The Hamilton Tiger-Cats fell to the B.C. Lions 33-30 at Tim Hortons Field on Friday night, locking them into third place in the East Division. Below are my thoughts on the game.
CFL at its finest
While most in attendance left the game despondent, it was not for a lack of action. Friday’s catfight featured the high-scoring, no-lead-is-safe ethos of which fans of the three-down league can’t get enough.
With 63 total points, 751 yards of offence, and a game-winning field goal at the gun, these are the types of games that made us all fall in love with Canadian football.
These two teams combined for six punts, with the last one coming on the final play of the first quarter. There was a punt by Hamilton that was negated by a contacting the kicker flag at the start of the third quarter but the final 13 drives of the game ended with six touchdowns, six field goals and one incredible goal-line interception.
While wins and losses matter, and no one clad in Black and Gold left the game feeling great, entertainment matters almost as much and no one can say they weren’t thoroughly entertained by what the Tiger-Cats and Lions did on Friday night.
It seemed fitting that in his return to Hamilton after being unceremoniously dumped by the Ticats last winter, Dane Evans would be the man to put the nail in Hamilton’s hopes of hosting a playoff game in 2023.
After Vernon Adams Jr. left the game with an injury, Evans came in for the final Lions’ drive with the score tied at 30. Evans cooly led his team 42 yards down the field, going four-for-four for all 42 yards in the process, to set up Sean Whyte’s game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expired.
Despite how his tenure ended, Evans is still a much-beloved figure in Hamilton. Many fans still wish he was with the team and those at the game on Friday gave him a nice ovation following a tribute video that was shown in the first quarter.
Evans acknowledged the crowd in the stadium and posted a message on social media afterwards to express his appreciation for the fans in Hamilton.
— Dane Evans (@daneevans9) October 14, 2023
Those same fans might not feel as warm and cuddly about their former signal caller after what he did on Friday night but I am sure more than a few had a wry smile on their face knowing their former franchise pivot got one over on his old team.
Is Tim White the best receiver in the CFL? The case is there to be made if one wants to make it. White has been on an absolute tear the last two months and now, with one game left in his season, sits atop the receiving yards mountain after another impressive 100-yard outing.
White caught seven passes for a game-high 112 yards and two touchdowns in the loss and in doing so set a single-season career-high with 1269 yards while tying his career-high in touchdown catches with eight.
The third-year pass catcher got off to his bizarrely typical slow start again in 2023 but has picked up the pace since mid-August, posting five 100-plus-yard games and catching six of his eight scores in the last nine games. Some credit can go to the change in offensive philosophy that occurred at the same time but White also did this exact same thing last year.
He had five 100-plus-yard games starting in mid-August and caught six of his eight touchdowns in that span as well. His numbers are higher after 17 games than they were after 18 last year but it is still an almost identical season to the one he had a year ago.
Working out the kinks
Even though Bo Levi Mitchell took the vast majority of first-team reps at practice all week, the Ticats once again went with a quarterback platoon. Mitchell played the entirety of the first half before giving way to Matthew Shiltz in the second.
Both quarterbacks were good, with each attempting 19 passes and having a passer rating over 100. The pair combined to go 27-of-38 for 315 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The pick was a bad one, as Mitchell tossed a what-were-you-thinking throw to an unaware Tyreik McAllister that was taken to the house by Lions’ defender Josh Woods but that was really the only mistake either quarterback made.
Even with the errant toss, Mitchell has looked very good in his three quarters of play since returning from injury last week. He has three touchdown passes to just one interception and a passer rating of 124.8. It is as small a sample size as you can have, and his interception against B.C. still raises questions as to his decision-making, but it is the best Mitchell has looked in a Tiger-Cats uniform. If he finds his stride in the postseason, this team could be a tough out for anyone.
Making chicken salad
Hamilton’s secondary has not been great even when at full strength and then disaster struck late in the first half. Veteran defensive back Richard Leonard went down with an injury in the second quarter which forced the team to play Canadian linebacker Nic Cross in his place. This was less than ideal but then before the quarter was over, Cross was seriously injured, needing a cart to take him off the field.
