Yeah, but… yeah, but… yeah, but…
That has been the story of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ season so far. They started the season 3-0… yeah, but who did they really beat?
Then they downed the Calgary Stampeders for the first time in nearly a decade… yeah, but Bo Levi Mitchell wasn’t playing.
After beating the Bombers somewhat handily, 23-15 on Friday night in Week 7, the yeah, buts should have gone away, except they haven’t because… yeah, but, can they keep winning without their star QB?
Jeremiah Masoli’s injury cast a pall over the game, and when word came out that he was done for the year with a torn ACL, the win seemed secondary.
Now, despite sitting at 5-1 and having a legitimate claim to being the league’s best team at the one-third mark of the season, Ticats Nation has to wonder what life will be like without their MOP pivot.
Yeah, but… indeed.
Here are some other thoughts.
Good teams find ways to win
When Masoli went out and it became the Dane Evans show you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in Tim Hortons Field who was confident the Ticats would emerge victorious, even with the team up 14-0 at the time.
While the Bombers outscored the Ticats 15-9 over the final three quarters, the Ticats controlled the game from the start and maintained it thanks to forcing the Bombers to make a plethora of mistakes, namely the six turnovers the defence and special teams forced.
Good teams find ways to win games they maybe shouldn’t. The Ticats got stellar defence and special teams and that was enough for them to defeat the last remaining undefeated team. Winnipeg was better in almost every statistical category, yet barely managed to threaten the Ticats at any point in the game, managing just one trip inside the red zone all game, and that didn’t come until their third-last drive.
The Ticats might not be as dynamic offensively with Evans at the helm, but they might not have to be. Getting six turnovers in a game is unlikely to happen again, but the Ticats proved against the Bombers that they are not a one-dimensional team.
Slow starts defined the Ticats’ opening five games, but they more than doubled their season output in the first quarter in this game. Entering Friday night’s contest, the Ticats had scored 12 points in the first quarter of their five previous games; they scored 14 points in the first quarter against Winnipeg.
It was a hot start that was very much needed, as the Ticats nursed that lead into a victory. Without those early points the Ticats might not have beaten the Bombers. It also makes you wonder what the score would have been if Masoli didn’t get hurt. The Ticats were rolling early and things could have gotten ugly. But regardless of what might have been, it was nice to see the Ticats put up some scoring drives early.
Ball hawks ball out
Forcing six turnovers isn’t common; I’m not sure, gun to my head, if I can remember a game where the Ticats forced six turnovers. But the three interceptions, three fumbles and one turnover on downs the team was a huge factor in the Tabbies moving to 5-1.
Two players in particular need to be singled out for having tremendous outings against the Bombers: Jumal Rolle and Nick Shortill
Rolle, who was in the starting lineup because of an injury to Cariel Brooks that forced normal starting field-side corner Frankie Williams to move to boundary halfback, played perhaps his best game as a Ticat. The two interceptions will stand out for obvious reasons, but he also made a handful of tackles, with one open-field tackle on Kenny Walker. Rolle went for the wrap up instead of the highlight-reel hit and it ended Winnipeg’s drive.
Shortill was starting in place of the suspended Simoni Lawrence and he was tremendous. Shortill registered a game-high nine tackles and made plays all over the field.
Justin Tuggle also had a nice game in Lawrence’s absence, finishing behind just Shortill with six tackles. He also played a roll in limiting the damage Andrew Harris did in this game, with the multi-time top Canadian finishing with just 53 yards on the ground. He did make some plays in the passing game, a game-high eight catches and 64 yards, but it never felt like Harris had much of a chance to take the game over and Tuggle’s presence was a big reason for that. With Lawrence out, other players had to step up; Rolle, Tuggle and Shortill did just that.
Special teams also played a massive role in the Ticats getting their fifth win. While the return game didn’t feature a scoring play, there were a couple of decent returns that set the Ticats up with good field position.
But this was about the cover teams and their containment of star-in-the-making Lucky Whitehead. A lot of the talk entering the game was about Whitehead (and Brandon Banks, more on him in a second) and he was almost a complete non-factor. Offensively, he had just two catches for 17 yards, while in the return game he had five punt returns for just 45 yards and four kickoff returns for 84 yards, and one killer fumble that extended Hamilton’s drive (a drive which would eventually end with a Ticats field goal).
After emerging on the scene in a big way the previous five games, Whitehead was nearly invisible against the Ticats and a lot of the credit for that goes to the Ticats’ cover units.
Case of the dropsies
Friday night was not a banner night for a pair of all-stars, as Luke Tasker and Brandon Banks seemed to have trouble catching the football. Tasker had a very uncharacteristic drop in the fourth quarter, and Banks dropped a few passes. Both players could have played better and helped out their second-year pivot, and while those drops didn’t lead to anything major happening for the opposition, it is definitely something that cannot be repeated if the Ticats want to keep winning games.
While he still has his detractors, Matt Nichols was having a great start to the 2019 season.
His 12:1 TD-to-INT ratio is Aaron Rodgers-like and he entered Friday’s game having completed his last 19 passes. But the Ticats got after Nichols early, and his second pass of the game was intercepted. The Ticats picked Nichols off three times and made his life miserable. He was only sacked once, but it came at the absolute worst time for the Bombers, on a third-and-eight with under 30 seconds left in the game. Adrian Tracy came around the edge and Goldberg-speared Nichols to essentially end the game. Nichols had been stellar to start the year, but the Ticats made him look pedestrian.