Terrible start, injuries, resilience highlight first half of 2021 for Ticats

To say I was high on the Ticats to start the season would be an understatement.

Despite struggling in their first two games, the Tabbies have turned things around by winning four of their last five and currently sit atop the East Division. It is exactly where I thought they would be even if the route to get there was much different than the one that was expected.

The Tiger-Cats have dealt with so many key injuries over the course of the first seven games that the fact they won four games and are in first place is a minor miracle. Jeremiah Masoli, Dane Evans, Brandon Banks, Chris Van Zeyl, Ted Laurent, Dylan Wynn, Tunde Adeleke and Cariel Brooks have all missed time, while Bralon Addison and first overall pick Jake Burt have yet to take the field. Take any other team in the league, subtract those calibre of players and tell me if you think they would still be a first-place team.

As the Ticats get ready to start the second half of their season by hosting the Montreal Alouettes, now seems like as good a time as any to take stock of where they have been and where they might go as they march towards a home Grey Cup and hopefully ending their two-decade-plus championship drought.

Brutal start

The Ticats’ 2021 campaign probably couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. They looked completely lost in two blowout defeats to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders. Hindsight being what it is maybe we should have seen this coming, but it wasn’t that they lost, but how they lost. They didn’t crack 10 points in either game, scored just a single touchdown in each game and didn’t look anything like the unit we saw steamroll its way to a franchise-best 15-3 season in 2019. It was as bad a start as the team could have had.

Where it all turned around

Sitting at 0-2, the Ticats needed a spark and found it in Dane Evans. Evans steadily improved week-to-week in 2019 when thrust into action, and he looked every bit like that player when he resumed starting duties in 2021. He rolled off two straight division wins — a 27-10 victory on the road in Montreal, and a 32-19 pasting of the Argos on Labour Day — to help right the ship, and the Cats to where we thought they would be, and that was first in the East Division.

Playing a bigger role

Evans’ run didn’t last long, however, as an injury in the Labour Day rematch has caused him to miss the last two games. In his stead, career backup David Watford took the reins for a pair of important games. Watford wasn’t tasked with doing much, but he did enough to help the Ticats get wins over the Calgary Stampeders and Ottawa Redblacks, and push them back into first place in the division. You couldn’t have asked for much more from Watford.

But he wasn’t the only player who has been thrown into the fire unexpectedly. The training camp injuries to Bralon Addison and DeVier Posey paved the way for first-year players Tim White, Papi White and Steven Dunbar Jr. to make names for themselves.

In fact, the Ticats have been so impressed with their trio of newcomers that they released Posey along with fellow receiver Marcus Tucker, who played 15 games for the team in 2019. Dunbar burst onto the scene in a big way in his first start against the Montreal Alouettes in Week 4, catching seven passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. The Whites haven’t been as productive, but both have shown flashes when given the chance.

The Ticats’ offence remains a work in progress, but with reinforcements coming, the experience these newcomers have accumulated will pay off at some point later in the season.

Standout performances

I could just put the defence here and move on, but that would be too simplistic.

Simoni Lawrence has been outstanding in 2021, picking up right where he left off two years ago. He is fourth in the league in tackles with 42, his two interceptions sit one back of the co-league leaders, and he has more touchdowns than Andrew Harris, William Powell, Greg Ellingson and Derel Walker.

Frankie Williams was a legitimate M.O.P. candidate through the first month of the season with his play on defence and special teams. He almost singlehandedly beat the Alouettes for the Ticats’ first win of the season, and his punt return touchdown on Labour Day blew the game open. He has cooled off since, but no one was playing better football during the first four weeks of the CFL than Frankie Williams.

Hamilton’s defence in general has been out of this world since everyone came back healthy. Over the last five games, the Ticats haven’t allowed a single team to score 20 points, and have forced 18 turnovers and have scored three touchdowns. If not for what the Bombers were doing more people would be talking about this Hamilton defence as one of the best ever.

Potential trouble ahead

It isn’t all roses as the Ticats still have some issues to deal with despite winning four of their last five games. The offensive line is still a mess and the kicking game has zero consistency. The Ticats have given up a league-worst 23 sacks over seven games, and have found almost no success in the run game. It was an area of concern going into the season and remains one as we hit the halfway point.

The Ticats also have the second-worst field goal percentage, and the kicking has been completely unreliable regardless of whether it was Michael Domagala or Taylor Bertolet doing the kicking. The Ticats’ lone loss over the last five games came courtesy of a missed extra point against the Argos. The defence had done what this defence has been doing for over a month and held the Argos to just 17 points, but the offence had sputter and Dane Evans had been lost to injury. Improbably, David Watford led a late-quarter touchdown drive and the extra point would have sent the game to overtime. Instead, Domagala nailed the upright and the Ticats lost by one. It was a gut punch of an ending in a game the Ticats had no business winning but very realistically could have.

Moving forward

So now that we know how the Ticats got to 4-3 at the mid-season mark, let us look ahead and see where this team might stand when the regular season concludes.

With a three-game homestead coming up against all three East Division foes, the Ticats have a real chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division, and there is no reason to believe the Tabbies won’t leave that run at 7-3. After that it is their lone trip outside the eastern time zone to play the moribund Elks, before ending the season with a tough stretch that sees them host the Lions, travel to play the Argos and host the Riders to end the season. That is as tough a stretch as any team has to cap off the regular season, but while running the table to get to 11-3 is unlikely, a nine or 10-win campaign is certainly within reach.

A lot will need to happen over the course of the next two-and-a-half months, but despite dealing with an incredible amount of injuries, losing their first two games badly, and being forced to play a third string quarterback, the Ticats still remain the favourites in the division and could easily find their way into December’s Grey Cup game that will be played on their home soil. The season may have gotten off to the rockiest of starts, but it could end with a celebration that hasn’t been seen around this parts in over 20 years.

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