Another episode of the cardiac Cats & 14 other thoughts on Hamilton’s 24-17 win over Montreal

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The sound you heard from the nearly 21,000 spectators at Tim Hortons Field on Thursday night after Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ linebacker Kameron Kelly’s final-play interception was not a cry of jubilation but a sigh of relief.

The Ticats, despite once again entering the fourth quarter with a sizeable lead, hung on for the 24-17 win over their divisional rivals and are now somehow sitting second in the East Division.

Like in their previous three home games, the Ticats were in command of this one for most of the game, taking a 24-6 lead into the fourth quarter and holding the Alouettes to just three field goals during the game’s opening 51 minutes.

But once the Als cut the lead to seven on a Hergy Mayala touchdown with a little under nine minutes to play, you could feel the tension rise amongst the faithful. The crowd had seen this movie before and were dreading what they felt — maybe even deep down knew — was going to be another late-game collapse.

That collapse did not come, however, as the Ticats managed to hold on despite the Alouettes’ best efforts. Montreal drove the ball down to Hamilton’s 21-yard line with eight seconds remaining before backup quarterback Dominique Davis sailed a pass over the head of his intended target and into the waiting arms of Kelly.

For a story that unfolded much the same as those written before it, this one had a much happier ending for those who paid to see it. Here are my thoughts on the game.

The Shiltz-in’ system

What felt like a gimmick a week ago is now a staple: the Tabbies are running a two-quarterback system.

Dane Evans and Matthew Shiltz saw fairly equal playing time on Thursday. Evans got more time to shine as a passer, throwing for 208 yards on 13-of-18 passing with one touchdown and, most importantly, no turnovers. Shiltz got his reps as well — going seven-of-10 for just 44 yards — but it was with his feet where he made the most impact. He scampered for a 30-yard gain on Hamilton’s first touchdown drive and finished the game as the team’s leading rusher with 42 yards on four carries.

The team flip-flopped the pair throughout the game, including in pivotal moments late. Shiltz, not Evans, was the man behind centre on the drive after the Alouettes cut the deficit to just seven points. A curious decision to be sure and one that had fans talking after the game.

It has been some time since we have seen a successful two-quarterback system work in professional football but the Tiger-Cats have decided they will attempt to buck that trend. You cannot argue with the success thus far but it is fair to wonder how long this can last.

The Ticats paid Dane Evans to be their franchise quarterback this off-season but after a third of the season, the team appears to have lost faith in their two-time Grey Cup starter to truly be “the man.”

Picasso flow

It has been a tough season for Ticats’ running back Don Jackson. After a miserable performance in the team’s opening game — just one yard on five carries against the Saskatchewan Roughriders — the man known as Don Jayy missed the team’s next three games dealing with a lower-body injury. His reinsertion back into the starting lineup a few weeks ago was met with great fanfare but it has not yet produced the desired results.

Jackson had just 24 yards on six carries against Montreal but did catch four balls for 26 yards. He narrowly missed out on what would have been an 85-yard touchdown catch when he beat his man down the middle of the field and Dane Evans overthrew him.

The former Calgary Stampeder scored his first touchdown on a tough run in the third quarter that proved to be the margin for victory. Yet, in four games he has yet to eclipse 100 total yards rushing on the season and his 2.9-yard average on 33 carries is worryingly low.

The dynamic plays that Jackson is known for have not been there so far this season and if the Ticats are to continue to make a climb up the standings, they are going to need to get more out of their top ball carrier.

Dis iz Brooks City

The Tiger-Cats’ secondary has been one of the few bright spots for the team over the first six games but the return of all-star halfback Cariel Brooks took things to another level against the Alouettes.

Brooks was utterly fantastic, finishing with five tackles. More importantly, he had three massive pass breakups, one of which he could have returned for a touchdown had he been able to secure the football.

Brooks was excellent in coverage and looked like he has not missed a beat despite being out with injury since early in training camp.

Alden Darby, the man who Brooks replaced, had been playing his best ball with the Tabbies recently but the difference Brooks made was noticeable. His return has taken the secondary from great to downright frightening.

To his credit, Darby took the demotion in stride and played exceptionally well on special teams. He came up with two big tackles, including a great open-field stop on speedy returner Chandler Worthy that pinned the Alouettes at their own 12. The Ticats would force a punt after a two-and-out and the resulting field position flip allowed the team to score what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown on their next drive.

Batter up

I am not sure if there was an official record to break or even one recorded, but the Ticats registered an absurd 12 pass knockdowns against the Alouettes. That is one of the highest totals I can remember in all my years watching football.

