Ticats win snoozer over Redblacks (and nine other thoughts)

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

It wasn’t pretty and won’t be a part of any future CFL classic games list, but the Ticats did just enough to escape TD Place in Ottawa with a hard-fought 21-7 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks.

It was a rough day for the offences of both teams, even if the final stats don’t show it. The Ticats rolled up over 400 yards on offence, while the Redblacks had over 300 themselves. But those numbers don’t tell the story of a pair of offences that struggled to put points on the board and, in Ottawa’s case, move the football.

The Ticats shot themselves in the foot a few times otherwise the score could have been even more lopsided. Ottawa was just never in the game. At 3-6 it is obvious that Ottawa has a long way to go, but after Saturday’s contest they look even further away from challenging Hamilton (or even Montreal) for a playoff berth.

Hamilton was far from perfect and it may have been one of their worst performances of the season so far, but good teams find a way to win and the Ticats have been doing that a lot lately.

Here are the rest of my thoughts:

De-fence *clap clap* De-fence *clap clap*

While no one will mistake Dominique Davis or Jon Jennings for Doug Flutie, the fact that the Ticats held the Redblacks QB duo to under 50 per cent passing (a combined 22-for-46) is still an impressive feat.

The Ticats clamped down the Redblacks receivers, with just two players cracking the 70-yard mark and only Caleb Holley breaking the 80-yard barrier. Hamilton’s secondary was lock down, especially late in the game as the Redblacks tried to futilely make comeback. On a couple of occasions, Davis attempted to keep the play alive and find someone downfield, but the Ticats secondary just didn’t allow it. Considering the unit was playing without all-world corner Delvin Breaux for the second-straight week, it makes the output even more impressive.

The rest of the defence was also stellar, with the Redblacks finding no room on the ground either. Mossis Madu picked up 55 yards on nine carries, with the majority of those yards coming on one 35-yard run in the second half. Hamilton’s run ‘D’ has been hit or miss this year and they were way more hit against the Redblacks. A week after allowing John White to gash them for nearly 125 yards to see them respond by keeping the Redblacks run game in check all afternoon was very heartening.

Oh, and they held the Redblacks out of the end zone, with their seven points coming off a pair of field goals and a rouge. That’s a heckuva defensive performance regardless of how inept the Redblacks have been offensively most of this season.

Not-so-great Dane

The numbers weren’t terrible — 24-of-39, 299 yards — but it took some time before Dane Evans found his groove. His lone TD strike came late in the fourth quarter, while it iced the game, it wouldn’t have been needed if not for two poorly timed picks earlier in the game.

Evans tossed a pair of interceptions while the Ticats were in the red zone, the fourth and fifth red-zone turnovers for the Ticats this year (by far the most in the league). When you add in the bad snap on a field goal late in the game, the Ticats left anywhere from 15 to 19 points on the field.

Evans is still growing into the starter’s role and outings like Saturday’s are going to happen from time to time. But since Jeremiah Masoli was lost for the year, Evans has held onto a lead against the Bombers, engineered a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback against B.C. and went into a hostile environment in Ottawa and came out victorious. Not a bad start to his career.

There is still plenty of room for growth, Evans still tends to lock on his receivers on some throws, but the building blocks are there. And being 2-1 in your three starts is something any young QB would take.

Total team effort

While Brandon Banks was held in check — just two catches for 24 yards — his presence opened up opportunities for the other receivers, most notably fellow slotbacks Luke Tasker and Bralon Addison.

Addison led the team in catches (eight) and yards (100), and even pitched in with five carries for 16 yards on the ground. Addison was a breakout candidate after coming on strong to end last season and it is clear he is no one-hit wonder. His tenacity, which has been talked about in this space previously, is incredible.

The guy simply does not go down on first contact. His biggest play, a 36-yard catch and run, came after three (yes, three) Redblacks had him wrapped and he escaped. Addison might not get the headlines Banks and Tasker do, but he is just as valuable to the Ticats offence as his more well-known teammates.

