. Win Labour Day and the ensuing rematch the following Saturday and the Ticats have all but punched their playoff ticket. Winning back-to-back games is never easy, but should the Ticats emerge 2-0 after that stretch, they can then start setting their sights on the top-seeded Redblacks and getting that all-important bye to the East Final.