Defence dominates as Ticats book ticket to third straight East Final

Photo courtesy: Ryan McCullough/Ticats.ca

The atmosphere was intense, the weather was magnificently Canadian, and the outcome was what the crowd wanted.

It was a perfect afternoon of football in Hamilton as the Ticats punched their ticket to an East Final meeting with their arch rivals from up the Q.E.W. after downing the Als 23-12 in the East Semi-Final.

It was a slow start for the Ticats, Montreal controlled the first quarter, possessing the ball for 11:34 and running 18 plays to Hamilton’s seven, but all the Als could muster from all that time with the ball was a single field goal. Montreal looked good and the home side was on their heels, however a flip was switched in the second quarter and the floodgates opened.

It all began with a curious penalty where the Ticats were called for roughing the kicker on the same play where the Als were called for no yards. Both flags were of the 15-yard variety, and instead of them off-setting, what usually occurs when both teams commit a foul on the same play, the Als retained the ball and were given a first down.

Four plays later Dylan Wynn forced a Trevor Harris fumble that Julian Howsare rumbled with 45 yards to the Montreal 22-yard line. Two plays after that it was a familiar combo, Jeremiah Masoli to Brandon Banks, that gave the Ticats a lead they would never relinquish. And it all began with a penalty, maybe the most fortuitous penalty in the long history of the Ticats.

From there it was a second quarter dominated by Hamilton, who scored another 13 points, including two field goals in the final 66 seconds to take a 20-3 lead into the break.

The second half chugged along, with Montreal finding the end zone to make it a 10-point game midway through the third, but with Hamilton’s defence allowing very little else, the Ticats cruised the rest of the way to book their date with the Argos for a shot to play at home in the Grey Cup for the first time in 49 years.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t even all that fun to watch, but the Ticats’ season is still alive and they are one game away from getting back to the Grey Cup. That’s all their fans could ask for.

Guarantee this

I loved Als’ linebacker Patrick Levels guaranteeing a win, I really did. It added a little spice to the lead up to the game and the CFL needs more of that.

I wished the Ticats would have gone back at him, but that’s not their style and it seems like they saved their talking for the field. On the team’s first touchdown, Banks cooked Levels in coverage and jawed at him immediately afterwards. It was perfect and obvious Levels’ guarantee irked the Ticats just a little even if they didn’t want to say so publicly. But I loved all of it, from start to finish, and I hope we see more of it going forward.

Smack ‘im in the mouth

Simoni Lawrence said during the week that the team was planning on following Almondo Sewell’s advice from earlier this year to hit Trevor Harris as much as possible. They did that and then some on Sunday.

Six sacks, four forced fumbles, and numerous QB pressures made Harris’ day miserable. Harris ended up putting up respectable numbers — 364 yards on 28-of-44 passing — but he turned the ball over four times and Hamilton’s defence was in his face all day.

Everyone ate with Wynn and Ja’Gared Davis each notching two sacks, and Wynn also forcing two fumbles and recovering another. Hamilton’s defensive front harassed Harris into mistakes and a repeat performance against another somewhat shaky quarterback in a little less than a week will see the Ticats secure a second straight Grey Cup berth.

Canadians step up

About an hour before the game it was announced that prized free-agent acquisition, and key component of the Ticats’ secondary, Ciante Evans would miss the game due to injury.

It forced the Ticats to shuffle their roster, moving all-star safety Tunde Adeleke to Evans’ spot at field halfback and giving rookie fourth rounder Stavros Katsantonis his first career start at safety.

Both players were exceptional in their makeshift roles, with Adeleke breaking up Montreal’s last scoring chance late in the fourth quarter, and Katsantonis intercepting Harris for his first career INT. Given the circumstances to have both players make impact plays, and for the rookie making his first career start in one of the highest pressure situations and not look lost, speaks to the type of Canadian talent this team has acquired.

Let the hype begin

Ticats and Argos for a chance to play in the Grey Cup: it doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

As soon as the crowd knew the Ticats had won on Sunday an “Argos Suck” chant cascaded around Tim Hortons Field. On the walk from the stadium to the car to head home, another one broke out — Ticats fans are ready for the East Final already.

While the Ticats and their fans hoped this game would be in Hamilton, maybe playing this in Toronto isn’t the worst thing. The last time these two teams met in an East Final was in 2013, when Hamilton went into Toronto and beat the the defending champion Argos 36-24 to earn their first trip the Grey Cup since 1999. It was the first time these two teams met in a Division Final since 1986 and this upcoming Sunday’s game will be just the fourth time in my lifetime these two teams will meet with a Grey Cup berth on the line.

The last time the Ticats lost to the Argos in an East Final was 1983. I hadn’t yet turned two, Hulk Hogan had not yet won his first WWF championship and a lot of you reading this probably weren’t even born. The Ticats-Argos rivalry is fierce, but it does not feature many match-ups with the biggest stakes. This upcoming Sunday’s contest provides those stakes.

Sunday’s game will also mark the sixth trip to the Eastern Final for the Ticats since 2013, double that of the next closest team, both Ottawa and Toronto have three Eastern Final appearances. It is their seventh trip in the last 10 seasons, tying them with the Calgary Stampeders for the most Division Final appearances since 2011.

That aforementioned 2013 game is the only East Final the Ticats won on the road and it helped that a large hoard of Ticats fans made the trek to Rogers Centre to cheer on the Black and Gold. I would expect a similarly sized contingent of Ticats fans to make the trip to BMO Field this upcoming Sunday.

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.