Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

With nothing left to play for, it wasn’t all that surprising to see the Ticats get off to a rough start. But a strong second half not only propelled them to a decisive 33-12 win over the moribund Ottawa Redblacks, also to their thirteenth win of the season, a new franchise record.

In the long and storied history of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, whose roots trace back all the way to the founding of the Hamilton Football Club in 1869, the franchise had never won 13 games in a season. It’s almost unbelievable that it has never happened — for contrast, the Calgary Stampeders have won 13 or more games seven times since 2010.

The Ticats have won games in myriad ways in 2019, and Saturday afternoon was no different. The offence got off to a rough start, with the vastly superior Ticats up just 12-9 at halftime. But once Dane Evans hit Brandon Banks for a 60-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, the game was pretty much in the bag.

Some will look at the Ticats struggling to beat an awful Ottawa team and worry, but things like this can have a way of helping a team moving forward. The Ticats know they didn’t play their best football on Saturday, far from it, but they have time to fix whatever issues ail them over the next two weeks before readying themselves for their Eastern Final opponents.

Living Dane-gerously

It’s odd to say that a guy who threw for 452 yards and completed 78 per cent of his passes had a bit of an off day, but Dane Evans wasn’t his recent stellar self against the Redblacks. He was still very good, don’t get me wrong, but we have come to expect so much from him that when he struggles even a little bit it is noticeable.

Now, Evans made a lot of great throws — a pair of passes to Brandon Banks, including the one Speedy took to the house, were two of the best throws you will see. He has grown so much over the last few weeks that it is easy to argue that he is perhaps playing the best of any quarterback in the CFL right now.

His numbers against Ottawa were tremendous, but since Labour Day he has been otherworldly. Over his last five games, Evans has thrown for 1,784 yards (an average of 357 yards per game), 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has also completed 137 of his 178 passes, which is a tick under 77 per cent completion rate over that span.

Dane Evans still has a long way to go to be considered one of the game’s very best, but as of right now there might not be a quarterback playing better football than Hamilton’s No. 9.

The Lord of House Tyrell

How Tyrell Sutton was sitting at home for half the season makes even less sense now than it did back when the Argos cut him.

All Sutton has done since taking the Ticats’ starting running back job is run over, through and around defenders. He turned 11 carries into 88 yards against Edmonton, and continued his hot streak by posting 85 yards on the ground on 13 carries. He also chipped in with four catches for 64 yards.

To say Sutton has been a revelation would be to ignore what he has done his entire career. He’s still playing at a high level and he could be the biggest difference-maker for the Ticats come playoff time.

An irresistible force met a very move-able object

Ottawa’s offence sucks. I know it, you know it, everyone knows. My colleague here at 3DownNation Santino Filoso has been saying it for months now. It is not a surprise to see the Redblacks struggle on offence against the league’s best defence.

The Redblacks made it into the Ticats’ red zone once, and they got to the 20-yard line, which is the bare minimum to be considered in the red zone. They got there thanks to a blocked punt, not some type of sustained drive. Yes, all drives count, but Ottawa could pick up just two yards after being gifted great field position by their special teams.

Ottawa’s offence had the ball 15 times in the game, and they mustered just nine first downs, 11 of those drives accumulated 10 yards or fewer and went a paltry five for 20 on second-down conversions. They amassed just 140 yards of total offence and lost the time of possession battle by nearly 10 minutes. The Ticats forced eight two-and-outs and made Ottawa punt the ball nine times.

I don’t care who it came against, this was as dominant a performance as the Ticats have put together on defence this year.

Pedal to the metal

Lots of talk pregame focused on what the Ticats should do with everything locked up, with some suggesting it was time to sit some vets to rest up for the East Final. I wrote about that earlier in the week, mostly calling it rubbish. The Ticats seemingly agreed as almost all of the regular starters were on the field for the vast majority of the game.

Dane Evans came out with the game well in hand, and Jalin Marshall replaced Marcus Tucker in the starting lineup (more on Marshall in a second), but it was mostly business as usual, which is what I expected. The Ticats don’t play a meaningful game until the East Final, but resting players for a month just isn’t an option.

