Ticats fumble away golden opportunity in home loss to Als

Photo courtesy: Hamilton Tiger-Cats

When you are at home and up 14 points midway through the third quarter against a team that hasn’t moved the ball with any sort consistency the outcome shouldn’t be in doubt.

Not if you are the 2021 Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

The Ticats wasted a mostly stellar effort from the defence and a great return performance from Bralon Addison to lose 23-20 to the Montreal Alouettes in overtime.

When Sean Thomas-Erlington recovered his own fumble for a touchdown to put the Cats up 17-3, it felt like it was a wrap. The Als weren’t able to make anything happen offensively, and the Ticats were building momentum. But after a fumble by Addison led to a Jake Weineke touchdown on the ensuing drive, the Als took over. The Ticats didn’t record a first down from nine minute mark of the third quarter until there were 19 seconds left in the game. It is a stunning drought that was impossible to comprehend in the moment.

We chalked up the Ticats’ offensive ineptitude the last two games to them playing their third-string QB, but those offensive outputs looked like works of art compared to what we saw out of them on Saturday afternoon. Jeremiah Masoli didn’t look good at all, Brandon Banks continued to be a complete non-factor, and the offensive line continued to look like a group of guys who don’t know what they are doing.

But maybe we just need to accept the fact that the Ticats are exactly what their record shows, a middling team that is only in the hunt for home field in the playoffs because they play in a middling division.

A thrilling, calamitous finish

When people say the end of a CFL game is more exciting than any other brand of football, these are the games they are referencing. What was, for the most part, a horribly played game gave us one of the best, most CFL-y finishes of the year.

It began with about two minutes left, when Ciante Evans picked off Vernon Adams Jr. as the Als were marching for the go-ahead score. The Ticats failed to produce anything offensively after the takeaway and punted the ball to Montreal. The Als converted twice on third down, including on a third-and-20 with 30 seconds left when Adams Jr. hit Eugene Lewis in the end zone for an improbable touchdown. There looked to be almost a half dozen Ticats defenders in the area, but Lewis came down with the dart from Adams and the Als had the lead with under a minute to play.

The Ticats offence then took the field having not produced a first down in what felt like an eternity, but a soft defence by the Als allowed the Ticats to get the ball in somewhat field goal range. I saw somewhat because the Ticats had the wind in their face and we had seen two field goal missed going in that direction earlier in the day, including one that fell incredibly short. So when Taylor Bertolet lined up for a 55-yarder with no time on the clock, you could be safe in thinking this had no chance. But a chance it did have, as it barely made it over the crossbar to send the game to overtime.

In overtime, the Ticats took the ball, and the gridiron gods who smiled upon the Tabbies earlier turned their wrath on them at the worst possible time when, after just their third first down of the last 25 minutes of game time, Masoli’s hand off to Thomas-Erlington bounced off the latter’s chest and the ball found its way into Alouette hands. From there it was two quick runs and a chip shot field goal gave the Als the 23-20 win. It is the type of finish you hang your hat on as a CFL fan when telling people why your brand of football is the most exciting in the world.

As offensive as the name implies

Not since the days of Joe Paopao’s terrible play-calling in the early 2000s can I recall a Ticats’ offense so inept. They haven’t really looked great all season, but they have really looked awful the last four games. Long spells with no first downs, no running game to speak of, and a lack of imagination has led the Ticats to go from the league’s best offense in 2019 to one of the worst in 2021. If they hope to win the Grey Cup — and that sure seems like a pipe dream now, doesn’t it? — they need to fix this offense. They are wasting an all-time great defense with an offensive attack that wouldn’t be fit to run for a pee-wee team and if things don’t get fixed soon, this season will end like all the others they have had for the last two-plus decades.

Okafor ain’t it

It’s time to end the Kay Okafor experiment at left tackle. His missed block in the first half led to a drive-ending sack that forced the team to settle for a field goal, and a holding penalty later in the half negated a big second-down pickup. When the offense is struggling this badly, you can’t be taking first downs away. Okafor has been a starter essentially all season, and the results are in: he’s just not good enough.

Return of the YAC man

Despite the result, it was a mostly excellent season debut for Bralon Addison. He had a fumble that allowed the Als to get back into the game, but aside from that he added something that the offense had been missing all season. He led the team in catches, was second in yards, and looked exactly like the player he was two years ago. He made people miss, ran people over, and picked up nearly half of his yards after the fact. To put it bluntly, he was Bralon Addison, and if that is what he looks like working the rust off imagine what he will look like in a few weeks.

Wither Speedy B

The opposite end of the spectrum is Brandon Banks looking nothing like the player who ran away with M.O.P. in 2019. Banks was nearly invisible once again, catching four passes for just 15 yards. I don’t know if teams are game planning to take him away and it’s working, but the guy was named the CFL’s best player by TSN in August has looked nothing like it.

Hov does Hov things

Simoni Lawrence continues to make his push as the league’s top defensive player. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but he had a big sack of Vernon Adams Jr. and made two very big stops to snuff out drives by the Als. He has probably been Hamilton’s all-around best player this year and could realistically find himself named not just the division’s top defensive player, but perhaps even the East Division’s nominee for M.O.P.

The best player no one ever talks about

There may not be a better player in the CFL that no one ever talks about than Ticats’ halfback Cariel Brooks. Brooks picked off his third pass of the season, tying him for the league lead, and is well on his way to being named a divisional all-star for the second time in his career. The Ticats have had a lot of big names in the secondary over the last few years, from Delvin Breaux to Ciante Evans to Frankie Williams to Richard Leonard to Rico Murray, but none of them have been as consistently excellent as Brooks.

Enough is enough

This almost feels personal now with TSN doing these mid-game interviews. It was bad enough when they had Keith Urban “Umm” and “Ahh” his way through an interminably long booth interview during the 2019 Grey Cup, but TSN has been doubling down by staging numerous booth interviews with people this season. At least those chats were with people that warranted headlines, like the new owners in Montreal and B.C., but on Saturday when they brought Milt Stegall in to chat about it being 20 years since Khari Jones won M.O.P. it felt like they were doing it just to troll me as I have been very outspoken in saying how bad these things are.

It wasn’t interesting in the least and literally took away from watching the game, as stuff was happening that couldn’t be commented on because Stegall was doing his regular “I’m the best” schtick. It was completely unnecessary, and I don’t know how many times I need to say this before someone at the network listens, but do this stuff on a pre-game show. Instead of showing the top plays of the week or month or whatever clip show they showed prior to Saturday’s game, have a pre-game show where you can talk about this. But stop doing it during the game. It adds nothing to the game and actually detracts from it. Just stop it!

Undefeated no longer

Saturday’s loss marked the first loss at home under the stewardship of Orlondo Steinauer, who was 12-0 at Tim Hortons Field entering the game. It was also the first home loss for the Ticats since the season finale of the 2018 season, coincidentally also against the Montreal Alouettes, and the loss ended the longest win streak at Tim Hortons Field for the Ticats. The previous long was 10 wins in a row starting in 2014 and ending in 2015 at the hands of, you guessed it, the Montreal Alouettes.

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.