A week after being held to one catch, Tasker made up for it with a solid six-catch, 83-yard performance. He was especially clutch on a drive that unfortunately ended in a red-zone pick, being targeted on three straight throws, catching two of them.

No. 17 worked the middle of the field and racked up the YAC, like he has done his entire career. A receiver that can go across the middle and pick up YAC is an invaluable asset to a young QB. Evans hasn’t leaned on Tasker much since taking the reins, but I can see that changing as Evans grows more comfortable leading the offence.

Keepin’ it clean

The Ticats offensive line was once again the unsung hero of the game.

Despite what is a very good defence in Ottawa, Evans faced very little in the way of pressure and wasn’t sacked once in the game. This is becoming the norm for the Tabbies, regardless of who is up front, as Ryker Mathews missed this week’s game due to injury and was replaced by last year’s starter Kelvin Palmer.

The Ticats are a deep team, and that depth extends to the offensive line. A unit that normally operates best when it is the same group out there week after week hasn’t missed a beat when a player goes down, be it Mathews, Darius Ciraco or Chris van Zeyl.

On the topic of Van Zeyl, he took two roughness penalties in the game. One was somewhat justifiable as he threw Ottawa’s resident dirty player J.R. Tavai off Evans. But the other was an unnecessary shoulder thrust at a down Redblacks defender. You could hear someone (I think it was Evans) say: “we’re in the score zone” after the second Van Zeyl penalty. It didn’t hurt the team, as Evans found Jaelon Acklin for a touchdown a few plays later, but Van Zeyl has to be smarter than that. Frustrations can boil over, but in that situation, the vet needs to know to be better.

Play call problems

This was a close game for most of the way through, and some of that had to do with some bad decision-making and curious play calls.

We have already discussed the two red-zone interceptions and the botched snap that led to a field goal attempt going awry. But the Ticats coaching staff also made some curious decisions, the most head-scratching being when they brought in David Watford and the short-yardage team for a second-and-goal from the three-yard line to run a QB sneak. It not only didn’t work, the Ticats lost yards and were forced to settle for a 12-yard Lirim Hajrullahu field goal.

It was a classic overthink from the normal sure-thinking Orlondo Steinauer and Tommy Condell. I don’t understand the decision to put Watford out there, nor the call to run the sneak. Three yards out is a lot of field and that is not the time to get conservative. Those were more points added to the ledger of those left on the field, which is why the 21-7 scoreline actually flatters the Redblacks.

Eat, sleep, break the streak

While I will maintain that the streak deserves an asterisk because of the misses in the playoffs, it was still somewhat sad to see Lewis Ward’s remarkable streak of consecutive field goals in broken.

While I hesitate to say it will never be broken, it seems highly unlikely that we will ever see a kicker in any football league eclipse Ward’s mark of 69-straight made field goals. Some records in sports are just so far out there — think Joe DiMaggio’s 54-game hit streak or Matt Dunigan’s 713-yard passing performance — that the idea of someone ever coming close, let alone breaking it, is so unfathomable as to be laughable. Ward’s mark is one of those types of records.

And while on the subject, TSN and the CFL itself need to stop calling these “pro football records” and just call them CFL records. The NFL is never going to acknowledge Ward’s streak. As far as they are concerned Adam Vinatieri has the record and if anyone ever breaks his mark, they will be the new record holder.

All tying Ward’s mark to the NFL does is make the already inferiority-complexed CFL fans get all hot and bothered when an NFL media type or fan talks about an NFL record that was beaten by a CFLer. Keep them separate. There are NFL records and CFL records, and that’s it.

The thundering herd

Since Sean Thomas Erlington went down, the Ticats have been searching for a reliable replacement. They have found it in Cameron Marshall.

His 92 yards on 12 carries, which translates to an incredible 7.7 yards-per-carry, are good enough, but it was the way he ran that really made a mark, both figuratively and literally. Marshall steamrolled a couple of Redblacks on a couple of runs, with the highlight being when he trucked Antonie Pruneau on one first-quarter run. While STE was both a bruiser and a speedster, Marshall is straight bull. He won’t run away from many people, but he will run them over and pick up those hard yards that are needed to keep drives alive.