They also didn’t hold back, executing a perfect onside kick after scoring their first touchdown of the day. Now this might not have been the best idea — why show that off in a game with no consequence — and I’m not sure what the Ticats hoped to gain by it. It was fun to see, but the strategy around doing something like that against an opponent like this in a game that meant almost literally nothing seems suspect.

The not-right stuff

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, as the Ticats made plenty of mistakes on Saturday that they will need to clean up before playoff time.

The blocked punt that gifted Ottawa one of their four field goals was as bad as they come. Justin Tuggle simply whiffed on a charging Anthony Cioffi, who had no problems getting his hands on the ball. Little errors like that will be much more costly against a team that actually has a functioning offence.

Evans’ interception was probably his worst throw of the game. He stared down his receiver and threw it where he never should have thrown it. It’s a learning experience, and it is much better to learn from that in a game like this than in an East Final or Grey Cup.

Lirim Hajrullahu missed an 18-yard field goal. That’s just… yeah. Again, in this type of game it doesn’t matter much, but imagine if that was to happen in November. To give Hajrullahu a bit of praise, though, his coffin-corner punt that went out at the one-yard line was a thing of beauty. Maybe the best punt I have seen since Swayze Waters drilled two out at the one against the Ticats on Labour Day in 2014.

Faces of the franchise

When you think of this era of Ticats football — pretty much everything from the closing of Ivor Wynne Stadium to the present — there are two names that will pop into your head before any others: Brandon Banks and Simoni Lawrence.

Those two have been here since 2013 — Lawrence from the start of it after one of the most lopsided trades in pro sports history, Banks midway through the season after he was let go by Washington’s NFL team. Both guys have left an indelible mark on the franchise; both are likely future Wall of Honour honourees; both are probably future Canadian Football Hall of Famers; and both might be having the best seasons of their career in 2019.

Brandon Banks is the MOP for 2019. Full stop. Cody Fajardo, Bryan Burnham, Reggie Begelton and Vernon Adams Jr. have all had wonderful seasons, but the conversation for MOP begins and ends with Speedy B. He still has a chance at the receiving triple crown depending on how the Ticats use him in these last two games, and he has contributed on both offence and special teams this year.

Against Ottawa, Banks was once again on fire. He caught seven passes for 116 yards and took one 60 yards to pay dirt. Yes, it came against Ottawa, but that doesn’t matter. Banks has done this week in and week out all season. There should be no question who the best player in the league is this season.

Simoni Lawrence should also be the front-runner for top defensive player. Yeah, this will chap more than a few behinds, but Lawrence is playing out of his mind on a Ticats defence that is tops in the league. He leads the league in tackles and defensive plays, and is probably playing the best football of his life right now.

Lawrence has dealt with a lot of controversy this year, but there is no denying that he has been the anchor of a stellar Ticats defence.

Where do they get these wonderful toys

The reason the Ticats sit 13-3 for the first time ever is not just because of the stars this team has, but the depth. And you need look no further than by looking at Saturday’s star rookie Jalin Marshall to know what I mean.

Most people outside Hamilton had never heard of Jalin Marshall until Saturday afternoon and all he did was finish second on the team in every receiving category and scored his first career touchdown on a five-yard run in the first quarter. Marshall is just the latest in a long line of unheralded players who have stepped up this season when called upon. A lot of teams preach next man up, but few teams live it as well as the Ticats do, and Jalin Marshall is further proof of that.

The plan going forward

As I said earlier, I touched on what the Ticats should do over their final three games last week, but with win 13 out of the way, should the Ticats start taking their foot off the gas a bit.

Yes and no.

No in the sense that I still think a vast majority of the starters should play the next two weeks, but especially this upcoming week against the Montreal Alouettes. There is a darn good chance these two teams will meet again in a few weeks in Hamilton. It could be good to see how the Ticats measure up against a lot of people’s dark horse pick to win the Grey Cup.

While I believe the Ticats should continue to play their starters, I do think that Saturday’s game plan should be as vanilla as possible. No trick plays, no onside kicks, nothing that could potentially be used to much greater effect in the East Final. The Ticats are going to run their offence and defence as usual, but maybe save some of the exotic stuff for when the game against the Als really matters.

But other than that, I say full steam ahead… at least until the last game against the Argos. That’s the one that should see some regulars parked on the bench for most, if not all, of the game.

Comments

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.