The Hamilton Tiger-Cats shocked the CFL world by defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 29-23 at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday afternoon. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Powell’s positive progression
From the rise of Dustin Crum in Ottawa to Tre Ford’s ascension in Edmonton to Chad Kelly’s march to Most Outstanding Player, emerging young quarterbacks have been the talk of the league this season.
It’s time to have Taylor Powell enter that conversation.
Powell has been the Ticats’ man behind centre since Bo Levi Mitchell went down with an injury six games ago and the later part of that stint has seen him steadily progress into a reliable starting quarterback.
Against the Bombers, Powell finished 20-of-26 for 236 yards, one touchdown and one interception while also rushing four times for 23 yards. Those numbers don’t match what he did a week ago in Ottawa but this still might have been his most complete performance. Powell showed poise and patience throughout the game, evaded defenders when needed and extended plays with his feet that helped keep the Tiger-Cats on offence.
There is, and I cannot stress this enough, no quarterback controversy in Hamilton. When Mitchell is back at 100 percent, he will assume the starter’s role. What the Tiger-Cats now know they have is a backup they can trust to run the offence effectively should Mitchell falter once again.
While the team certainly hopes they won’t need to rely on Powell once Mitchell returns from injury, having a backup quarterback that can keep things steady is worth its weight in gold in this league.
We did not know if the Tiger-Cats had that two months ago. We do now.
There are a lot of people who deserve credit for Hamilton’s offensive resurgence over the last few weeks but the biggest slice of that pie should probably go to offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich.
When the Ticats made the move to replace long-time offensive coordinator Tommy Condell, I was skeptical that Milanovich would have a significant impact this season, and any positive steps the team would take would eventually lead to them sputtering once again.
I was wrong.
Under Milanovich, the Tiger-Cats have scored 27 or more points in four of their five games; under Condell, the team eclipsed that mark just twice in eight games. The Tiger-Cats had one rough outing, Milanovich’s first calling plays, but have otherwise looked like a competent offence that you can trust will do what they need to do more often than not.
Milanovich’s play-calling has opened things up for Powell to succeed but has also helped elevate other players as well, Tim White and James Butler being chief among them. Hamilton’s renewed emphasis on sticking with the running game despite some struggles — Butler rushed for 3.7 yards per carry against the Bombers — is something that would not have been seen under Condell.
While there is still plenty of time for the other shoe to fall and the Tiger-Cats to revert back to the ineffective unit they were during the first half of the season, the move to install Milanovich has been as successful as one could have hoped.
The Bandit heists again
There were a lot of stars on the Tiger-Cats defence on Saturday afternoon but none shone brighter than Canadian safety Stavros Katsantonis.
Katsantonis secured his second sack of the season, a timely takedown that halted a promising drive for Winnipeg, and hauled in his fourth interception of the season. The ball-hawking third-year player has certainly been living up to his Bakersfield Bandit moniker as of late as he has picked off a pass in each of the last three games.
The 27-year-old earned his way onto the starting defence and has all but ensured that the job, and the robust paycheque that comes along with it, will be his next season.
Tales of Simoni Lawrence’s demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated as the future Hall of Famer continued his recent run of stellar play on Saturday.
The longest-tenured Tiger-Cat got off to a slow start this season, which brought about questions as to whether his starting role should be in jeopardy. The heart and soul of Hamilton’s defence has picked up his pace as the season has gone on and put most of those fears to bed.
Against the Bombers, Lawrence finished with a team-high eight tackles and nearly came away with his second interception of the season on a diving attempt off a tipped ball. Lawrence looked to have secured the ball but video replay did not provide enough evidence to overturn the call on the field of an incomplete pass.
Despite his disappointment, the team has to be excited at the prospect of their vocal leader finding that extra gear as they get deep into the stretch drive and hopefully an even deeper playoff run.
Torching the Woods
It was a first half to forget for Hamilton’s inexperienced field-side secondary as Lawrence Woods and Dexter Lawson Jr. were routinely victimized by Bombers’ quarterback Zach Collaros. The Winnipeg pivot targeted Woods’ and Lawson’s side of the field with regularity in the first half, completing four passes of 20 yards or more, including two 50-yard bombs to Nic Demski.
The Ticats were forced into starting Woods and Lawson due to injuries to Tunde Adeleke and Richard Leonard. Things tightened up in the second half considerably as Collaros had just one completion of longer than 20 yards over the game’s final 30 minutes.
With a matchup next week against Chad Kelly and the high-flying Argos’ offence, the Woods-Lawson tandem will need to step up their game earlier than they did on Saturday.
Aside from one horrendous performance, kicker Marc Liegghio has been as solid an addition to the Tiger-Cats special teams unit as the team could have wished. Run out of town in Winnipeg after training camp, Liegghio found a home in Hamilton in Week 2 and has seemingly found the grove that made him a fifth-round pick in the 20202 CFL Draft.
The Western University product did not miss against his former team, nailing both field goal attempts and all three converts. He also watched as the man who displaced him, Sergio Castillo, struggled, missing an extra point and a field goal, the former of which was returned by Tyreik McAllister for two points.
Whether Liegghio took any extra pleasure in besting his former team is immaterial. He has found a new home in Hamilton and seems to have revitalized his career in the process.
It wasn’t only the stars that had their hand in Hamilton’s stunning victory, as some of the team’s role players also chipped in with big performances.
Sean Thomas Erlington’s final stat line of two catches for 34 yards does not do justice to just how large of a role he played in the victory. His two catches were vitally important with his first-quarter snag setting the tone early and his second catch being an incredible individual effort to pick up a first down. He also got the game off to a positive start when he took a short opening kickoff 23 yards to give the Tiger-Cats good field position to start.
Tyreik McAllister’s name is all over this game as well. His electrifying 124-yard missed convert return swung momentum back Hamilton’s way after the defence allowed the Bombers to march down the field to score their opening points of the game. He nearly broke the game open on the final play of the first half, taking a missed field goal 67 yards before being tackled.
Kai Locksley also proved incredibly valuable in short yardage, scoring on a quarterback sneak to put the Ticats up 13 late in the third quarter and sealing the game with a third-and-one plunge with under 30 seconds remaining.
Depth chart deception
There have already been a lot of opinions expressed over Hamilton’s ludicrous depth chart from Saturday’s game but I will add my take to the pot as well.
While what the Tiger-Cats did was ridiculous, slotting starting left tackle Joel Figueroa into the lineup as the team’s fifth-string fullback, it serves the CFL right for having a rule that essentially required the Ticats to do that in order to field their best roster possible.
We can wring our hands at what the team did but this only happened because of the league’s loophole-ridden Designated Nationalized American rule.
The rule was never intended to be used as it has been by multiple teams this year, such as when the Calgary Stampeders listed Ka’Deem Carey as a backup running back in the first week of the season Like with any rule, coaches will find a way to exploit it and that is exactly what the Ticats did on Saturday.
No one with any sense believed Figueroa was going to be lining up in the backfield and the whole thing was a pointless exercise after the first play of the game.
We can be mad at Tiger-Cats’ brass for making a mockery of the rule or we can be angry at the league for implementing a rule so haphazardly that they didn’t see things like this happening. I know where I will be placing my ire.
Things do not get any easier for the Ticats as they will next face off with the freight train that is the Toronto Argonauts.
The Argos clinched first place in the East Division with their win over Montreal on Friday meaning the next time the Double Blue will play a meaningful football game is November 11.
The Argos have owned the Tiger-Cats recently, winning six of the last seven, but a win next Saturday would erase a lot of those memories and give the team a major boost as they embark on a four-game stretch that could define their season.