Learning how to win: 15 thoughts on Hamilton’s 30-27 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks

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

One of the talking points after the first half of the season was that this year’s version of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats not only did not know how to win but was learning how to lose.

The team coughed up double-digit lead after double-digit lead in the most horrendous fashion and many wrote them off following their 28-8 Labour Day loss to the Toronto Argonauts.

Then something happened, something no one saw coming.

The Ticats learned how to win.

They obliterated the juggernaut Winnipeg Blue Bombers and after a heartbreaking loss to Montreal that all but sunk their hopes of hosting a playoff game, the Tabbies have rolled off three straight wins for the first time this season and have made comebacks in all three games.

Down 14-6 to the Riders? No problem, just score the next 12 points and win a nail-biter 18-14.

Down 32-27 with 63 seconds left against Calgary? No biggie, just march the field in under a minute and have Dane Evans toss a couple of perfect passes to Tim White to win the game.

On Friday, their pièce de résistance came after trailing by as much as 11 points in the first half. The defence stiffened and the offence found a bit of a groove to outscore the Ottawa Redblacks 20-6 over the last 32 minutes to win 30-27.

The win puts them one game away from clinching a playoff berth while also eliminating their rivals from the nation’s capital from the playoff race.

Earlier this season, had the Tiger-Cats found themselves in such a hole they would not have dug themselves out of it. But this resurgent group that has won four of their last five and looks to be hitting their stride refuses to go quietly into the night.

Here are more of my thoughts.

How ya living’ Biggie Small

What more can be said about Ticats’ kicker Seth Small?

Each week he seemingly does something that tops what he did the week before. Last week, the Texas A&M alum nailed a 57-yard field goal, so what does he do for an encore? How about hitting a 30-yard game-winner into some stiff wind with no time left on the clock?

Yeah, that should do it.

Small was once again brilliant for the Tabbies, connecting on five of his six field goal attempts, with his lone miss coming from 53 yards out.

Teams do not want to be relying on their kicker to score half of their points but for the first time since Justin Medlock was donning black and gold, the Ticats have a kicker that you just know will make the biggest kicks in the biggest spots.

Big Poppas

One of the major reasons for Hamilton’s late-season run has been the play of their offensive line. A liability to start the year, the unit — which features a rookie left tackle in Tyrone Riley, as well as veterans Brandon Revenberg, David Beard, Coulter Woodmansey and Colin Kelly — has coalesced into one of the better front fives in the league.

After giving up 18 sacks in the first five games, the Ticats have surrendered 14 in their last 12 games and just four in their last five games, including only one on Friday night.

The Tabbies have also started to run the ball with more regularity, rushing for over 80 yards in four of their last five games and going over the century mark twice. It might not seem like those numbers are significant but the Tiger-Cats have been one of the league’s worst rushing teams over the last few years and a lot of their newfound success in the run game is due to the improved play of their offensive line.

Nasty boy

The Ticats put a lot of faith in the growth of second-year receiver Tim White when they allowed fan favourite Brandon Banks to leave in free agency and the initial results were not positive.

But there might be no player who has had a better second half of the season than the speedster from Santa Clarita, California.

White was once again the focal point of the passing attack, leading the team with seven catches and 113 yards, notching his third 100-plus-yard game in the last four.

As of this writing, White leads the CFL in catches with 94, is third in the league in receiving yards with 1,265 and is tied for fifth in the league with eight touchdowns.

A lot of Tiger-Cats have stepped their game up over the last month but perhaps none more so than No. 12.

Erli and often

Sean Thomas Erlington probably had his best game since 2019 on Friday night. Erlington replaced an injured Don Jackson, who himself was returning to the lineup following a lengthy absence, and ripped off 104 yards on just 13 carries.

The former eighth-round pick has carved out a nice role for himself with the Ticats since joining the team in 2017 but has seen limited time as the team’s primary ball carrier. Friday night against the Alouettes showed he can be the team’s leading rusher when given the chance.

His versatility has been an asset to the team over the last five seasons and it would be nice to see him used more prominently in both the run and pass game.

