And just like that, the 5-10 Hamilton Tiger-Cats are right back in the thick of the East Division playoff race.
It may not have been pretty, but the Ticats escaping Tim Hortons Field on Friday with an 18-14 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders gives them a massive shot in the arm.
With five wins and three games left to play, the Tabbies now control their playoff fates. Win out and the Cats are in the dance.
There are still several other scenarios that could see Hamilton make the playoffs now that they are just two points back of the Riders, but the easiest one is the easiest one.
Hamilton won Friday night’s contest by playing some good, old-fashioned bully ball. They ran the ball down the Riders’ throat and established dominance at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
The Ticats finished the game with more rushing attempts than pass attempts on offence and the defence tallied seven sacks of Roughriders’ quarterback Cody Fajardo.
Here are more of my thoughts.
Hills, Hills, Hills
Quick, name the last Tiger-Cats running back to have over 100 yards rushing in a game was? If you answered Don Jackson, congratulations, you win no prize.
Aside from a small blip in 2018 under June Jones, the running game in Hamilton has been vastly under-utilized since DeAndra’ Cobb left the team following the 2010 season. The Ticats employed one of the best rushing attacks in the entire CFL in the early 2000s, but despite having players such as C.J. Gable, Avon Cobourne, Tyrell Sutton, Alex Green and Don Jackson, the running game has been an afterthought in Tiger Town for over a decade.
It seems as if Wes Hills’ ascent to RB1 is changing that.
Against the Montreal Alouettes, the Ticats used a heavy dose of Hills but I do not think anything would have led people to believe just how heavily utilized he would be on Friday night.
Hills rushed the ball 25 times for 132 yards, the most rushing yards by a Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back since Mercer Timmis ran for 133 against Edmonton in Week 2 of 2018. Hills’ 132 yards was just the eighth time the Ticats have featured a 100-plus-yard rusher in their last 65 games.
The Ticats as a team had only rushed for more than 100 yards five times this season, and Hills’ 132 yards were more than double the output of any single Tiger-Cat, topping his own statline of 61 yards against the Alouettes two weeks ago.
If Hamilton has finally unlocked a reliable run game, it could be the thing that opens up this offence for success over the regular season’s final three weeks.
What Hills was for the offence, second-year pass rusher Malik Carney was for the defence.
Carney, who has seen his role increase over the last month, notched three of the team’s seven sacks of Fajardo on Friday night and tied for the team lead in defensive tackles with four.
The University of North Carolina product had just four career sacks entering Friday’s game, and doubled his total on the season with his output against the Riders.
The Ticats have been looking for a Ja’Gared Davis replacement all season and they may have finally found one in the 27-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia.
I know most people like to rag on CFL officiating — and I have done so myself in the past — but the refs, for the most part, usually do a great job and the occasional missed call is something we just have to accept.
Having said that, some calls need to be right and the crew last night got a big one wrong.
Early in the fourth quarter with the Ticats nursing a 15-14 lead, Riders’ QB Cody Fajardo was called for intentional grounding while he was standing in his own end zone.
Here is how the rule reads (my emphasis added):
If a Team A passer deliberately, and in the official’s opinion for the purpose of avoiding loss of yardage, throws the ball behind the line of scrimmage to the ground or Out of Bounds or to an area in which there is not an eligible Team A receiver, the team shall be penalized.
PENALTY: LD at point from which pass was thrown. If the pass was thrown from the Goal Area, a safety touch score shall be awarded to Team B, subject to the right of Team B to decline the score and accept the play as it terminated.
Based on the image above, it is unquestionable that Fajardo was in the goal area when he threw the ball, however, when head referee Andre Proulx made his call he gave the ball to the Riders at their own one-yard line because the ball was outside the goal area when it was thrown.
This feels like a mistake by the refs. In every other instance, the placement of the thrower, not the ball, dictates the outcome. Think of an illegal pass when the quarterback is beyond the line of scrimmage. It is the quarterback’s positioning not where the ball is that decides if an illegal forward pass has been made. It seems as if that same principle should apply here as well.
Based on how the rule is written, it certainly seems as if the Tiger-Cats should have been awarded a safety on the play. Nowhere in the rule does it say anything about where the ball is, just where the pass is thrown. That pass was clearly and obviously thrown from the end zone and done so to avoid a sack. Seems pretty cut and dry to me.
With one hand we scold, with the other we praise and despite a lot of confusion, the refs did get one incredibly ridiculous thing right and that was the call at the end of the half on Saskatchewan punter Kaare Vedvik’s wild downfield adventure.
Vedvik badly shanked a second-quarter punt and then managed to kick the ball as he was trying to recover it, had that second kick bounce off a Tiger-Cats player and the loose ball was ultimately recovered by the Riders.
Flags flew everywhere and chaos reigned supreme. No one knew what had just happened and how it should be called, except the officials. The men in stripes took their time and correctly ruled the play to result in a Saskatchewan first down.
The rule itself might be a little stupid — the kicking team benefitting from a shanked punt that gets recovered short of the line of gain feels a little unfair — but the application of it was perfectly done by the referees.
Adventures in special teaming
Vedvik’s punt was not the only special teams adventure we went on on Friday night. The Ticats had a punt blocked that set up the Riders’ second touchdown drive, the normally reliable Seth Small missed an extra point and the Riders, for maybe the first time this season, attempted an onside punt.
The onside punt is one of my favourite, only-in-the-CFL rules and it is not utilized nearly enough for my liking. The Riders’ attempt was unsuccessful but they get an A-plus in my book for even attempting it.
