Masoli, Jackson star in Ticats win over Elks

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

Sure it has come against the two worst teams in the league, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats seem to have found their rhythm the last couple of weeks.

Friday night’s obliteration of the Elks, a 39-23 win that was not as close as the score indicates, was reminiscent of the team we saw play in 2019. The offence looked unstoppable for most of the night and the defence didn’t really allow the Elks much room to breathe until the game was pretty much in hand — Edmonton’s two touchdowns came in what was essentially garbage time.

There is still some stuff to be concerned about, the kicking game for starters, but this felt more like a vintage Orlondo Steinauer-coached Tiger-Cats performance.

Masoli shines again

Despite still having a vocal minority of detractors, Jeremiah Masoli has put together three straight great games and looks every bit like the player who was a finalist for M.O.P. in 2018.

Masoli had nearly 300 yards passing at halftime, and finished the game with 357 after the Ticats spent the majority of the second half trying to kill clock. He completed almost 71 percent of his passes, threw for three touchdowns, didn’t turn the ball over for the third straight game and finished with a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

Masoli threw with confidence as evidenced by his first touchdown strike of the game, a laser into a tight window to Steven Dunbar Jr. that came with the pocket collapsing around him, and he took chances down field. That is an element that had been missing from the offence so far this season.

Don Jayy to the rescue

It took a long time, but Don Jackson was stupendous in just his second game action of the season. It was, without question, the best rushing performance from a Ticats player this season, as Jackson toted the rock 16 times for 120 yards and the game-icing 16-yard touchdown run with just under three minutes left.

Jackson added another dimension to this offence, and if the run game can get going and be married with a passing attack as potent as the one we saw last night, the Ticats will be a tough out for anyone come playoff time. I think it is also safe to say Jackson won’t be a healthy scratch again this year.

Brawl for all

It was a fiery end to the first half, as the Simoni Lawrence-James Wilder Jr. beef became a full-on WWE-style brawl. Lawrence and Wilder, two guys who have had their fair share of on-field dust ups over the years, had been jawing at each other a fair bit before things escalated after Lawrence took a late shot at Wilder on an incomplete pass. Once Wilder saw who took the shot, things exploded.

Using his NXT training, Wilder shot a double-leg takedown on Lawrence and the benches cleared. Each side was assessed three penalties and two players were ejected, Edmonton’s Jonathan Rose for leaving the bench during a skirmish and Hamilton’s Kameron Kelly for spitting on an Elks player. I have praised Kelly a lot this season for what I thought was some stellar play, but this incident will tarnish his reputation. There is just no place in the game for stuff like that. Completely unacceptable on his part.

The brawl lit up Twitter, and I found the whole thing entertaining. I wish we had more player and team rivalries where guys seemed to legitimately dislike each other, and it sure seems like Lawrence and Wilder fit that bill. Was Lawrence’s hit late? Yeah, it was. But he wasn’t trying to injure Wilder — I mean, unless you think a shoulder to a guy’s ass could end his career — and the story being spun that this was the “same old Simoni” is just hacks pushing a lazy narrative that isn’t supported by facts.

Simoni Lawrence is a player that you love when he’s on your team and hate when he plays for the opponent. The same can probably be said for James Wilder Jr., honestly. Lawrence sometimes plays over the line, but to act like this was on par with some of the worst we have seen from players in this league is laughable. Are our collective memories so short that we forgot that Kyries Hebert used to seemingly be on a weekly mission to take a cheap shot on an opposing player?

Lawrence has a target on his back, and has since the Collaros hit on opening night in 2019. He was flagged for roughing the passer later in the game — which was an absolute joke — and Glen Suitor even said if it wasn’t Lawrence, he likely would have believed it was an accident. Lawrence is going to keep being Lawrence, and eight fan bases are going to hate him for it. Ticats fans won’t care, and I doubt Lawrence will either.

