On any given Sunday.
It may have been a Saturday, but that old football axiom about how on any day, with the right bounces or the right game plan, any team can beat any other team, regardless of their record, came to life at Tim Hortons Field this week.
The now 4-9 Hamilton Tiger-Cats manhandled the 12-2, two-time defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers en route to a 48-31 victory in front of a raucous home crowd of 22,288 fans.
It started early, as the Ticats scored on their opening drive but had the ante raised when the Bombers marched down the field themselves to take a 7-3 lead. If you heard the fans in attendance groan, thinking this was going to be another one of the “those” games, you need to forgive them.
But then Hamilton scored a touchdown on their next drive and held Winnipeg to a field goal. They kicked a field goal of their own to take a 13-10 lead and then, on Winnipeg’s very next play, Ticats’ defensive end Malik Carney forced a Zach Collaros fumble that he scooped up himself and ran into the end zone to give the home side a 10-point lead.
What was happening?
The Ticats then forced a Winnipeg punt — one of just four total punts in the game — that netted the Bombers a single point and proceeded to march 70 yards in seven plays to score another touchdown, this one a beautiful pass from Dane Evans to Steven Dunbar Jr. in the corner of the end zone.
It was 27-11 Ticats and the fans were in a frenzy, not understanding what they were witnessing.
The Bombers tacked on another three to cut the lead to 13 and two plays later, the Ticats were up 20 after Evans hit rookie receiver Kiondre Smith for a 54-yard touchdown.
By halftime, the Ticats had scored 34 points on the defending champs, a team that had not allowed more than 28 in a game all season.
What! Was! Happening!?
Winnipeg made an attempt at a comeback, cutting the Ticats’ lead to 10 late in the fourth quarter but the Tabbies would have none of it. They methodically made their way down the field to score their sixth touchdown of the game, taking a 17-point lead that would end up being the margin of victory.
Here are more of my thoughts on the game.
Daney Dimes returns
Of all the players on the Ticats, no one needed this win more than embattled starting quarterback Dane Evans. With people calling for his job and wondering what the future could hold, everyone’s favourite whipping boy showed why his team invested so much in him this past off-season.
Evans was magnificent against the Bombers, slicing and dicing his way to a career-best five touchdown passes against the league’s best defence. He was surgical with his precision, playing from a clean pocket thanks to an almost perfect game from the men up front, and finished Saturday’s contest with 327 yards on 25-of-32 passing.
Most critically, the Sanger, Texas gunslinger also committed zero turnovers. There wasn’t a boneheaded fumble or ill-advised pass to be seen. It was just a wonderful game played by a guy who when he is at his best, looks like one of the best.
If there was one play from Saturday that most encapsulated the difference in this Dane Evans from the one we had seen over the previous three months, it was on a nine-yard run on the team’s final scoring drive. Evans scrambled out of trouble — one of the rare times he was forced to evade oncoming defenders — and fought his way to a first down. He was pumped after the play, the crowd was more so, and the feeling that today would be different was palpable.
Evans has taken a lot of heat this season, some of it deserved and some of it not, but on Saturday against Winnipeg he was as good as he has ever been during his relatively short Canadian Football League career.
If the Evans run is the one play that defines this game, then the drive it came on could be something we look at in four weeks as the one that turned this team’s seasons around.
With Winnipeg cutting the Ticats’ lead to 10 with just under 10 minutes left to play, the feeling that another large second-half lead was slipping away could be felt all around Tim Hortons Field.
Then the Tiger-Cats did something astounding, they marched. And marched. And marched. The methodical 14-play, 90-yard drive that ate up over seven minutes of the clock was a work of art so beautiful it should be hung at 123 King Street West in downtown Hamilton.
The Ticats married the run and the pass in a way we had not seen this season, picking up good yards on first down to set up manageable second downs. They forced Winnipeg to use both of their timeouts but to no avail. Hamilton just kept coming like a wave of inevitability and when Evans hit David Ungerer III for an amazing catch in the corner of the south end zone with two minutes left, everyone knew they had witnessed something special.
This one sequence of events probably will not be remembered years from now but for this season, for this team, in this spot, it was the most important drive of their lives.
A masterful plan
The other man that the city of Hamilton has wanted to see drawn and quartered in the public square this year has been Tommy Condell. The offensive coordinator has been in the crosshairs even more than his quarterback has been, and rightfully so. Hamilton’s offence lacked originality and creativity for much of this season but that sure was not the case on Saturday.
