Ticats escape Edmonton with a win and a playoff spot

It wasn’t easy, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats got a fortuitous bounce off the goal post to help them escape Edmonton with a 30-27 win.

The victory gives the Ticats 10 wins on the season, guaranteeing them a winning record for the first time since 2015. And most importantly makes them the first team in 2019 to secure their spot in the playoffs.

The game started great, with the Ticats jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to long touchdowns by Brandon Banks, Marcus Tucker and Bralon Addison. Hamilton’s big-play offence had been somewhat dormant since Dane Evans took over, but the Ticats used the deep ball to great effect, at least early on.

The Ticats extended that lead to 24-0 in the second quarter before Edmonton made a furious comeback over the next two quarters. Miscues and turnovers by the Ticats allowed Edmonton to knot everything at 24 early in the fourth quarter.

It started to feel like classic Ticats, where they play well enough to win but find a way to lose. Think of last week in Calgary as the most recent example. But after the team’s exchanged field goals, the Ticats had 30 seconds and needed about 30 yards to have a realistic shot at a game-winning field goal.

A good punt return and a brilliant two-minute offence got the Ticats close enough to take a shot. Unlike last weekend in Calgary, when Lirim Hajrullahu’s field goal attempt was blocked by Tre Roberson, the Ticats kicker made this one, even if just barely.

A low snap could have been disastrous if not for Dane Evans, who found a way to get the ball on the tee just enough for Hajrullahu to bank the kick in off the far goal post with zeros on the clock. The Ticats found a way to win at Commonwealth for the fourth time in their last five visits, and this one was the biggest of them all.

It was a heart-stopping ending if you were a Ticats fan, but well worth staying up into the wee hours of the night — the game didn’t end locally until almost 12:30 a.m. EST — to watch them clinch their spot in the Grey Cup tournament.

Here are some other thoughts.

Second-half rut

It is becoming all too common to see the Ticats put together 25-to-40 minutes of superlative play only to fall asleep for large stretches and let teams back in the game. It has happened in their last three outings, starting on Labour Day when the Argos jumped out to an early lead. Continued in Calgary where a poor second half cost the Ticats a chance to beat the Stamps. And it happened again on Friday night in Edmonton.

The Ticats were cruising early, with Dane Evans looking unstoppable in piling up yards and touchdowns. Evans had nearly 200 yards passing in the first quarter and threw three touchdowns on three straight passes. Everything was clicking and it looked like the Ticats were going to run away with it.

Then Edmonton found the end zone just before half time to cut into Hamilton’s lead. Then Lirim Hajrullahu missed a field goal and Christion Jones returned it to the Hamilton 15.

Edmonton would get a field goal to cut into the lead even further.

Then Greg Ellingson made a beautiful catch to make it a one-score game. Then C.J. Gable went full beast mode and willed the green and gold to their tying score (which came on a Logan Kilgore QB sneak).

The Ticats then woke up, kicked a field goal of their own, but couldn’t put the game away after Jumal Rolle notched his second interception of the night. Edmonton got into Sean Whyte field goal range and the game was tied with 30 seconds to go. They would march the field and ultimately win, but it should not have come to that.

The Ticats have shown in spurts that they are the best team in the CFL and maybe this adversity will prove to be a good thing come playoff time, but it is not good for the ol’ ticker, that’s for sure. They are finding a way to win, that is important, but it would sure be nice to see them put together a full 60 minute game and maybe blow some teams out every now and then.

Dane’s reign

Earlier this week my 3DownNation colleague John Hodge wrote about whether Dane Evans’ play had made pending free agent Jeremiah Masoli expendable in Hamilton. Given what Hodge lays out, it makes sense to see why the team might be inclined to go with Evans as the undisputed No. 1 guy next year.

Evans’ numbers in this one look spectacular: 22-of-30 for 336 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Evans finally has more TDs than INTs on the year and he is 5-2 as the team’s starter.

But those numbers can be slightly deceiving, as 194 of those yards and all three of those touchdowns came in the first 13 minutes of the game. The interception also came when the Ticats probably could have salted the game away with a score. The play design was brilliant, as Anthony Coombs was left open, but a little too much air under the ball and waiting a little too long led to Vontae Diggs plucking it out of the air at the Edmonton 13-yard line.

The Ticats were up 24-0 at the time and a touchdown there probably ices things. These backbreaking picks have been a little too common with Evans. While Ticats fans also had to live with them with Masoli, it would be really nice if the QBs were a little less cavalier with the football.