This forced the Ticats into an even more unenviable scenario that saw them kick strong-side linebacker Chris Edwards out to field halfback, move rookie Dexter Lawson Jr. from halfback to field corner and insert Canadian rookie Patrick Burke Jr. into Edwards’ spot.
The Lions then went out of their way to target Burke, who was getting the first significant defensive reps of his young career and seemed lost in coverage on Alexander Hollins’ fourth-quarter touchdown catch. The defence did their best but they were having a hard enough time containing B.C.’s offence with their full complement of starters on the field. It was made immensely more difficult when Leonard and Cross were knocked out of the game.
Catch of the year
Dexter Lawson Jr. is in his first year in the CFL and he may have made the play of the year with his fourth-quarter interception of Vernon Adams Jr.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) October 14, 2023
The athleticism on display defies words. It was as incredible of a catch as you will see all season and it was a vitally important one, as a touchdown in that situation likely ends any hopes the Tiger-Cats had of coming back in the game.
Following the injuries to Leonard and Cross, the Ticats had four rookies in their secondary. Kenneth George Jr., who has started in one spot or another since the first game of the season, Will Sunderland, Patrick Burke Jr. and Lawson. The Ticats spent elsewhere to add weapons to both the offence and defence which forced them into going with a youth movement on the backend. It has not always been pretty but the rookies are starting to find their stride and Hamilton may have found some pieces to lock into place next year.
Fighting against history
With the Tiger-Cats now locked into the third-seed in the East Division, they know they will be heading to Montreal in an East Semi-Final rematch from a season ago. The Ticats were humbled back then, losing 28-17 in a game that was never particularly close.
The Tabbies will also be looking to become the first third-place team from the East Division to make the Grey Cup in 53 years. The last time that feat was achieved was in 1970 when the Montreal Alouettes beat the Argos and Ticats en route to their first championship game appearance since 1956.
In the interceding 51 seasons, eight third-place West Division teams have made the Grey Cup, most recently in 2019. Only 12 third-place teams have even made the East Final in the last half-century meaning the climb is a steep one against history if the Ticats hope to be playing in the final game of the year.
Bagging on the zebras
It was not a banner night for the men in stripes on Friday, either in Hamilton or in Calgary. I won’t get into what happened at McMahon Stadium but the final three minutes of that game were interminable because of a number of referee stoppages.
It wasn’t entirely the same in Hamilton but there were more than a few blunders from the officials. The most egregious from the Tiger-Cats’ perspective was that receiver Keon Hatcher seemed to be offside on the catch that would set up Sean Whyte’s game-winning field goal.
The Lions have some gripes as well. A fast whistle from the sideline official ruling that forward progress had been stopped cost the Lions a potential fumble on a second-quarter catch by Terry Godwin and there looked to be clear pass interference later in the game on a Lions throw to the end zone.
I generally think the officiating in the CFL is some of the best in pro sports but Friday night was a low point for the crews in both locales.
Following his fourth-quarter score, Lions’ receiver Alexander Hollins was caught on the sideline screaming an expletive- and invective-filled rant toward a TSN cameraman. I won’t link to the video but you can find it if you look hard enough.
The reason for Hollins’ outburst is immaterial. It was juvenile and embarrassing and showed a lack of maturity on his part. This was not an in-the-heat-of-the-battle moment, which oftentimes catches players saying things to one another that would not be accepted in polite society. This was an unnecessarily childish act by a player who should know better. I suspect he will be getting a call from the league this week and will be lighter in the pocketbook when fines are announced midweek.
The Ticats get their final bye of the 2023 season in Week 20 before heading to Montreal to take on the Alouettes in a game that now holds no meaning for either team.
Both teams are likely to treat the game as a glorified preseason tilt, with neither side wanting to give any info to the other ahead of their playoff battle on the very same field just seven days later.
I would anticipate the Tiger-Cats employing the same dual-quarterbacking system they have the past few weeks and maybe sit some of their veteran players who they will want healthy for the playoff encounter the following week.