Condell called a masterful game, finally finding balance between the run and the pass. No matter what Winnipeg brought on defence, it seemed Condell had the answer on offence.
The players needed to execute and they did, without question. But watching them never really hit a lull offensively — the Ticats punted just twice and had just two, non kneel down drives end without a first down — for the first time this season means we need to heap at least some praise on the team’s beleaguered offensive play caller.
Spread the wealth
It is rare to see an offence have the type of success the Ticats did against Winnipeg without there being a standout player (outside the quarterback). Whether it was the game plan or the game flow, the Tabbies did not have a single player eclipse 66 yards receiving or rushing, and their fullback, little-known Canadian Felix Garand-Gauthier, incredibly tied for the team lead in receiving yards.
In all, the Ticats had four players combine to rush for 97 yards. American Wes Hills, playing in place of Don Jackson, used his 10 carries to pick up a team-high 58 yards. Nine players caught at least one pass, with Tim White and Steven Dunbar Jr. leading the team with six apiece.
You always remember your first
One of the nine players to catch a pass was Kiondre Smith, who did the most with his one reception, taking it 54 yards to the end zone for his first career CFL touchdown.
If you read this space enough, you will know that I have been high on the former University of Guelph product, in part because of his pedigree as the son of former CFL great Adrion “Pee Wee” Smith.
Smith the younger has seen his playing time increase as the season has gone on and while he has not become a Fantuzian go-to guy during his rookie campaign, he has become a viable threat in the team’s passing game.
Smith’s ascension allowed the team to part ways with the underwhelming Mike Jones after injuries forced the team to shuffle their ratio. Smith made Jones expendable and looks poised to be this team’s top Canadian receiver before too long.
Saturday may have been his first touchdown but it most definitely will not be his last.
It was not all flowers for the Ticats as despite what was a mostly excellent defensive game plan, the team did allow the Bombers to drop 31 on their heads. A lot of that damage came because the Tabbies seemingly had no answer for receiver Dalton Schoen.
Schoen has had a marvellous first year in the CFL, becoming Zach Collaros’ go-to guy even before the absence of Greg Ellingson made Schoen’s role even more important. He was nearly unstoppable against Hamilton, catching six passes for 158 yards including an incredible leaping grab that stole an interception away from Ticats’ safety Tunde Adeleke.
The Overland Park, Kansas native sits third in the league in receiving yards despite being 10th in receptions and 11th in targets, and his 10 receiving touchdowns lead the league.
Schoen is as close to a shoo-in for the top rookie award as we have seen in quite some time and it feels like it is only a matter of time before the National Football League comes looking his way.
The only other legitimate critique of the home side from Saturday was David Beard’s errant shotgun snaps.
The offensive line was almost universally excellent against a formidable Bombers front seven, with all-stars Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat and Adam Bighill combining for seven tackles, zero sacks and zero tackles for loss. Jeffcoat himself showed up just once on the game report and that’s on the first page under defensive starters.
But that greatness aside, Beard’s snaps became an adventure at times. None resulted in anything catastrophic, thanks to Dane Evans doing his best to replicate Michael Jordan’s Jumpman logo, but they were still somewhat concerning to see. With time, Evans and Beard will establish a rapport and these things won’t happen but it made for some tense moments.
I sometimes think coaches outthink themselves and overcomplicate things unnecessarily. Both Tommy Condell and Buck Pierce did that on Saturday, with each of them stalling drives by calling plays that required their starter to come out of the game to be replaced by their run-first backup.
Watching the game, most people could tell exactly what each team was going to be run in those situations. If observers and fans can figure it out, I think it is safe to assume that the paid professionals can as well.
Every time it happened, the play call was predictable and snuffed out for a minimal gain. They weren’t the drive killers these types of calls can be but when the starter is cooking — as Evans was for the entirety of Saturday’s game and Collaros was for good chunks of it — it seems foolish to remove him for a gadget play that never catches the opponent off guard.
Sometimes these things are used to set up something else later in the game but the only time either of the backups came in was to run the ball. Whatever they were setting up was never paid off with a punchline.
Hall of Pain
I have used this space to rally against in-game interviews during TSN’s broadcast before and while it may feel like beating a dead horse, as long as the league’s television partner continues to ruin games with this insanity, I am going to keep bringing it up.
Saturday’s game was the annual Canadian Football Hall of Fame game and that meant that numerous luminaries and league legends were in attendance, with players like Ricky Ray and Chip Cox and coaches like Davie Ritchie set to be enshrined in the hallowed halls of Canada’s football shrine.
