It was all good just a week ago isn’t just a catchy hook to a great Jay-Z song; it also describes the current state of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Last week, the Ticats played their best game of the 2022 season in a 48-31 dismantling of the two-time defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Fast forward a week and the team some thought had turned the corner skidded into a hydro pole instead, losing 23-16 to the Montreal Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium on Friday night.
It was a vintage 2022 Ticats performance filled with untimely miscues, costly errors and an inability to close things out when they had the other team on the ropes. Ultimately, it may have been the one that finally sinks their chances of hosting a playoff game and severely hampered their chances of making the playoffs altogether.
Here are my thoughts on a somewhat ugly, mostly boring night in La Belle Province.
This game was here for the taking and the Tabbies were poised to seize it until a series of errors landed them in the loss column for the 10th time this season.
Discipline was a huge issue with the Ticats amassing 130 penalty yards on 12 flags which looks even worse when you consider the Als were only penalized five times and 44 of their 84 penalty yards came on one play.
The Tabbies also did not capitalize on their opportunities, with rookie receiver Kiondre Smith being responsible for two of the biggest missed chances in the game.
The first came on an admittedly difficult second-down pass that the University of Guelph product could not corral in the back of the end zone. It was a tough catch and even the most seasoned of pass catchers would have had a hard bringing that in but it still represents a missed opportunity.
Smith’s second error was his worst, a fumble with under a minute left that sealed the Ticats’ fate. Smith was stretching to gain extra yards and, in most scenarios, I would not fault any player for giving extra effort but this was an instance of a lack of situational awareness.
Smith needs to know that the extra yard he would have picked up was not worth the risk associated with a possible turnover. Hamilton was picking up chunk play after chunk play and stretching to gain an extra yard was simply unnecessary.
It has been fun watching Smith develop into a more dependable player but he is still a rookie and rookies will make rookie mistakes. Smith made one on Friday and it just so happened to be the most costly of errors.
Tiger-Cats’ head coach Orlondo Steinauer has shown a penchant for being inconsistently aggressive and that was on full display against Montreal.
At midfield, in the third quarter, nursing a 13-12 lead, the Ticats opted to go for it on third-and-two. The pass from Dane Evans to Tim White fell incomplete and the debate on whether it was the right call began to rage. I liked the call and I almost always like when teams opt to keep their offence on the field to pick up first down in that no man’s land area between the 50s.
Later in the game, down 15-13, the Ticats drove almost the entire length of the field before their drive stalled out at the two-yard line on the previously mentioned drop by Kiondre Smith. Instead of staying aggressive and letting his offence try to pound the ball in for the touchdown, Steinauer opted to kick a nine-yard field goal to give his team a one-point lead.
A drive that eats up nearly six minutes of the clock and saw the team go from its own five to the opposition’s two — especially one that features a heavy dose of a bruising back running through the teeth of the other team’s defence — needs to be capped off with a touchdown.
Hamilton passing on second down and then opting for the short field goal is going to be a talking point all week and you have to wonder how the game may have turned out if the coaching staff trusted their offence to pick up those two yards.
Down Hills running
Speaking of Hamilton’s running back, second-year man Wes Hills provided the Ticats with perhaps their best performance from a ball carrier all season.
Hills finished with 12 touches for 80 total yards, including 61 on the ground on 10 carries. The former Detroit Lion also scored his first career CFL touchdown in the second quarter.
Hills has a limited skill set as a bulldozer-type runner at six-foot-one and 218 pounds, and he is never going to be confused with his teammate Don Jackson. However, his style has proven to be very successful in the Canadian Football League, just look at Andrew Harris or William Stanback — two of the league’s best over the last decade are hardly the type of scat back you’d expect to excel in the more pass-happy Canadian game.
If the Ticats can live with Hills’ limitations, then he could have a valuable role on the team in the future.
A pressure-free environment
One of the biggest reasons why the Ticats failed to secure their fifth win of the season against Montreal was their inability to formulate any type of pass rush on Trevor Harris.
