Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com
Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

Behind a decent defensive outing, and some very timely special teams, the Ticats found a way to actually win their season opener, 23-17 over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

The hit that lit up social media

The focus of the game, and understandably so, was the late hit Simoni Lawrence delivered to Zach Collaros on the game’s third play. We have seen the footage, we have heard the apologies, and watched as the league said Lawrence should have been ejected, so there isn’t much new ground to tread here.

The hit was late, it was unacceptable and plays like that simply do not belong in the modern game of football. Fans are apt to defend their own, so I know there are Ticats fans who will stick up for Lawrence, but think of it this way: if we replaced the name Lawrence with Hebert, would we even be having a discussion about it?

Now, I do take umbrage with the people who say Lawrence is a repeat offender since, as Ticats CEO Scott Mitchell pointed out on Twitter, Lawrence has never been fined for any on-field behaviour in his eight-year career. And while that is a valid point, it doesn’t mean that we can brush off the hit or that he should get a lesser penalty.

We went through this with Hebert last year, and if the league is serious about eliminating head shots like that from the game, then Lawrence needs to be suspended. But seeing as how we’ve seen the league bungle even the easiest of player disciplinary issues recently, I have a feeling no one is going to be thrilled with the eventual punishment that the league hands down.

Wherefore art thou, June Jones

Tommy Condell is a great offensive mind, and some of his previous Ticats’ offences were among the best in the league, but you can hardly fault fans for wishing June Jones was back calling plays after what we saw Thursday night.

Hamilton’s offence sputtered and was hardly the force we saw a year ago. There were flashes — the 41-yard TD pass from Jeremiah Masoli to Brandon Banks was likely the game’s best offensive play — but it was mostly a slog when the Ticats had the ball as the team never seemed to find much of a rhythm.

Masoli completed just above 60 per cent of his passes for 169 yards, but he had one touchdown throw, did not turn the ball over, and the team won, so I guess his detractors who lamented the gaudy numbers and the fewer wins will be happy… no?

Brandon Banks led all receivers with 77 yards, but Luke Tasker had a measly four catches for 30 yards before leaving the game at halftime, and Bralon Addison had just one catch for 16 yards. Not exactly the offensive output one expected from the team that was the league’s top offence a year ago.

With Condell in charge, and with the players this team has, I have no doubt that they will get this ship righted, but it was an ugly performance from the one group we expected the most from to start the season.

Erli returns from the new starting running back

It wasn’t all terrible for the offence, as Sean Thomas-Erlington provided one of the few sparks for a stagnant Ticats attack. The man lovingly called “Erli” by fans, players and coaches, was easily the best skill position player on the Ticats on Thursday. He tallied 14 touches, 11 rushes and three receptions, for 103 total yards before leaving the game with an injury in the fourth quarter. The Ticats took a risk in releasing Alex Green and going with Thomas-Erlington, but the initial return was a positive one.

Keeping the QB clean

The results are in for the new offensive line, which consist of three new starters, and they are overwhelmingly positive. The line, which now features Chris Van Zeyl, Darius Ciraco, Demetrius Rhaney, Brandon Revenberg and Ryker Mathews, allowed just one sack (and it came when Masoli scrambled out of the pocket) and pretty much kept a very talented Riders’ front four away from Jeremiah Masoli.

When you go up against players like Micah Johnson, Charleston Hughes and Zack Evans, and barely let them get close to Masoli for a whole game, you have had a great game. A lot was expected of this group to start the season and they passed their first test, which will be one of their toughest against one of the league’s most ferocious defences, with flying colours.

Sieve-like run defence needs a lot of work

Even before Zach Collaros went down, we knew the Riders were going to be a run-heavy team. They told us they were going to give William Powell the ball as much as possible before the season started. Yet, in a game where the Riders seemed reluctant to throw the ball further than 15 yards down the field, the Ticats still could not stop the rushing attack.

Powell finished with, surprise, 20 carries for 104 yards, while backup-thrust-into-starter QB Cody Fajardo picked up 34 yards on seven carries. All in all, the Riders ran the ball 32 times (to just 31 pass attempts) for 172 yards. Maybe this is an outlier, maybe this happened because the Riders are going to be a run-centric team, but this is something worth keeping an eye on in the coming weeks as they get set to take on the Argos with Tyrell Sutton and James Wilder Jr. and the Als with William Stanback and Jeremiah Johnson.

Not all bad from the defence

It wasn’t all terrible on the defensive front, as the Ticats were able to hold the Riders under 200 yards passing — though I’m not sure that is that big of a feat — and created key turnovers and stops during important junctures of the game. Simoni Lawrence, who might be public enemy No. 1 in Saskatchewan for a long time, notched his first interception since the 2016 season against the Riders, and the game ended with a Mike Daly pick on a failed Hail Mary attempt on the game’s final play.

The Ticats also got a very timely, and needed, third-down stop when Ted Laurent met William Powell in the backfield for a one-yard loss on a third-and-one gamble. Why the Riders went for a shotgun handoff on third-and-one, I do not get, but the Ticats needed that stop as the Riders were marching to extend their lead at the time.

The Reinebold effect

Hamilton’s special teams were once the undisputed best in the league, which dwindled the last couple of years, but it looks like the return of Jeff Reinebold has led to a resurgence in great special teams play for the Ticats. The coverage units were great, the kicking and punting games was solid, and, of course, the return game pretty much sparked the surge to victory.

Frankie Williams’ third-quarter punt return TD gave the Ticats a lead they would never surrender and was the most impactful positive play of the whole game. With the offence struggling, the defence playing decently but not spectacularly, the Ticats needed a boost from their special teams and they got it.

If the offence and defence start to match the special teams, the Ticats can be as good as many of us prognosticators thought they would be before the season began.

Only in the CFL

A lot of the talk after the game was very negative, so I figured I would share a story from the game that was anything but. Where I sit at Tim Hortons Field is where a lot of the tickets for families are given. In the past we have sat near the family members of Chris Van Zeyl (when he played for the Argos) and B.C. Lion Shaq Johnson. On Thursday we had a couple sit in front of us who I can only believe were the parents of Riders starting safety Mike Edem. My assumption of that comes from the fact that they were both wearing custom Mike Edem jerseys.

They were awesome to sit near. They cheered during the game, waved to their son when he was on the field, cheered for him when he made a play and just generally had a good time. His father even cheered for the Ticats when the announcer told people to get loud. It was pretty funny.

When the game was over, they each high-fived us as they left their seats and wished us a good night. It was a nice reminder that sports is only a game and you get to choose what type of fan experience you have with members of an opposing fan base.

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Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.