Heading into Saturday evening’s contest with the Ottawa Redblacks, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had one goal in mind: win.
This is not a win that will inspire a lot of confidence as the issues plaguing this team were still on full display even in victory.
Ugly or not, all wins are worth the same number of points in the standings and the Ticats now have their first of what they hope will be many in 2022.
Redemption, a three act play
When faced with adversity this season the Tabbies have mostly come up short, with the team giving up a pair of double-digit second-half leads at home already this season. It looked like Saturday would be more of the same.
It started on the Ticats’ second play from scrimmage when Dane Evans found rookie Anthony Johnson on a long pass play only for the first-year receiver to have the ball rocked from his grasp for the team’s first of five turnovers against the Redblacks. It was an opportunity squandered that took potential points off the board.
After forcing a two-and-out, the Redblacks punted to Lawrence Woods, who has mostly had an excellent start to his CFL career, only for the first-year return man to cough up the ball and give Ottawa excellent field position.
It was less than seven minutes into the game. Already down a touchdown after Ottawa marched the field on their opening drive, the Ticats had lost two fumbles on their register.
Things settled from there but late in the game, nursing a one-point lead, disaster struck once more as Hamilton’s turnover-prone quarterback Dane Evans, who had played a clean game up to this point, started to do too much and lost the football deep in his own end. The Redblacks recovered on Hamilton’s one-yard line and punched the ball in on the next play to take a lead most fans in attendance felt would stick.
But the beauty of sports is that when things are down there is always a way to pull yourself back up and when all three players were given a chance to redeem themselves they did just that.
The first was Johnson, who later in the game caught his first career touchdown pass to put the Tabbies up eight at the break. It was a play that gave a big boost to the team as they entered the locker room even though they didn’t exactly take advantage of it.
The next came from Woods, who returned a punt 88 yards and only came up short of the end zone when he looked back and was caught by Redblacks’ cover man Marco Dubois. The Ticats failed to capitalize on the return but Woods had done his part to make up for his gaffe earlier in the game.
The final act of redemption was saved for the man who probably needed it the most. After fumbling away the lead once again, the Ticats sat their highly-paid franchise quarterback for two late series to give backup Matthew Schiltz a chance to run the offence. The former Montreal Alouette seemed to seal the loss when the offence failed to punch the ball into the end on three tries from inside Ottawa’s eight-yard line following Wood’s incredible return.
Evans returned on the next drive with the team’s season — and perhaps his job as the starter — on the line. He went three-for-three for 44 yards and found Tim White in the end zone for what would turn out to be the game-winning score on a potential season-saving third-down throw from three yards out with 19 seconds remaining on the clock.
Evans needed that moment, and perhaps his short benching and game-winning drive are what will propel him to greater heights this season. Only time will tell.
The Tabbies did not make the game easy on themselves, which seems to be the story of this year’s team.
After scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 19 seconds remaining, Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer chose to kick the convert to go up by two instead of trying a two-point convert to go by three.
This was the major talking point after the game and I can see no justification for that decision.
Another mystifying decision was how the Tiger-Cats chose to play defence on Ottawa’s final drive. A great return set Ottawa up at their own 50 and Hamilton chose to play a soft defence that allowed the Redblacks to pick up almost enough yards to win the game when Lewis Ward’s 54-yard field goal fell just short.
Had the Redblacks picked up a few extra yards and Ward hit that field goal, the Ticats would have remained winless at 0-5.
We have taken the players to task for their lack of late-game awareness so it’s only fair we now do the same with the coaches. This could have been an all-time blunder, on par with the time June Jones chose to punt late in a 2018 game against the B.C. Lions while in field goal range in a contest the Ticats would ultimately lose.
This felt like a game that neither side wanted to win and decisions like the ones outlined above are big reasons why.
Offensive creativity turns into offensive stagnation
Tiger-Cats’ offensive coordinator Tommy Condell has taken a lot of flak for his unimaginative play calling so far this season so it only seems fair that we give credit where credit is due when discussing his game plan for this one.