Heart of a warrior

We have spent a lot of digital ink discussing the play of Ticats’ quarterback Dane Evans and while he had another subpar performance, completing just 55.2 percent of his passes for 220 yards and one interception, I have seen too much criticism of him on the play where he hurt his hand.

I have seen comments, even some from players, critical of Evans for opting to dive head first as opposed to sliding feet first.

That’s nonsense. Yes, the safe play is to slide feet first but what would the conversation be if Evans had done that? Well, for starters, Evans dove to get 11 yards on a second-and-10 play with the game tied. Had Evans opted to slide and come up two yards short the Ticats aren’t kicking a field goal to take the lead but are instead punting back to Ottawa with the game tied.

I have been critical myself of Evans’ play this year, even openly wondering if the team could be looking to move on from him in the off-season, but one area that I will never criticize someone for is when they are making plays to try to win games.

In this corner, we applaud players for trying to win and on that play, Evans was doing everything he could to give his team a chance to win. The injury is unfortunate, especially at this time of year, but had Evans opted for the safe play and the Ticats lost, he would be getting ripped for not doing what he could to keep the drive alive.

Maybe he did not make the smart play but he made the gutsy one and that is worth praise from where I sit.

Getting back up

Matthew Shiltz once again showed why he is such an important piece to this team, coming on in relief of Evans late in the game and helping to engineer two scoring drives, including the one that won the game.

Shiltz is what he is as a player but he has proven to be a valuable piece to the 2022 Hamilton Tiger-Cats puzzle. Without knowing how long Evans will be out, it could be Shiltz that is forced to lead this team into the playoffs. If that is the case, the Tabbies seem to be in very capable hands.

Wasting the wind

This game was not without its questionable decisions, however. As with the winds swirling like only they can at Tim Hortons Field, the home side won the coin toss and opted to take the ball instead of the wind.

It proved nearly disastrous as the Ticats turned the ball over on their first drive and only managed to score 13 points with the wind at their backs. The Ticats took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter and before you could blink, the Redblacks lead 21-10 after switching sides.

The Tabbies’ defence stiffened after that, allowing just six points the rest of the game, but Hamilton wasted prime opportunities in both the first and third quarters when they had the wind. If not for a brilliant final drive, the decision to take the ball could have proved to be a fatal mistake.

Lost in the Woods

Tiger-Cats’ return man Lawrence Woods was having an exceptional season before he was injured back in August in a game in Montreal. Since then Woods has seen his numbers dip and has lacked the same explosion he showed on returns earlier in the season.

Against the Redblacks, Woods was fairly ineffective, averaging just over 20 yards per return on kickoffs and less than five yards per return on punts. For a team that has relied on big special teams plays in the past, to see that regression is disheartening.

Bucking the trend

The Ticats gave up a defensive touchdown on a brilliant strip by Brandin Dandridge, who ripped the ball out of Steven Dunbar Jr.’s hands and sprinted 51 yards for the score.

In the CFL this year, scoring on defence was a key indicator of success. On Friday, the Ticats became just the third team all year to win a game after allowing the opposing defence to score, with 28 games being won by teams that scored with their defence.

Undefeated

Given the long and tortured history of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, there are not many instances where the franchise has shown a demonstrable advantage over another team. The Ticats’ Labour Day record is pretty impressive but that is about it.

After Friday’s victory, both head coach Orlondo Steinauer and quarterback Dane Evans continue to sport flawless records against the Ottawa Redblacks. Since taking over in 2019, Steinauer is a pristine 6-0 against the Rouge et Noir while Evans is an also-perfect 4-0.

The Redblacks will get the chance to get that winless run to end against the Steinauer-led Ticats next week when the two teams meet in Ottawa in the regular season finale.

Complaining for the sake of complaining

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a growing number of fans and media types who have taken to complaining about an overabundance of quarterback sneaks, especially on the one-yard line, by backup quarterbacks.

It reached new heights last night as Ottawa quarterback Caleb Evans set the single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 15, surpassing the legendary Doug Flutie, who set the mark back in 1991.