Three quarters of nope
Friday night was one of Hamilton’s best defensive performances of the season, as the 14 points they surrendered was the fewest they had allowed in a game this year.
Hamilton’s defence was swarming, sacking Fajardo seven times and holding the Riders to a minuscule 29 yards rushing on the night. They forced four turnovers — two interceptions and two stops on third down — allowing the Riders to cross the midfield stripe just twice after Saskatchewan’s second touchdown of the night. All of the Riders’ drives following them taking a 14-6 lead ended in either a turnover or a punt.
It was a masterful performance from the defensive unit and one the team desperately needed in such a low-scoring contest.
Dane’s down day
For most of this season, the team has gone as quarterback Dane Evans has gone, and Evans was pretty bad against the Riders on Friday. He completed just 45.8 percent of his passes, throwing two interceptions and zero touchdowns.
His second interception was an inexcusable disaster as he threw the ball right into the hands of defensive lineman Pete Robertson on a screen pass intended for receiver Tim White. It was the type of pick you would not expect a player in his first year playing to throw.
But despite Evans playing about as poorly as he has all year, the Ticats still managed to find a way to gut out the win. Evans is unlikely to look this bad again — although with how this season has gone, “unlikely” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence — but we now know that even if he does play poorly the Tabbies can still do enough to emerge victorious.
Small does it all
Missed extra point aside, Tiger-Cats’ kicker Seth Small has been Mr. Automatic for the team since being brought back in June.
The Texas A&M University product is second in the league in field goal percentage, hitting on 90 percent of his kicks in the 10 games he has played and trailing only B.C. Lions’ kicker Sean Whyte in that category.
Small also has the third-most makes from 50-plus yards and Friday’s missed extra point was his first missed convert of the season.
Hamilton’s kicking game has been a wild ride the past few seasons but it finally looks to be settled with Small.
Congratulations are in order for Ticats’ receiver Tim White who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his professional career.
A lot was expected of White entering 2022 as the replacement for fan favourite Brandon Banks and the second-year pass catcher’s season has been a bit up and down. White has turned it on down the stretch, going over 100 in three of his last six games and he has become a much larger part of the offence in recent weeks.
Prior to the game on Friday, Ticats’ all-star defensive tackle Dylan Wynn took to Twitter to announce that his 2022 season has come to an end due to an injury he suffered in the team’s Week 15 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The Tiger-Cats did not miss Wynn against the Riders but his loss is a huge blow to the team, as Wynn is one of the premier interior linemen in the league.
With Wynn now on the shelf for the remainder of the season, the team will be relying more on Micah Johnson and Ted Laurent to fill the massive hole this creates.
Danny Mac, when are you coming back?
Friday night was a special night for longtime Tiger-Cats fans, as franchise legend Danny McManus finally took his rightful place amongst Ticats greats by being inducted into the team’s Wall of Honour.
McManus’ accolades are known to almost everyone. He is the franchise leader in numerous categories and he is the last quarterback to lead the Ticats to a Grey Cup victory.
His arrival in Steel Town in 1998 ushered in a winning era of Tiger-Cats football and transformed a team that went 2-16 the year before he arrived into a champion just two years later.
McManus is the 25th player inducted into the Tiger-Cats Wall of Honour, the first since Rob Hitchcock was inducted in 2019.
The 17-year veteran currently serves in the role of assistant general manager for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a job he has held since 2014. Prior to that, McManus was a scout for the Tiger-Cats from 2009-2013.
The Tiger-Cats currently do not have anyone who fills the general manager role for the team — with Drew Allemang, Spencer Zimmerman and Ed Hervey all serving as assistant general managers to president of football operations and head coach Orlondo Steinauer — and it is widely known that McManus yearns to be a GM.
McManus coming east 24 years ago took a downtrodden team and made them winners. Perhaps he could do the same now, just off the field this time instead of on.
Mark your calendars
It was a blink-and-you-will-miss-it moment but at Tim Hortons Field last night, an advertisement was shown that finally set a premiere date for the highly anticipated Rivalries: The QEW Series documentary that chronicles the intense rivalry between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts.
The doc will air on November 4 at 7 p.m. on TSN., which is the Friday leading up to the divisional semi-finals and the first Friday without a CFL game being played since June.
Friday’s game was the biggest Tiger-Cats game of the season… until the next one.
With their playoff lives firmly in their own control, the Ticats now turn their focus to doing something they have not done since the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man 2 was the No. 1 movie in the world: win a game at McMahon Stadium in Calgary.
Not since 2004 have the Tiger-Cats left Calgary with a victory. The iPhone was three years away from existing at that point. It’s been a long time.
But fret not Tiger-Cats supporters, because even if the Tabbies were to drop their upcoming game at McMahon to the Stamps, all will not be lost.
Hamilton’s final two games are a back-to-back series with the moribund Ottawa Redblacks while the Riders will have their own back-to-back against the Stamps.
For the Ticats to make the playoffs, they simply need to finish with an equal record to the Riders, who they currently sit one game back of at 5-10 to the Riders’ 6-10. With the green and white’s pair of dates with the red and white, the Riders may end the season at 6-12 (which is incredible considering they began the season 4-1).
That means that the Ticats may only need to win one of their remaining three games to make the postseason.
Whether you are ready for it or not, a 6-12 or 7-11 Hamilton Tiger-Cats team may have an opportunity to win a championship.
Only in the Canadian Football League.