The Ticats broke out a number of plays we have not seen from them this year, including being the first team to my knowledge to deploy two quarterbacks at one time. The results were not earth-shattering, but they were new wrinkles to the offence we had not yet seen this season.
They also drew up a beautiful cross-field pass to fullback Felix Garand-Gauthier in the second quarter on the team’s first touchdown drive of the game. It was a play they worked on all week at practice and it worked to perfection and was called at exactly the right time.
As good of a second quarter as Condell had, he had an equally atrocious second half.
Nursing a one-point lead for most of the game’s final 30 minutes, the Ticats played it far too conservatively. There were almost no attempts to stretch the field, they ran against stacked boxes far too often, and at times it felt as if they were playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win.
It did not matter in the end but the inability of this team to take halftime leads and extend them will remain a concern.
Darby steps up
In my piece outlining the problems currently plaguing the team, one point I outlined was the team’s star players needed to step up. One player who did as such against the Redblacks on Saturday was prized free-agent acquisition Alden Darby, who had his best game as a member of the Hamilton Tiger-cats.
The former Toronto Argonaut and Winnipeg Blue Bomber had three defensive tackles, two of them for a loss, and the first interception of his Tiger-Cats career. The Long Beach, Calif. native did not get statistical credit for any pass breakups but his tight coverage did lead to a couple of drops by Redblacks’ receivers.
With veteran leader Simoni Lawrence out for Saturday’s game, the Ticats needed someone to fill the void his absence created. Alden Darby did that and then some.
Cooked Rolle served for Acklin’s homecoming
Saturday was a homecoming for a number of former Tiger-Cats and none made his old team pay quite like receiver Jaleon Acklin.
While the Redblacks are still — at least record-wise — as bad as they were a season ago, Acklin is doing his part and then some to try to get the team back into playoff contention.
Acklin had a monster game against his former team, catching six passes for 118 yards and one touchdown, mostly while being manned up against Hamilton’s all-star corner Jumal Rolle. Acklin absolutely cooked Rolle on a route early in the game and could have had a second touchdown if the turf monster didn’t rise up and snatch him.
Fans lament when players leave for bigger paycheques elsewhere but most of the time those decisions do not come back to haunt a team. Letting go of an in-his-prime receiver like Acklin may end up being akin to letting Greg Ellingson go in 2015.
Running up that hill
Thanks to the mammoth popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill” has seen its own resurgence in popularity. While there are no hills on the turf at Tim Hortons Field, it certainly felt like the Ticats were running up them against the Redblacks.
Hamilton made a more concerted effort to run the football against the Redblacks, rushing the ball 21 times with running back Don Jackson getting the bulk of those carries with 11.
The problem was that the running game was not entirely effective. The team rushed for just 86 yards on those 21 carries and Jackson had just 34 yards on his 11 totes, for a paltry 3.1-yard-per-carry average.
It’s nice to see the Tiger-Cats make a commitment to running the ball but if the results aren’t there, then continuing to do so will only see more of the same.
Red and black, but no yellow
The Ottawa Redblacks had zero penalty yards on Saturday night and had just three flags thrown on them all night, all of which were declined. I’m not sure I have ever seen that before.
Spreading it around
Dane Evans finished Saturday’s game 21-of-28 for 342 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions, spreading the ball around effectively.
Tim White had exactly 70 yards on six catches to lead the team in both categories but Evans did an excellent job of utilizing the entire receiving corps.
Rookie Anthony Johnson had 66 yards on just two catches, Steven Dunbar Jr. had 59 yards in three catches — including an insane one-handed catch with under two minutes left in the second quarter — and Bralon Addison caught four passes for 57 yards.
All in all, Evans connected on passes to eight different receivers in the game.
Run, Caleb, run
Hamilton’s biggest defensive weakness reared its ugly head again on Saturday as the fleet feet of Redblacks’ quarterback Caleb Evans gave the Ticats fits. Evans finished the game with eight rushes for 62 yards and ran to make plays, especially on Ottawa’s first two touchdown drives.