Ciante Evans led the way with four, followed by Brooks’ three, two from Richard Leonard, and one each from Tunde Adeleke, Jumal Rolle and Kameron Kelly. You would like to see some of those pass breakups become interceptions but Hamilton’s secondary was very active on Thursday, ensuring almost every pass thrown by Trevor Harris became a contested one for his receivers.

Steven dun got bars

Before the season, there was a lot of debate about who would be the Ticats’ breakout star in 2022. After seven games, I think it is fair to say that player is Steven Dunbar Jr.

With one caveat — which we will get to in a second — the second-year man out of the University of Houston was utterly magnificent against Montreal. His 102 yards led the team in receiving, his five catches tied for the team lead with Bralon Addison and he broke the game open with his 40-yard catch and run for a touchdown in the third quarter. He also drew a critical pass interference call that resulted in the team’s game-winning score.

Dunbar Jr.’s day could have been even better had he not lost a fumble after getting walloped by Als’ defensive back Mike Jones. It is hard to fault Dunbar for fumbling the ball given how hard that hit looked but if there is one critique of his game, it is that he needs to better secure the rock when running into open space.

That one miscue aside, Dunbar, who caught his league-leading fifth touchdown of the season on Thursday night, has been the team’s most reliable offensive threat in 2022.

Stuntin’ like ya daddy

It took until the seventh game of the season but the Hamilton defensive line has finally come alive.

Micah Johnson emerged from his season-long slumber to post his best game as a Tiger-Cat, notching two massive sacks and being a general disrupter in both the pass and run games all night long.

Dylan Wynn joined in on the fun, picking up his third sack of the season, while the perennially underrated Julian Howsare continued his torrid start to the 2022 campaign, upping his sack total by two and staking his claim as one of the league’s premier quarterback attackers.

The Ticats are at their best when their defensive line is making life miserable for the opposing quarterback. They did just that to Trevor Harris on Thursday night.

Stop rusherz

The Tabbies have arguably the best run defence in the CFL, which they once again showed against Montreal.

Jeshrun Antwi, who has had a nice start to the season filling in for the injured William Stanback, was a complete non-factor rushing the ball on Thursday night, carrying just six times for a measly 22 yards, He produced some in the passing game, catching five passes for 49 yards, but he was unable to establish himself on the ground with any regularity.

The Als as a whole had just 90 yards rushing, with 39 of them coming from quarterback Trevor Harris on four carries — none of which were designed runs.

Teams who continue to try to test the Ticats’ run defence are doing so foolishly. This team has proven over the last few seasons that they will stop your rushing attack no matter who you have toting the rock.

Big Mike hittin’ hard

Punter Michael Domagala was a whipping boy around these parts when he was the team’s placekicker, so it seems only fair to give him some props when he plays well.

Simply put, Domagala has found his role in the CFL. He was an average to below-average kicker but he has found his groove since moving primarily to punter. The St. Catharines, Ontario native has performed so well that he made Jon Ryan expendable. The Super Bowl champion was with the team just 16 days before being traded.

Not only was Domagala tremendous when punting and kicking off but he may have saved the game — and maybe even the season — with his tackle of Tyson Philpot on a long punt return by the former University of Calgary Dino late in the fourth quarter.

Domagala actually led the team with three special teams tackles, none bigger than the one on Philpot. Domagala morphing into prime Jamie Boreham was not a development I expected to see from the former Carleton Raven but it is sure nice to know that he is not afraid to get his nose a little dirty to make a play.

Bandit, he go hard, he go hard

It wouldn’t be a CFL game without some type of debate over the refereeing. The biggest controversy from Thursday’s game was a hit from Ticats’ backup safety Stavros Katsantonis to the back of Als’ quarterback Trevor Harris that happened with under 10 seconds left in the game with the Alouettes driving for a potential game-tying or even game-winning score.

The hit came on a Harris scramble and was flagged as unnecessary roughness. Upon seeing the play numerous times, it did not look as if Katsantonis went after the head and neck area of Harris, who was a runner and therefore not afforded the protections a quarterback usually receives. The Als’ pivot was wrapped up and going to the ground, but the hit did not seem significantly late or especially dangerous. The outcome of the play — Harris remained down for longer than normal — likely led to the flag being thrown.

The hit itself did not seem to be controversial — the normal Twitter uproar after any Tiger-Cats player throws what could be deemed a late hit did not occur — but the injury spotter taking Harris out of the game certainly was a bone of contention for many.

While I did not think Harris took a hit to the head, I can understand why the people in charge of deciding these things might have. Harris was slow in getting up and after taking a metaphorical beating following their decision to not pull Saskatchewan Roughriders’ quarterback Cody Fajardo when he was clearly concussed earlier in the season, the league is opting to air on the side of caution.