I don’t know how this became a discussion point — it was pointed out to me that it might be related to fantasy football — but it is topics like this dominating the conversation that makes me think people who follow the CFL, be they fan or media, just like to have something to complain about.

Since I started covering the Ticats and the league back in 2010, this has been a thing. Quinton Porter used to spell Kevin Glenn on the goal line in the early 2010s. Jeremiah Masoli did the same for Zach Collaros in the mid-2010s. Drew Tate had two rushing scores in the 2014 Grey Cup as Bo Levi Mitchell’s backup.

One of the most memorable plays of the last decade was Redblacks’ defensive back Abdul Kanneh’s shoestring tackle of Stamps’ backup quarterback Andrew Buckley in the 2016 Grey Cup.

The list goes on and on.

After at least a decade of this — and I am sure those who remember games from decades ago can tell us when this started — to start finding fault with it now for seemingly no reason just cements to me that CFL followers are amongst the most unhappy of any sporting fan base.

Over the last six games, five of them have been excellent and the type of football we have been yearning for since the pandemic cancelled the 2020 season. Instead, we are discussing quarterback sneaks and whether or not they are ruining the game.

Give me a freaking break.

And the award goes too…

Earlier this week I received my ballot for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats player awards. The ballots are due on Sunday evening with the announcement going out on Wednesday. I have not yet made my selections and probably will not until Saturday night or Sunday morning but in the interest of being transparent, I do plan on revealing who I selected. I do not believe these things need to be confidential and look for an article from me about who and why I made my selections.

Ranking the alternates

To my knowledge, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have only had three alternate jerseys, not counting retros, in the team’s history: this year’s “Made in the Hammer” grey jerseys, the Reebok Signature jerseys the team wore in 2014 and 2015, and the yellow jerseys the team wore from 2006-2009. The Ticats wore an all-white look in the 2006 Labour Day Classic but I believe the only real change was a different helmet with a different logo on it, while the jerseys were just their regular road whites from that season.

I think all three have been amongst the best alternate uniforms worn in the CFL. Given some of the atrocious ones we have seen over the years — looking at you, Riders and Bombers Signature jerseys — it is a minor miracle that the Ticats have yet to have a truly horrendous third uniform.

Which one you like more depends on your taste, but this is how I would rank them:

1) Reebok Signature jerseys
2) 2006-2009 yellow jerseys
3) “Made in the Hammer” jerseys

I find the yellow-dark-grey combination on the Signature jerseys to be really appealing. I don’t know why but I have always liked how those colours contrast one another. It’s my favourite thing about this year’s alternate jerseys.

While I think the 2022 alternate logo is awesome, I like the yellow jerseys from the mid-2000s more. I love the red accents on the numbers, paying homage to the Flying Wildcats of the 1940s.

I think all three are actually really good and being third doesn’t mean I think this year’s effort is a bad one. In any top three, something has to finish third and for me, the plainness of this year’s new jersey puts it at the bottom of the list.

Hanging from the rafters

For just the second time this season, the Ticats played in front of a sold-out crowd. A more-than-capacity crowd of 24,062 — Tim Hortons Field’s listed capacity is 23,218 — came out to watch a 6-10 team battle a 4-12 one.

Despite a poor season on the field by recent standards, the Ticats still have the highest attendance of any team in the East Division, and their average attendance of 22,264 trails just the big four out west, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Calgary and Edmonton.

Up next aka one last (regular season) ride

The math is even simpler than a week ago. If the Saskatchewan Roughriders lose to the Calgary Stampeders on Saturday night then the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are playoff bound. If the Riders pull off the upset, then all the Ticats need to do is beat the Redblacks in Ottawa to secure their playoff ticket.

In the Ticats’ favour is that Ottawa has yet to win at home, going 0-8 so far this season. Also working in Hamilton’s favour is the Riders have lost nine of their last 11 and are making a quarterback change in a desperate attempt to provide a spark.

Given how this season has gone, nothing is for certain, but if you are a Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan you have to feel pretty confident that this team will be in either Montreal or Toronto on November 6 for the East Semi-Final.

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.