It is widely known that if you get in Harris’ face he will wilt, his own teammate said as much a little over a year ago. The Ticats we unable to do that on Friday night.
You could see how much the absence of Dylan Wynn affected the guys up front. Harris was allowed to operate with impunity from the pocket, finishing the game without taking a sack, barely taking a hit, and connecting on 26-of-35 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns.
The Ticats did not make his life nearly miserable enough and, despite his known limitations, if Harris is given time to operate, he can look like the best quarterback in the league.
Back half collapse
The team’s lack of pass rush also impacted the other areas of the defence as well, especially the secondary.
No Alouette receiver had more than 52 yards but Harris had the time to spread the ball around to eight different pass-catchers, many of whom had plenty of separation when the ball arrived.
Jumal Rolle, in particular, looked underwhelming. He made a couple of nice plays but a pass interference flag late in the fourth quarter extended a Montreal drive that would end with the game-winning score, thrown by Harris to Eugene Lewis who was being covered by Rolle. Rolle is usually one of the bright spots in the backend but he was not that against Montreal.
Dane the distributor
A week after shredding the Bombers for over 300 yards and five touchdowns, Ticats’ quarterback Dane Evans came back down to earth.
Hamilton’s pivot finished with 288 yards on 22-of-29 passing, posting a tidy 75.9 percent completion rate but failed to find the end zone. While moral victories are not what the game is about, seeing Evans deliver another turnover-free game and play with confidence does inspire hope that he can be the team’s franchise quarterback.
Evans has looked like a completely different player the last two games, and while the team did not get the win against Montreal it no longer feels as if the quarterback is one of the main reasons for a defeat. That is a step up from where Evans was at the beginning of the season and if you are looking for a silver lining in what is starting to once again feel like a lost season, the improvement of Evans is definitely the place to start.
Knowing how to lose
Stop me if you have heard this one before but the Ticats took a lead into the locker room and then came out in the second half and laid an egg.
Hamilton was leading an incredibly boring game 10-3 after the first 30 minutes, par for the course for the Ticats this season. Then the second half began and the team was outscored 20-6 over the final 30 minutes, also par for the course for the Tabbies in 2022.
Last week aside, when the Ticats took a big lead into the half and did not relinquish it, Hamilton collapsing in the second half has been their calling card this year. This is a team that has learned how to lose and they have now done so for the 10th time this season.
Do the Tabbies miss Lawrence Woods or what?
Ever since the return specialist went down with an injury against Montreal back in August, the team’s return game has been non-existent. David Ungerer III, who has stepped up in the offence the past two weeks, has been ineffective in the punt return game and while Tim White has done an admirable job of returning kickoffs, you really do not want to be exposing your top receiver to extra hits on special teams if you don’t have to.
The punting game has also been a mess, with Michael Domagala regressing to the point of being one of the league’s least effective punters. A few months ago, I thought the Carleton University product had found his role in professional football but since then, he has simply not been good enough. Seth Small has been excellent as the team’s placekicker but the team will need to find a new answer at punter during the off-season.
Hey, does anyone know what Jon Ryan is up to? Oh, yeah, oops.
Who knew you could review
Making sense of the CFL’s byzantine rules is probably a fool’s errand but this season has been especially head-scratching from that standpoint.
Chiefly, knowing when the review booth can and cannot intervene to overturn a call.
A few months back, we saw a series of events that negated a pair of roughing calls in an Ottawa Redblacks game. Many outside R-Nation (and some within it) felt fine with the booth intervening in that instance but many were left perplexed when following that game similar instances of roughing were not automatically reviewed by the command centre.
Friday night in Montreal we saw another instance of the booth curiously intervening when the men upstairs ruled a Tim White reception to be incomplete after it was ruled completed on the field.
