The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are one step closer to securing an unlikely playoff berth and all it cost fans was a bottle of Pepto Bismol, a fistful of hair, and a trip to the cardiac ward.
That’s a small price to pay for a win in what will be remembered as one of the most exciting games of the 2022 season.
Leading 27-26 with two minutes and eight seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Tabbies’ hopes of victory were shattered when running back Wes Hills was stopped short on a questionable third-and-one gamble from Hamilton’s own 22-yard line. As Calgary chewed down the clock ahead of a Tommy Stevens touchdown plunge, the entire province of Saskatchewan began to check ticket prices for an East Semi-Final flight to Montreal.
The Ticats were dead in the water, killed by a coaching decision that would be debated for decades. Then, as so often happens in the final minute of a CFL game, the narrative changed.
The Stampeders failed in their two-point attempt and Lawrence Woods ripped off a massive return to set Hamilton up in prime field position. Quarterback Dane Evans heaved a 42-yard bomb to Tim White, who hauled it down in spectacular fashion, then found the same receiver again in the end zone one play later. Anthony Johnson added the two-point convert and the resurrected Ticats pried a 35-32 victory from the jaws of certain defeat.
“In my whole entire career, this is probably one of the most complete team wins I’ve ever been a part of,” Evans told the media post-game.
“The defence for sure kept us in the game in the first half with how long they had to be on the field. We did our thing on offence in the second half and special teams played pretty solid all throughout. They really jump-started that final drive getting a huge return.”
Still, the question remains as to how the Ticats found themselves in such a precarious situation to begin with.
Head coach Orlondo Steinauer’s unconventional decision to go for it on third down deep in his own end with the game on the line raised eyebrows across the country. While opting to get a back-breaking first down will have supporters amongst both go-with-your-gut football guys and analytics nerds, the play call by offensive coordinator Tommy Condell was universally panned — a shotgun hand-off with Hills lined up almost ten yards deep.
Nevertheless, Steinauer firmly stands behind his decision and told reporters that he would make the same call again without question.
“There’s no defence here. We played to win. I believe that Wes Hills and our offensive line are gonna get a yard; that’s not a gamble,” the head coach said defiantly. “Obviously, I’m sensing that the majority of people would punt the ball and just put them in field goal range. That wasn’t the way we played that.”
Steinauer’s logic is simple: whether by punt or turnover on downs, Calgary was going to wind up in scoring position with a considerable wind at their backs. In a must-win, playoff-like scenario, only converting on third-and-short would have helped his team.
“We didn’t call it not to get it,” he emphasized. “It was still going to be on the defence to hold them to a field goal anyway. There was no guarantee we were even going to get the ball back.”
Earlier in the season, it’s possible that such a setback would have derailed the team entirely. Hamilton has been guilty of their fair share of fourth-quarter collapses but a ten-loss season has now galvanized them into a uniquely resilient group in the eyes of Evans, one which never flinched in the face of self-inflicted adversity.
“I don’t think there was any panic in anybody,” the quarterback insisted. “Obviously, people were frustrated and upset but we knew our defence is gonna stop them, we had ultimate faith and in the last three minutes in the CFL, shoot, you get the ball eight times.”
“We knew we were gonna get the ball back and why would we keep complaining about what we just didn’t get when we have a game-winning drive in front of us.”
That mental toughness has been a point of emphasis for Steinauer all year and it is finally paying off in critical moments.
“What we weren’t going to do is leave any bullets in the gun, and that includes mentally also. We had to stay the course because those types of things happen, unfortunately,” he stressed.
“Everybody understood that we’re aiming for the bullseye. It wasn’t about hitting the target at that point. Everybody knew exactly what we had to do and players stepped up.”
According to Evans, the team required no Hollywood speech to fire them up for the unlikely comeback. Each man was focused on his own responsibilities, including Tim White, whose pair of circus catches potentially altered the CFL’s postseason landscape.
“He’s just a special player, man. I don’t even know how to put it into words; when it’s time to make the play, he’s gonna make the play,” Evans said of his favourite target after White’s 106-yard outing. “The beautiful thing is he’s not the only guy on our team [capable of that], but tonight it was his turn to be the guy again.”
As a result, the 6-10 Ticats continue to control their own playoff destiny. They could clinch a postseason berth as early as next week if they can beat the Ottawa Redblacks and a disappointed Stampeders team rebounds with a win over Saskatchewan.
With those types of long-term implications at play, this particular heart-stopping upset stands out for Steinauer. After more than two decades around the CFL, few victories could challenge the sweetness of Hamilton’s first win at McMahon Stadium since 2004.
“I don’t know where exactly it would rank except for I know it’s in the conversation, near the top,” the coach grinned.