Ticats punch their Grey Cup ticket (and eight other thoughts)

While no player or team ever deserves a championship — championships are earned, not given — this Hamilton Tiger-Cats team at least deserves to play for one.

And play for one they will after vanquishing Edmonton 36-16 in Sunday’s East Final in front of a Tim Hortons Field record 25,177 fans. The Ticats will now go on to play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup.

The Ticats got things started early, forcing two early Edmonton turnovers and turning those into 10 points. The Ticats got their lead to 13-0 before a DaVaris Daniels touchdown cut the lead to six.

With 30 seconds left in the first half, quarterback Dane Evans, making his first career playoff start, orchestrated a very nice drive end-of-half drive that ended with a Lirim Hajrullahu field goal and gave the Cats a 23-13 lead at the break.

It was pretty much over at that point, even if the score didn’t reflect it. The Ticats allowed Edmonton just one field goal over the final 30 minutes, while adding 13 points of their own to get them to the 36-16 final.

It might not have been the dominating performance the score suggests, but the Ticats did what they have done all year: made plays when they had to, were aggressive at the right times and shut down the opposition when they even attempted to make the game close.

This was Ticats football in 2019 and now they have a chance to do what no team from Hamilton has done in 20 years: bring the city a Grey Cup.

Big Game Dane

Dane Evans has a number of nicknames. Great Dane, Daney Dimes and now we can add Big Game Dane to that list.

Evans might not have been as spectacular as he has been for most of this season — his 386 passing yards were superb, especially against a team that gave up less than 230 air yards on average in 2019, but his 58.3 percent completion rate was well off his season average — but he made some clutch throws, protected the football (mostly) and orchestrated a number of scoring drives. His ability to use the whole field, sideline to sideline, is second to none.

Some quarterbacks hesitate to throw to the wide side; not Evans.

Some aren’t comfortable throwing into tight windows; not Evans.

His second-quarter touchdown strike to a well-covered Brandon Banks is a throw most pivots won’t even attempt, but not only does Evans attempt them, he connects on them.

When Jeremiah Masoli went down in July many wondered if the team was done. One dominating East Division championship season later and we have our answer.

Killer Bs sting again

It was another stellar outing from the best receiver duo in the CFL, as Brandon Banks and Bralon Addison combined for 11 catches, 230 yards and one out-of-this-world touchdown (courtesy of the future 2019 MOP).

Speedy B had just four of those 11 catches, but he turned those into an even 100 yards, and two of those were almost too incredible for words. His sliding touchdown grab in the second quarter and his diving snag in the fourth were two of the greatest catches we saw this year.

Addison proved once again to be a big-game player. After bursting onto the scene a year ago with a 12-catch, 129-yard performance in Hamilton’s East Final loss to the Redblacks, Addison followed that up with a seven-catch, 130-yard performance against Edmonton.

These two have been outstanding all season — so much so that one of them is going to be given an award for his outstanding play — and they were once again in the East Final.

Sack attack

Including the playoffs, Edmonton gave up just 29 sacks over the 20 games they played. That is a remarkably low number. What else is remarkable is that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had over one-third of that total, with 11 sacks over three games, including three on Sunday. All 11 of them came from the defensive line.

Ja’Gared Davis, who will be playing in his fourth straight Grey Cup in his fourth CFL season, Ted Laurent and Julian Howsare all took down Trevor Harris on Sunday, including on back-to-back plays that essentially ended the season for Edmonton.

Silencing Playoff Trev

Speaking of Harris, all the talk coming into the game was how would the Ticats be able to stop “Playoff Trev”? Stop him they did.

He went a more than respectable 29-of-41 passing for 319 yards, but forcing him to throw two bad interceptions and making him run (he had seven carries for 25 yards) was exactly what the Ticats needed to do.

Trevor Harris’ playoff woes were always blown out of proportion — they were based on one mediocre start in 2017 — but so to were his triumphs. For as good as he was against Hamilton a year ago and Montreal a week ago, he struggled just as mightily against the better defences he faced (Calgary in last year’s Grey Cup, Hamilton on Sunday).

Hamilton’s defence has made basically every quarterback they have played against look average at best and Harris was no exception.

Haunt them no more

A common refrain from Ticats fans is worrying that a player who leaves for greener pastures will come back to haunt their former team.

We saw it with Henry Burris and Greg Ellingson a few years ago, and many wondered if Ellingson, along with Larry Dean and Don Unamba, would do the same to the Ticats in this year’s East Final.

Ellingson finished with seven catches for 73 yards, but was really a non-factor all game. Dean and Unamba combined for nine tackles, but their respective presences weren’t really felt. There would be no haunting this year.

Keep it clean

Edmonton tied for the league lead in sacks this season, so thwarting their pass rush was one of the keys to the game for the Ticats. Given that Edmonton tallied just one sack, and it came from defensive back Josh Johnson, I would say the Ticats passed with flying colours.

Kwaku Boateng had just one tackle and Almondo Sewell did not record a single statistic, so the Ticats star-laden offensive line did their job in keeping Evans clean. The Ticats will face another ferocious pass rush in the Grey Cup, so the o-line will once again need to be in top form.

Blackout

For the second year in a row, the Ticats promoted a playoff blackout and encouraged fans to wear all black to the game. Of the record-breaking 25,177 fans in attendance, you would have been hard pressed to find a handful of them that did not oblige. It made for a very cool visual, and I can only imagine what it looked like on television. The Ticats faithful were at full throat for most of the game, too. Adding in the intimidating all-black audience to that raucous crowd made for one of the best atmospheres I have ever been in.

Next week

I have written nearly 100 game pieces following Tiger-Cats games over the five seasons I have been covering the team for 3DownNation, but the one piece I have never written was about the Ticats and the Grey Cup.

That changes now.

Next Sunday, in front of what I expect to be a somewhat partisan Winnipeg crowd in Calgary, the Ticats will try to end their 20-year championship drought when they take on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 107th Grey Cup.

The storylines for this game are endless, whether it’s Zach Collaros vs. Hamilton or Collaros vs. Simoni Lawrence or the longest title drought vs. the second-longest title drought, there are no shortage of stories to be told heading into the biggest game on the Canadian football calendar.

Keep it locked on 3DownNation all week as we will have wall-to-wall coverage of all things Grey Cup.

It’s Ticats vs. Bombers. East vs. West. 20 years vs. 29 years. (And my No. 1 most-wanted matchup.)

It’s going to be a fun week.

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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.