The Ticats didn’t just rely on Marshall either, as the team used Addison, Banks and Anthony Coombs in the run game as well. Taking away the four QB runs, the Ticats rushed the ball 23 times for 123 yards. Those are the types of numbers that you would like to see continue as the season goes on.

The M*A*S*H* unit

It wouldn’t be a Ticats game in 2019 without a trip to the injury report, so here goes.

Both Adrian Tracy and Ted Laurent were nicked up, with Tracy fighting through an early injury only to be further hurt later in the game, and Laurent being dinged up early and missing the rest of the contest.

Tracy has had a bit of a resurgence in 2019 playing for Mark Washington, so to see him go down was disheartening. Hopefully his injury isn’t too severe, because after the news that Jamaal Westerman is done for the season again, this time with a torn triceps, the Ticats aren’t as flush at defensive end as they once were.

Laurent’s injury is obviously the more concerning of the two because of the ratio implications and the severity. Laurent was on the sideline in civvies with ice on his quad in the second half, and we will have to await word on how long big No. 97 may be out.

But the question now becomes how do the Ticats deploy their Canadians? They have steadily played four Canadians on the o-line, one at receiver, one at defensive tackle and the seventh at safety. Earlier in the year, they obviously played eight with Sean Thomas Erlington starting at running back. But with both Erlington and Maleek Irons out, the Ticats have gone to an American at tailback with much success. That means the ratio needs to flipped elsewhere.

We have seen WILL (weak-side) linebacker converted to a Canadian spot when Nick Shortill filled in for Simoni Lawrence during the latter’s two-game suspension, but you aren’t making that move with a healthy and unsuspended Lawrence available.

It is possible they could go two Canadians in the receiving corps, with rookie David Ungerer III or Brian Jones becoming the second Canuck pass catcher. Though the drop down in production from Jaelon Acklin to one of those two would be steep.

The Ticats could decide to start five Canadians on the offensive line while Ryker Mathews is injured, putting Kay Okafor in at left tackle. It is also possible that Tunde Adeleke could drop down to Rico Murray’s SAM (strong-side) linebacker position and Mike Daly starts at safety. But then you would have to figure out where to slot Murray, because he has been tremendous for the Ticats so far this year and he can’t simply be taken off the field.

The most likely scenario, I would think, would see Brett Wade slide in at Laurent’s spot on the line. The drop off from Laurent to Wade would obviously be immense — one is a five-time division all-star and two-time league all-star, while the other is in just his second CFL season — but with all the talent the Ticats have on the defensive line, his shortcomings should be masked.

And it is also possible that Laurent won’t miss any time, but that seems unlikely based on what we saw on Saturday. Either way, it will be interesting to see what the Ticats do during practice this week as they try to make up for the loss of Big Teddy.

Let’s keep on rollin’, baby

At 7-2, the Ticats enter the midway point of their season with their best record since 1998. While the wins have been varying — we have seen blowouts, close calls, defensive struggles, and everything in between — the fact of the matter is that the Ticats enter the second half of the season with a six-point cushion on the second-place Alouettes and an eight-point cushion on the third-place Redblacks. While it is folly to assume anything with a half a season left to go, it seems pretty much assured that, at worst, the Ticats will be hosting a playoff game in November.

The Ticats schedule gets daunting in September — a trio of away games at Calgary, at Edmonton and at Winnipeg are a murderers’ row no matter how good a team may be — the Ticats have a chance to keep rolling before heading into their toughest stretch of 2019.

With their next two contests coming against a pair of one-win teams — at the Lions on Aug. 24 and vs. the Argos on Labour Day — a 9-2 record heading into the West Division gauntlet is not out of the question. While this doesn’t feel like the best Ticats team of the last decade, the record says otherwise. As the summer begins to turn to fall, the Ticats have a legitimate chance to get back to the Grey Cup for the first time in five years.

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.