Ottawa got away from using Evans in the run game and insisted on using the ineffective William Powell — he ran for just 28 yards on 13 carries — and it was to their detriment. Hamilton continues to have issues with mobile quarterbacks, which isn’t exactly a recipe for success with a game against the B.C. Lions on the horizon.
The Ticats mostly came out of Saturday’s game unscathed, which is good considering the short turnaround they have until their next game on Thursday. They suffered a big loss in the second half when backup safety and special teams stalwart Stavros Katsantonis went to the locker room in the third quarter and did not return.
The loss of Katsantonis was felt in obvious passing situations when the team tends to go with three defensive linemen and an extra defensive back. That extra defensive back is usually the man known as the Bakersfield Bandit.
Lawrence Woods came on in place of Katsantonis, though he was injured on the Redblacks’ second-to-last play from scrimmage. With no other defensive backs available, the team put receiver Steven Dunbar Jr. in as an extra defensive back to end the game.
Nothing came of this unfortunate situation but it was hardly optimal given the Ticats were clinging to a two-point lead with less than 10 seconds left in a game they had to win.
Red zone woes
Not enough has been made about Hamilton’s red zone woes to start the season, with the team entering Saturday’s contest having scored just one touchdown in eight trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.
The Tiger-Cats were a little better against Ottawa, scoring three touchdowns on their five trips inside Ottawa’s 20-yard line but the two misses — both turnovers — were crucial as they still took points off the board.
The first missed opportunity came when the team opted to forgo a chip-shot field goal and instead went for the touchdown on third down from Ottawa’s three-yard line. The Ticats did not convert when a Dane Evans pass to Tim White was knocked down by Redblacks’ weak-side linebacker Anthony Auclair.
The second missed chance came when Evans had been replaced by backup quarterback Matthew Schiltz and Schiltz threw an interception from Ottawa’s seven-yard line on the Ticats’ second-to-last drive. The pick by Schiltz felt like the death blow to Hamilton’s hopes and actually sent a number of fans scurrying to the exits.
Hamilton’s three conversions inside the red zone increase their total to four on the year out of 13 tries. If you want a big reason why this team just got their first win on Saturday, look no further than their inefficiency to capitalize when they get the ball deep into opposition territory.
Not enough Pride
Saturday’s game was Pride night at Tim Hortons Field but you wouldn’t know that based on the effort the team put into promoting it. Next to nothing was done in-game to let fans know they were promoting inclusivity except for having some rainbow colours on the scoreboard and having the cheerleaders use colourful pom-poms.
Most of the focus in the lead-up to the game was the team’s new South Plaza Saturday initiative, which sees the team host a bunch of fun pre-game activities in the plaza area outside Gates 1 and 2 of Tim Hortons Field.
Given the ugliness of the past week, this was an excellent opportunity for one of the league’s flagship franchises to really put the “Diversity is Strength” motto into action. Instead, we got a few bright colours and nary a mention that it was even Pride night during the nearly three-hour game.
There were a few dropped balls by the Tiger-Cats on the field on Saturday but the biggest drop occurred off of it.
There is no rest for the wicked as the Tiger-Cats have a quick turnaround this week, heading to B.C. to face a rested Lions squad for a 10 p.m. EDT kickoff on Thursday night.
The Lions are coming off their first loss of the season, a 43-22 shellacking at the hands of the undefeated Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and the Leos have had a week to stew about it.
Hamilton now sits tied for second in the East with fellow sad-sack Montreal at 1-4 and the prospects of improving that record do not look great.
The loss to the Bombers aside, the Lions have been excellent to start the season Canadian quarterback sensation Nathan Rourke, who has taken the league by storm in his first season as the Lions’ starting pivot.
If the Ticats are to find a way into the win column once again they are going to have to overcome odds we have not seen them able to overcome so far this year.
B.C. is a tough place for even the best teams to win, and considering where the Tiger-Cats are right now, coming home with their second win of the season would be a minor miracle.