But when he had to be, and when it mattered most, Evans was masterful. The Ticats got the ball at their own 39 with 30 seconds left. Needing about 30-to-35 yards to get into reasonable field goal range, Evans went to work. First play, 26 yards to Bralon Addison, and that was followed up by some tough yards on the ground by Jackson Bennett and Addison. Add in an offside penalty and the Ticats had more than enough room for error.

And error it nearly was, if not for Evans’ calm, cool demeanour. You never saw Evans panic when the ball was snapped low, the kick had a little more English on it than you’d want, it ultimately went where it needed to go and a lot of that is because Evans didn’t panic.

It was an up-and-down game for Evans, but when all was said and done, the Ticats got the win, clinched a playoff berth and are in prime position to nail down a first-round bye. Whether Evans has done enough, or will do enough the rest of the year, to make Masoli expendable is a question that will remain open for some time, but he continues to win and for a team that hasn’t done that a lot over the last few decades, that cannot be understated.

Target 21

Everyone knew that all eyes would be on Simoni Lawrence the rest of the season after his hit knocked Zach Collaros out of action in Week 1. The subsequent suspension, appeal, and upholding of said suspension was news for weeks.

If it feels like Lawrence has a target on his back, both from officials and opposing teams’ fans, it is because he does. Every time Lawrence even remotely steps out of line Twitter explodes with some scorching hot takes about No. 21.

Yet, as witnessed Friday night, when Lawrence is on the receiving end of the same types of hits fans admonish him for it as nothing but crickets. Lawrence took a somewhat cheap shot at Logan Kilgore and was flagged for it. It wasn’t a great hit, but not one that deserved the attention it got. Chances are if that was any other player, the hit goes without comment.

Lawrence was on the receiving end of a couple cheap shots and yet the outrage machine that is social media was not-so-surprisingly silent about it. C.J. Gable seemed to make it his mission to go after Lawrence after the Kilgore hit, but Gable was never once taken aside by the refs for a talking to (like Lawrence was after a perfectly acceptable second hit on Logan Kilgore).

After a DaVaris Daniels catch that was later overturned to an incompletion, Colin Kelly absolutely blasts Lawrence for no good reason. It was the very definition of a tourist hit and it was in retribution to Lawrence’s earlier hit on Kilgore. It was late, dirty and wholly unnecessary… met with absolute silence by the vast majority of social media users watching the game.

I am not going to sit here and say Simoni Lawrence is a saint, or that he doesn’t play on the edge. He does, and it has made him the player he is. He steps over the line sometimes and has dealt with the necessary punishments. We’ve adjudicated his hit on Collaros for far too long, but just because he had made some questionable hits doesn’t mean he should be targeted by opposing players or that fans should be OK when he is.

If you want to make Lawrence the villain, so be it, but it is time for other players to be held to the same standard as everyone seemingly holds Lawrence to.

Frankie Williams: baller

Frankie Williams became a household name earlier this season thanks to his play on special teams, but the work he has put in on defence the last few weeks needs to be singled out. His defensive performance against Edmonton might have been the finest of his young career.

Williams knocked down three passes, all on second down, and picked off his first pass of the season against Edmonton. He also finished with five tackles, and while he was beat for the insane touchdown catch by Greg Ellingson, his coverage on that was about as good as it gets. Ellingson just made a great play and sometimes that happens. At least he didn’t fall down in coverage. (*cough* Ed Gainey *cough*)

Williams is having a tremendous sophomore season in Hamilton, and his roll on the team continues to grow. He has proved to be invaluable on special teams — he had a couple of nice returns in this game, even if he never reached the end zone. Now he is adding further value by being a lockdown corner on defence.

New magic number

Here is what we know: the Ticats are playoff bound and will host a playoff game in November. Whether that game is the East Semifinal or the East Final still remains a mystery, however.

For those interested, playoff tickets go on sale on Monday for season ticket holders to buy extra tickets (Ticats season seat holders have their playoff ticket built-in to their season ticket package), for flex-pack purchasers on Tuesday, Ticats All Access members who bought single-game tickets this year on Wednesday and the general public on Thursday. Playoff football will be coming to the Hammer this November, that much is for certain.

The Ticats sit at 10-3, while the Als are 7-5 after their amazing comeback victory over the Bombers. Montreal still has a game in hand, but the simple math is that Hamilton’s magic number to clinch the division is four. Any combination of Ticats wins and Alouettes losses that equal four will see the Ticats claim their first division title since 2014.

The earliest this could be accomplished is October 5 when Montreal hosts Calgary. If the Ticats win next week vs. the Bombers and beat Edmonton the week after and the Als lose to the Lions next week and the Stamps on Oct. 5, then the Ticats will secure first place in the East.

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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.