We all just have to accept that this is where we have landed with the game. Leagues want to make football safer. A game where 200- to 300-pound men throw their hulking bodies at each can only be so safe but they are trying to do their best. Quarterbacks are the most protected commodity on a football team and these types of decisions to pull players who have potentially suffered a head injury are going to continue to occur.

About 15 years ago, ESPN used to highlight massive, concussive blows in a segment called “Jacked Up” — I will never forget the name of Jeb Putzier, a backup tight end in the NFL for seven seasons simply because he seemed to always be featured in that segment. They no longer do so because the game has gone in a much safer direction and advertising such hits would be hypocritical.

Harris might be upset he was pulled. The Als staff might be mad that their last-second drive was unduly impacted for an unjust reason. Fans of the team and fans of the sport who like the physicality of football may not like it. It doesn’t matter, this is the way the game is being officiated now.

Toss it up

I know fans do not like the constant booth replays — it was one of the main talking points after Montreal’s game a week ago against the Ottawa Redblacks — but there was one play in this game that never should have required a challenge flag.

The play occurred in the first quarter on a seemingly innocuous 10-yard pass from Trevor Harris to Eugene Lewis. Lewis caught the ball near the boundary but had it knocked from his hands by Jumal Rolle for what should have been called an incomplete pass. Two — yes, two — referees were near the play and yet the pass was somehow called complete.

Tiger-Cats head coach Orlondo Steinauer tossed his challenge flag as the 20,000-plus at Tim Hortons Field looked on in disbelief. The challenge was successful, the Als went from second-and-one from inside the Ticats’ five-yard line to second-and-10 from the 12. The Als would ultimately kick a field goal.

These types of plays, where the error is obvious, should not need to be challenged by coaches. These should be automatically overturned by the replay official. If they can call down and alter the calls of major penalties in a game, they can surely use their discretion to overturn obvious missed calls like whether a pass is complete or not.

For the record, Steinauer is now three-of-four on challenges this season.

Ain’t no crossing that line

The Tabbies started their sixth different offensive line combination of the season this week after veteran Chris Van Zeyl was placed on the six-game injured list.

American Travis Vornkahl, who played so poorly in Week 1 that he was benched in the first quarter, got a second shot at left tackle and for the most part, was invisible — which is a good thing for an offensive lineman.

The Ticats surrendered zero sacks, committed zero holding penalties, and neither quarterback was met with any type of consistent pressure. For a unit that has not had anywhere near the requisite amount of time to jell, it was an impressive performance.

No. 1 stunna

Filling in after Tyler Ternowski left the game due to injury, rookie Kiondre Smith caught his first career CFL pass, a 21-yard catch-and-run on second down that kept a critical drive alive in the third quarter. Two plays later, Steven Dunbar Jr. was galloping his way into the end zone.

One of Smith’s most notable attributes coming out of the University of Guelph was his speed, which was on full display as he made a pair of Alouettes’ defenders miss in the open field to turn an eight-yard catch into a 21-yard one.

This may have been just his first catch but if Smith keeps making plays like that, he will get many more opportunities to add to that total.

Can’t Knox the hustle

There are still three games remaining this week — including one involving two players nipping at his heels — but as of writing, Tiger-Cats’ linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox is the league leader in tackles with 44.

Santos-Knox led the team with eight tackles against Montreal and has been the team’s most reliable defender throughout the 2022 campaign. Simoni Lawrence is still the heart and soul of the defence but Santos-Knox might be its best player right now.

If the season were to end today I am not sure you could convince me to vote for anyone other than Santos-Knox as the team’s top defensive player.

The next episode

The first of six straight Divisional matchups is done and now the fun really begins.

The Ticats are gearing up for back-to-back games against their most hated rival and the team they knocked out of the playoffs a season ago, the Toronto Argonauts.

Depending on the outcome of Toronto’s game on Sunday, the Ticats could have a chance to end next Saturday’s game in a tie for first place with the Boatmen. The Argos currently sit at 3-2, having already had two of their three bye weeks this season, while the Ticats are just two points back at 2-5.

BMO Field will likely be packed with thousands of Tiger-Cats fans for the matchup, as the Black and Gold faithful usually show up in droves whenever the Double Blue host an instalment of one of the league’s fiercest rivalries.

This will be the first time the Ticats will face former players Brandon Banks and Ja’Gared Davis, with the former likely wanting to show his old team that he still has some of that Most Outstanding Player magic in him.

The Ticats got off to the right start in their six-game gauntlet. A win next week and people might start believing this team can turn things around. A loss and they are right back where they were a week ago, wondering where to go from here.

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.