Splash, splash, splash

One area that the Ticats needed to improve was explosive, or splash, plays on offence. They had 20 on offence entering this game, which was tied for third in the league with Calgary, but it hasn’t felt like a big part of the offence like it is in Winnipeg and especially Montreal.

The Ticats made up for that in a big way against the Elks, with Masoli having eight pass plays of 20 yards or more and Jackson having three runs of 10 or more yards on his 16 carries, and averaging 7.5 yards/rush. The offence was clicking on big plays, was sustaining drives, and did not punt after the 11-minute mark of the second quarter, scoring at least one point on their last seven drives, excluding the kneel-down drive to end the game.

Hamilton’s defence has been lights out all season waiting for the offence to catch up. It looks like they caught up on Friday night.

Young guns step up

Bralon Addison missed this game after sustaining a hamstring injury against the Redblacks, and Brandon Banks did not play in the second half due to his own hamstring injury, but the offence didn’t miss a beat thanks to all the younger receivers stepping up to fill the void.

Tim White led the team in receiving with 89 yards on six catches and also made a highlight reel touchdown catch. Steven Dunbar Jr. made the most out of his three target, catching all of them for 76 yards and a score, while also having a very nice 44-yard gain on a hitch pass in the second quarter that set up a Taylor Bertolet field goal. Jaelon Acklin only had one catch, but he made the most of it with a 66-yard touchdown and rookie Tyler Ternowski made his first career catch which went for 48 yards.

If Addison and Banks miss more time then the youngster are going to be given larger roles, and based on the evidence it seems they can handle it.

From Speedy to snake bit

Speaking of Banks, 2021 will be a season to forget to the 2019 M.O.P. A season after leading the league in the three major receiving categories, Banks finds himself outside the top 30 in yards, outside the top 25 in catches, and hasn’t found the end zone once.

Injuries have played a huge role as Banks has played in just seven games and has been hampered by a rib injury since the start of the season. He looked to be getting on track against the Elks, catching four passes for 60 yards in the first half and he opened the game with a big kickoff return that was negated by an unnecessary, away-from-the-play holding call. But the injury derailed all that.

Whether Banks finds his flow before the season ends is a question mark, but no matter what he does the remainder of the year, this has easily been the worst season of Banks’ CFL career.

Kicking woes

With the Ticats finally finding the swagger that made them an unstoppable force two years ago, the shambles that is the kicking game continues to be a black mark on the team.

At no point this year has there been any confidence in any kicker the Ticats have trotted out. Taylor Bertolet missed another two field goals against the Elks, and is just 19-of-27 on the season, with his 70.4 success percentage being the worst of any kicker who has tried at least 20 field goals. The Bombers had similar issues and went out fixing that by trading for former Ticats kicker Sergio Castillo. The trade route is no longer an option for the Ticats, but they can’t keep putting Bertolet out there expecting things to get better.

A time is going to come where they are going to need him to win a game and is there anyone out there who has any confidence that he will make that kick? Didn’t think so.

The road ahead

I covered the entire East Division race for first earlier this week, but with the cupcake games out of the way the Ticats road to the regular season division title gets interesting.

Next up is a wounded B.C. Lions team fighting for their playoff lives, followed by a road trip to BMO Field to take on the Argos and a season-ender with the Riders at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats probably have to win at least two of those to get a home playoff game, and winning all three might be enough to secure first in the division, but it is the game in the middle that looms largest.

The Ticats have lost twice to the Boatmen this year, each by a single point, and demolished them on Labour Day, as is tradition. A Ticats win by any score would see them secure the season series over their arch rival, giving them the tiebreaker over both teams they are chasing. That would be a massive win in their hopes to get the coveted bye.

The Ticats haven’t shown the type of consistency game-to-game to make one believe they will win all three remaining games, but the path to hosting the East Final, and then the Grey Cup, is there. They need some help, and the Lions and Riders beating the Argos and Als later today would really make things interesting. Despite a somewhat disappointing season where the team didn’t live up to its lofty expectations, this team still has a chance to craft the storybook ending many in the city are hoping to see.

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.