Ever since the league reinstituted video review, one of the hallmarks has been a coach challenging to overturn a completed pass. Yet on Friday night, we did not see Als’ bench boss Danny Maciocia toss his red hanky. Instead, we had the command centre interject and allow the Alouettes to keep a challenge that in almost every other game they would have been forced to use.
The booth getting the call correct is immaterial in this case — White did not catch the ball, that was pretty clear — but the unknowing nature of when the booth will call down to reverse a call is infuriating.
There needs to be some consistency here. I will be paying particular attention to see if any coach has to use a challenge flag to overturn an incomplete pass for the rest of this season.
Outside of whether raisins belong in butter tarts or whether pineapple belongs on pizza, there may be no more divisive topic amongst CFL fans than the air horns that blare at Montreal Alouettes home games.
They are, without a doubt, distracting and annoying but for the life of me, I simply do not understand why TSN — who most definitely sees the complaints from fans any time they broadcast a game from the campus of McGill University — insists on keeping their microphones as close to the horns as possible.
I do find that the horns provide Montreal home games with a distinct atmosphere, and from all reports, the noise is not as noticeable when you are inside the stadium. Listening to that sound for three hours while at home, however, reminds me too much of the constant sound of the vuvuzelas we were forced to endure during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
TSN isn’t great at taking any sort of criticism of their product but they will soon have an entire off-season to figure out how best to minimize the air horn sounds that blare through our television speakers.
Human side of sports
On the topic of TSN, they produced a wonderful feature on Dane Evans and his Indigenous roots. They talked about how his grandmother was the last living speaker of the Wichita language and how an app was developed to keep the language alive.
They also touched on Evans becoming more involved in local programs to help Indigenous youth and how he is using his platform and ability to see the country to learn, and more importantly teach, about Canada’s Indigenous communities.
Sometimes we get too bogged down in how these men do on the field and we forget that they are humans with varying interests. TSN would do well to find more ways to tell these types of stories.
More of that and less of the panel trying to force unfunny bits on the audience, please and thank you.
Friday night’s matchup saw a number of players go down with injury — both Nick Usher and Papi White left the game with undisclosed ailments — but none were scarier than the scene following an unfortunate collision between Tiger-Cat defensive backs Richard Leonard and Rodney Randle Jr. that saw the latter stretchered off the field with a suspected neck injury.
Dave Naylor of TSN is reporting that all of Randle Jr.’s tests came back negative and that he will be returning to Hamilton on Saturday, which is excellent news following one of the scarier incidents we have seen on a CFL field in some time. To know that this will not have a sad ending like the Jonathan Hefney hit from a few years ago is a relief.
This is also a stark reminder of why the Canadian Football League Players’ Association fought so hard for better health coverage for its members.
Up next (a.k.a. Hamilton’s path of the playoffs)
After what felt like a turning point a week ago, the Tiger-Cats find themselves in the familiar spot of figuring out how to bounce back from a loss and get themselves back into the playoff picture.
Friday’s loss was a massive one, as they now sit four points behind the Alouettes for second in the East Division and the Als now hold the tiebreaker. While the path to second place is not impossible, it does now feel as if Ticats Nation needs to focus on fending off the Saskatchewan Roughriders for third place in the division.
Right now the Riders sit at 6-8, four points up on the Tabbies for the final playoff spot. These two teams will meet on October 7 at Tim Hortons Field in a game the Ticats have to win.
The two teams’ final four games definitely paint a positive picture for the black and gold. The Riders end the season with the Bombers next week, followed by that game against the Cats, and end the season with a back-to-back against the Calgary Stampeders.
Hamilton meanwhile has their final bye next week and ends the season with the game against Saskatchewan, followed by their annual loss in Calgary and finish up the 2022 regular season campaign with a home-and-home set against the Ottawa Redblacks.
You can definitely see the path for the Ticats finishing 7-11 and supplanting the Riders as the third seed in the East Division playoffs. It will take a lot of work, and a little help from some frenemies, but the door is not yet closed on the 2022 Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ season.