It might have been a little more scenic, and the path a wee bit more treacherous, but the Ticats will finish the year off in the spot many thought they would back in August: at Tim Hortons Field with a chance to win the franchise’s first Grey Cup since 1999.
The Ticats didn’t make it easy, finding themselves down 12-0 at the midway point of the game, but a stupendous second half, which saw the Tabbies score 27 points to the Argos’ seven, put the Ticats in a spot to end their two-decade-plus Grey Cup drought in front of what will be a highly partisan Hamilton crowd.
The switch that saved the season
A couple weeks ago, after Jeremiah Masoli struggled mightily against these very same Argos, my podcasting partner Mike asked why the Ticats didn’t insert Dane Evans. His reasoning being, why say all season you have a 1a and 1b and not go to 1b when 1a is having an off night.
This time, 1a (Masoli) was struggling again, coughing off the football deep in Argos territory at the start of the second quarter when the Ticats looked poised to at least get a field goal on the drive. On the next series, head coach Orlondo Steinauer made the switch and it might have saved the entire season, because not only did Dane Evans pilot them to victory, he was perfect in doing so.
No, seriously, he was perfect. He was 16-for-16 passing for 249 yards one touchdown pass and two touchdown runs. You couldn’t ask for anything more. He eluded the pass rush; made quick, decisive decisions; and just generally looked way more comfortable than Masoli.
If not for Evans coming in and providing a spark, the Ticats aren’t on their way home to play for a championship. Instead they would be on their way home packing their bags for the off-season.
Many turning points
If you talk to enough football people you will hear the same thing about what it takes to win games. One of the most common refrains is that games come down to just a small handful of plays, and the team that makes more of them will win.
The Ticats started the day by giving up two long drives by the Argos, but just like against the Alouettes a week ago, the Argos could only muster a pair of field goals from those drives that ended inside the five-yard line. Had the Ticats’ defence not held and the Argos found the end zone twice, this game is over in the first quarter.
The Ticats also got major contributions from special teams, with Papi White’s 92-yard punt return touchdown and a timely fake field goal being responsible for Hamilton’s first two scores of the game. White’s third-quarter return electrified the Hamilton contingent of the crowd, which was large, and provided the spark the team needed after a rough first half. It was a beautiful return, with blockers setting it up perfectly and White using his blazing speed to take it to the house to cut Toronto’s lead in half.
On the next series, the Ticats sputtered in Argos territory, and after Don Jackson implored the team to go for it on third-and-two, the Ticats lined up for a field goal. But Evans, who is also the team’s holder on kicks, ran under centre and rushed for the first down. The Ticats had a fresh set of downs, and on the very next play Evans found Jaelon Acklin for the game-tying score. We hadn’t seen a lot of trick plays from the Ticats on special teams this year, but Jeff Reinebold pulled it out at the exact right time and it led to the Ticats tying the game.
But if there was one play that showed this wouldn’t be a repeat of Week 15, it was the effort by Dane Evans to strip the ball from Shaq Richardson. The Ticats were marching and it looked like they might finally get on the board, but an Evans completion to Steven Dunbar Jr. was fumbled by the receiver and scooped up by Argos linebacker Henoc Muamba, before he lateraled it to Shaq Richardson who ran deep into Ticats territory. Unfortunately for the Argos, Richardson was a little sloppy with the ball and Evans stripped it right back out of his hand. The Ticats knelt the ball to end the half. It was a bizarre play to witness at the time, but knowing what came in the 30 minutes following made it mean so much more.
The entire Tiger-Cats’ defence deserves their flowers for this one — and we will get to the totality of what they did on Sunday in a second — but it would be unfair to lump Ja’Gared Davis’ performance into the group whole.
Davis was… I’m not even sure a words exists to properly convey his dominance against the Argos. He did it all, almost quite literally. He was a menace in the backfield, notching two sacks; once again proved his worth as a run stopper, an area I don’t think he gets enough credit for; and if that wasn’t enough, he guarded Argos’ running back D.J. Foster one-on-one in the end zone and came down with a pass breakup that was as good as any you would see from a defensive back.
Davis, who is now five for five when it comes to seasons played in the CFL and Grey Cup appearances, has strung together two of the best games of his life the last two weeks. Another big one next Sunday and he’ll have himself another ring.
Ack and Jack go on the attack
Evans’ insertion into the lineup provided the spark, but he wasn’t the only offensive player to show out in the East Final, as both Jaelon Acklin and Don Jackson were major contributors.
Acklin had a decent 2021, but wasn’t the dominant player many thought he’d become after a breakout rookie campaign in 2019. Against the Argos he was the best receiver on the field, which is saying something when he plays with a former M.O.P. and the opposite team has Eric Rogers, DaVaris Daniels and Ricky Collins Jr. Acklin finished with a game-high eight catches for 112 yards and one touchdown. He very nearly had a second, but was tackled just short of the goal line. Acklin found the holes in the Argos’ secondary and, along with Evans’ precision passing, exploited them to great effect.
Since finally getting his shot against the Elks, Don Jackson has missed one game: Week 15 against the Argos. It is the only game the Ticats have lost since early October.
With Jackson, the Ticats take on a completely different feel offensively. Their play calling feels more balanced and less predictable. You aren’t going to see a back in the CFL get 25 carries a game, but CFL backs don’t need that many carries to be effective. Jackson certainly doesn’t, but he did turn his 16 carries into 95 yards, and when the team needed to ice the game away late, they leaned on their prized free agent acquisition to get the tough yards.
If the Ticats are going to beat the Bombers in the Grey Cup, they are going to need Jackson to play big and take the pressure off the passing game. If what we have seen from him this year is any indication, he will be up to the task.
Defence dominates again
If you hold your opposition to zero touchdowns, even if they hit six field goals, you are going to win a lot of games.
Hamilton’s defence has been playing at a championship level almost all season, but they have become especially tough over the last month. Since getting waxed by the Argos 31-12, the Ticats have allowed just one touchdown and 32 total points over the last 12 quarters of play. I’m no mathematician, but that seems pretty good.
They will have a tough test coming up in the Grey Cup, but after manhandling an Argos team that put 31 on them in their last meeting, I think the defence will be up to the challenge.
Grey Cup Blackout
It has been 22 years since the Ticats last hoisted the Grey Cup — and they have won just three in the last 49 years — but this Ticats team has the opportunity to do something the much heralded 1972 squad did and that is win it all in front of their home crowd.
Trying to stop them will be the 2021 juggernaut that is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The defending champs, who smoked the Ticats in the last Grey Cup, will be trying to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the 2009-10 Montreal Alouettes, and the first Bombers team to repeat as champions since the 1961-62 team capped a five-year run that saw Winnipeg win back-to-back titles twice (the others came in 1958-59).
Winnipeg will be favoured, maybe even heavily so, and rightfully so. But they are going to be coming into hornets’ nest. The crowd is not going to be neutral like we normally see, but it will be a very pro-Hamilton audience. Tickets for the game finally sold out just hours after the Ticats punched their ticket and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why.
Hamilton has promoted playoff blackouts at the last few home playoff games, and while they won’t be able to officially call this a Grey Cup blackout, you can bet they will be highly hinting at it on their social media channels.
Ticats fans have waited a very long time to see their team win it all, and all they could ask for was a chance to do it on home soil. They have that chance, and years of anger and frustration could all be let out in just a few short days. The Ticats have a chance to end their drought and do it in front of their own fans. You couldn’t ask for a better ending than that.