The Hamilton Tiger-Cats aren’t exactly heading into the East Division semifinal on a roll.
Hamilton (8-9) hosts the B.C. Lions (9-9) on Sunday afternoon after dropping its final three regular-season contests. While hardly ideal, the Ticats still finished second in East standings to secure home field for the conference semifinal.
And in the last two seasons, both Ottawa (8-9-1) and Toronto (9-9-0) went on to capture the Grey Cup after posting mediocre regular-season records. But that’s of little solace to Ticats head coach June Jones.
“Our goal was to just get here . . . and then to the Grey Cup,” he said. “That’s all I’m thinking about, that’s all the kids are thinking about.
“If you win in November, you win it all.”
Trouble is, Hamilton hasn’t done a lot of winning this season at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats were 4-5 at home although one of those wins was a convincing 40-10 decision over B.C. on Sept. 29.
But the Ticats haven’t won since losing all-star receiver Brandon Banks (94 catches, 1,423 yards, 11 TDs) to a season-ending broken clavicle in a 35-31 road loss to Ottawa on Oct. 19.
Hamilton quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has enjoyed a solid ’18 season – his first full campaign as a CFL starter – with 5,209 passing yards to secure the East nomination for the league’s most outstanding player award. Yet Banks had become a trusted target for Masoli and had two TD strikes in the lopsided home win over the Lions.
However, something both teams could have to contend with is Mother Nature. It’s been a cool, windy and wet week in Hamilton and Sunday’s forecast calls for a high of 3 C with 15 kilometre-an-hour winds and a 40 per cent chance of snow.
Conventional wisdom suggests that could be more of an issue for B.C., which plays its home games in a dome. But the Lions practised outdoors Friday at Ron Joyce Stadium and head coach Wally Buono, who’ll retire at season’s end, doesn’t believe weather will be a factor.
“The big thing is the mental preparation,” he said. “The guys have come in earlier, we’ve practised earlier, we’ve met earlier, it’s all part of getting them used to Eastern time.
“I think it’s important to practise in the environment that you’re going to play in . . . the guys got used to the elements.”
Lions running back Tyrell Sutton was much direct regarding the weather.
“Nobody cares about the weather,” he said. “This is Vancouver weather right here.
“We’re right at home, just three hours ahead.”
But wind can wreak havoc with the kicking game, putting extra pressure on Hamilton’s Lirim Hajrullahu and B.C.’s Ty Long. Jones, a former quarterback, said breezy conditions can impact gameplans and play calls.
“Depending on (which direction) the wind is blowing I will take into consideration what types of routes I throw to the right and what types of routes I throw to the left ,” Jones said. “If it’s a left-to-right wind you’re going to catch certain passes to the right and we’ll throw certain things (the other) way.
“When it’s into your face, the same thing. What are you going to do that way? And with the wind, you’ve got that side of it too.”
Masoli said the key in windy conditions is throwing a tight spiral into it so the ball can effectively cut through it.
“At the end of the day you’ve just got to throw,” he said. “You finish on top of your balls and make sure you get spirals.
“If you’ve got spirals there shouldn’t be any problem. It is what it is.”
With Masoli under centre, Hamilton’s offence averaged 405.6 total yards per game (first overall) and 310.7 yards passing (No. 2). But B.C.’s defence finished tied for most sacks (45) and was ranked second against the pass (247.2 yards).
History isn’t on B.C.’s side as a West Division crossover team. No crossover squad has ever reached the Grey Cup since the concept’s introduction in 1996.
“You just want to focus on this first game,” said Lions receiver Bryan Burnham. “But it’s in the back of everyone’s mind that we do have a chance to make history here.
“It’s exciting that we have this opportunity . . . but without winning this week we’re not going to be able to go on to Ottawa, go on to the Grey Cup. It’s all about this week, winning this football game and that’s the first step.”
B.C. Lions (9-9) at Hamilton Tiger-Cats (8-10),
Sunday, Tim Hortons Field
Key matchup: Hamilton QB Jeremiah Masoli vs B.C. defence. Masoli finished the regular season second overall in passing (5,209 yards) but was tied with Edmonton’s Mike Reilly in most interceptions (18). The Lions’ defence finished tied for most sacks (45) and was ranked second against the pass (247.2 yards per game).
The big number: 3 – Number of consecutive games that Hamilton lost to conclude the regular season.
Who’s hot: Tyrell Sutton. A late-season acquisition from Montreal, Sutton ran for 253 yards on 50 carries in his first three games with B.C. before running for 15 yards in five carries in the Lions’ regular-season finale against Calgary. But the five-foot-eight, 213-pound Sutton’s physical running style is made for a cold-weather playoff game.
Who’s not: Hamilton at home. The Ticats were 4-5 this year at Tim Hortons Field, the lowest home winning percentage of any CFL playoff team this season. And the club ended the regular campaign with three straight losses. The last team to reach a division final after losing their final three regular-season games was none other than Hamilton in 2015.