Much like earlier in the year when the Hall inducted the classes of 2020 and 2021 — delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic — the broadcast chose to devote a not insignificant amount of time to in-game interviews with the inductees.
This needs to stop.
I am all for giving a spotlight to the people who built the league up but doing it during a game of consequence takes away from the product currently on the field. There is a reason the NFL has a standalone Hall of Fame game and that it takes place during the preseason. This is one of the times the CFL needs to take a page out of the NFL’s playbook.
Move the Hall of Fame game to the preseason, broadcast it on TSN and use as much time as you want to talk about the greats of the past who are having their careers recognized.
Stop with the in-game interviews. They add nothing of substance and just take away from the action on the field.
That ends my Ted Talk on the matter.
Nicks and bruises
Hamilton did not come out of Week 15 without a couple of injuries, as both defensive back Cariel Brooks and defensive lineman Dylan Wynn left the game after suffering knocks.
Of the two, a long-term injury to Wynn would be the most devastating. He has probably been Hamilton’s most consistent defensive player — perhaps its most consistent player on either side of the ball — and losing him would be catastrophic. Ted Laurent would likely be his replacement should Wynn miss time, which is not a huge downgrade by any stretch, but 2022 Ted Laurent is not 2015 Ted Laurent and no one else on Hamilton’s line is approaching 2022 Dylan Wynn.
Brooks’ injury would hurt but not as much, given the amount of talent the team possesses in the secondary. Even without Ciante Evans, who has been on the six-game injured list the last few weeks, the secondary has been mostly solid. The addition of Rodney Randle Jr. has paid massive dividends and the team can seamlessly slide veteran Alden Darby Jr. back into the starting lineup.
You never want to see players go down, especially as the team is gearing up for its most important stretch of the season, but Hamilton does have the bodies to make up for those losses in the short term.
In American college football, whenever a slew of upsets occurs that week is dubbed Blood Week. You do not normally see a Blood Week at the professional level, but we may have just witnessed it in Week 15.
The underdogs, including two on the road, all won outright this week, with the Edmonton Elks and B.C. Lions going into Regina and Calgary respectively and snagging two-point wins.
One of the most fun aspects of sports, especially football, is the chaos that can ensue. Football is probably the most unpredictable of all the major sports but even that unpredictability usually does not lead to what we saw this weekend.
For context, the 10 of us that make picks weekly for this site went a combined 1-29 straight up and 3-27 against the spread this week, with no one picking the Ticats to either win straight up or cover the 7.5-point spread.
And 3DownNation was not alone in having no idea this weekend would happen. The six men and women the league’s official website has making picks went 3-15 this week.
Some will use this as fodder to mock everyone, saying we don’t have a clue what we are talking about, but I choose to look at it in another way. Chaos is fun and we got a lot of it this week, so just enjoy it.
Up next (so you are telling me there is a chance?)
Go back and look at this column after the Labour Day Classic, a game where the Tiger-Cats scored zero points on offence and lost by 20 to the Toronto Argonauts, and you will see a scribe who had no faith in this team turning around their season.
What a difference a teeth-kicking of the defending champs will do for someone’s outlook.
The mountain the Ticats have left to climb is still a steep and precarious one, but it is not as treacherous as it looked less than two weeks ago.
At 4-9, the Tabbies will enter their Week 16 contest with the Montreal Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium with a chance to pull even with their 5-7 divisional mates.
If the Ticats can get the win on Friday, it sets them up to possibly overtake the Als for second place and find their way back into the playoffs.
Their remaining schedule after Friday has them going to Calgary to face an inconsistent Stampeders team, before home dates with the Riders and Ottawa Redblacks leading into a season finale at TD Place in Ottawa.
If we are hewing on the side of optimism, could the Ticats win three or four of their final five to get to the 7-11 or 8-10 mark? Would that be enough to overtake the Als or possibly even prevent the Riders, who end the season with as difficult a schedule as anyone in the league, from crossing over? If the Ticats can curb stomp the Bombers as they did on Saturday, I guess, in the words of Kevin Garnett, anything is possible.
Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out what the Ticats provided their fans with on Saturday was hope. Hope that maybe things can turn around. Hope that maybe the future isn’t so bleak. Hope that perhaps this team will be playing meaningful football in late October and into November.
The hope is what kills you but it can also provide you with life.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have some life right now; let’s see how long it lasts.