Ticats take down Redblacks in pre-season opener (and six other thoughts)

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats got the Orlondo Steinauer era off to a good start as they downed the Ottawa Redblacks 25-21 in Ottawa on Saturday night.

The game was a slog at times, but mostly an entertaining contest as the two teams took the field for the first time in 2019. This game took place in the same spot Hamilton’s season ended a year ago, but there was no revenge to be had. It is the pre-season, after all.

Here are some of my thoughts on the game.

1) The quarterbacks are usually the story in any football game, and that was true in this one. As the Redblacks deal with a battle for their No. 1 spot, the Ticats chose to leave East MOP Jeremiah Masoli at home and give equal playing time to presumptive No. 2 and 3 QBs Dane Evans and Hayden Moore. Both played relatively well, with Evans making a lot of nice throws against the Redblacks’ starters en route to finishing 11-of-14 for 96 yards in two quarters of action. Evans also scored the Ticats’ lone first-half touchdown on a one-yard plunge. Evans saw significant action just once last year, the season finale against the Als, but he looked just as sharp against Ottawa as he did against Montreal a year ago.

Moore took over in the second half and did not look out of place in his first CFL action. Of course, it is only the pre-season, but Moore slung the ball around the yard, finishing an impressive 15-of-22 for 175 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Moore looked like a rookie at times, but that was to be expected. But if Saturday’s game is any indication, the Ticats are set up nicely behind Masoli.

2) As covered in my training camp preview, the Ticats are pretty loaded at receiver. We know, or can at least reasonably presume, that four of the five starting spots are spoken for between Brandon Banks, Luke Tasker, Mike Jones and Bralon Addison. Addison and Jones both played against Ottawa, while Banks and Tasker stayed home, so there were chances for guys to step up and a couple did in big ways.

Jaelon Acklin has been the talk of camp since his day-one dustup with Delvin Breaux. He has had a tremendous camp from all indication and that carried over into Saturday’s game. Acklin finished as the team’s leading receiver, with eight catches for 73 yards and four second-down conversations. Acklin likely already had a leg up on the fifth receiver spot, but he’s got an even bigger one now.

Acklin wasn’t the only receiver to impress, as Josh Crockett and Justin Sumpter also stood out (Sumpter left the game with an injury). Sumpter had three catches on three targets for for 56 yards, while Crockett caught five for 35 and a nice sliding touchdown catch. The Ticats have a ton of options at receiver and the decision of who to keep and who to let go will not be an easy one.

3) The running game was not a huge focus of the game, but I don’t think fans need worry that the days of ignoring it are back. Sean Thomas-Erlington got the start, as was expected, and saw the ball early and often before leaving the game in the second quarter. His numbers don’t pop off the page, just six touches for 30 yards, but it is clear the team sees a big role for him on offence this year. Raw Lawry was the team’s leading rusher, but with the Ticats likely going Canadian at tailback, he is in tough to crack the roster regardless of how well he plays.

4) The Ticats defence also sat a lot of starters, but it was interesting to see Demontre Hurst get his first action at SAM linebacker. Hurst has been lining up with the starters all camp, and he performed rather well playing the CFL’s most unique position. He had a team-high six tackles, including a couple in the backfield. Hurst may cede the position to Rico Murray once the latter finally makes it to the team, but he has shown he can play that position well for a first timer.

5) Another newcomer who stood out was James Allen. Allen had a couple near interceptions, but he made the most of his opportunity on special teams. Allen had two punt returns for 22 yards and three kickoff returns for 61 yards. The Ticats need to find a returner this year — last year’s return man Frankie Williams is back, but he wasn’t so great that his position can’t be challenged — and Allen showed well in his first live action. I look forward to seeing more of him against the Argos on Thursday.

6) With Lirim Hajrullahu left back in Hamilton, rookie Michael Domagala did all the kicking against Ottawa. He had one bad shank near the end of the game, but other than that he had a nice performance both kicking and punting the ball. He is unlikely to unseat Hajrullahu, who was brought back on a two-year extension this spring, but he is a guy who could hang around and get a chance, not unlike a certain Ottawa kicker a year ago.

The Ticats close out the pre-season at home against the Toronto Argonauts on Thursday, which will see a lot more of the team’s starters play as they make their final preparations for the season opener a week later against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. With a few spots still up for grabs, it will be interesting to see who makes the starting lineup in Hamilton’s final pre-season contest of 2019.

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