Ticats drop season opener in Calgary (& six other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Calgary Stampeders

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats dropped their 19th season opener in 21 campaigns with a 32-24 loss to the Calgary Stampeders on Friday night at McMahon Stadium.

The game was highlighted by the return of all-time Stampeder Bo Levi Mitchell, but penalties, turnovers and miscues were once again detrimental — a common theme for this team over the past two seasons. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Bo’s return home

It was an emotional night for Bo Levi Mitchell and his family, as he made his long awaited return to the place he called home for over a decade. The Stampeders gave him a nice tribute video and Mitchell got a well-deserved standing ovation for his contributions to the club during his time in Cowtown.

The game, however, was more of a mixed bag. I thought Mitchell was solid at times, leading Hamilton into the score zone on a couple different occasions and showing good mobility in the pocket, which took pressure off Hamilton’s two young tackles. But a lack of execution resulted in the Ticats having to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

Mitchell had Tim White open in the back of the end zone early in the second quarter with Hamilton down 6-0 and placed the ball too high for the receiver to come down with. He had White open again later in the quarter on a pass that hit the all-star in the fingers. If the ball was placed on the money, White is walking in for a touchdown. He also threw an interception to Demerio Houston where Mitchell and his receiver clearly weren’t on the same page.

The 34-year-old finished the night 27-of-38 for 300 yards, one touchdown, and one interception while also rushing three times for 36 yards. While it wasn’t perfect, it’s a game that Mitchell and head coach and offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich can build off of.

The Butler did it

The best player on either side of the ball for the Ticats was running back James Butler. The 29-year-old carried the ball 13 times for 119 yards, averaging 9.2 yards per carry. He also chipped in with one reception for 12 yards.

Butler missed much of camp with an injury, didn’t play in either preseason game and was a game time decision heading into Friday, but showed no signs of rust or ill effects from the ailment that kept him sidelined the past couple of weeks.

I wonder what Butler’s totals would’ve looked like had Hamilton not been trailing the entire game. If the Chicago, Ill. native continues to rush the ball like that for the next 17 games, he will smash his previous career high of 1,116 yards set last season.

Butterfingers 

Dropped passes were something I highlighted in the first preseason game and they reared their ugly head once again last night.

Tim White had a couple of drops, Kiondre Smith dropped a ball, and Shemar Bridges had a drop on a very catchable ball that would’ve put Hamilton within scoring range. It led to Hamilton attempting a field goal, one that Marc Liegghio missed to the right and was returned back into Hamilton territory.

Scott Milanovich said post game that the Ticats have not dropped a lot of passes throughout training camp, but it’s apparent the first team offence has struggled with it in their two showings of game action. The good news is that dropped passes are fixable mistakes. The bad news is that those drops were costly in an eight point loss.

Wounded secondary

Hamilton’s secondary was already banged up going into Friday’s game with Jamal Peters landing on the one-game injured list and Will Sunderland going on the six-game. The injury woes continued on Friday when Richard Leonard left the game and didn’t return, leaving a pretty young defensive backfield for Mark Washington to work with.

I thought rookies Mark Milton and Destin Talbert both struggled in their first regular season action and were the targets for much of the Stampeders passing attack. Jake Maier completed 80 percent of his passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns and looked precise while picking apart the Ticats’ back five.

Hamilton should get some reinforcements in the near future with Peters close to game action. The team recently signed former all-star Jonathan Moxey, who can plug into the lineup once he’s caught up to game speed.

Untimely penalties

Hamilton had five penalties for 40 yards, which is a respectable number. But the issue with on Friday night was those penalties came at bad times. It’s never a good sign when your first play from scrimmage is a too-many-men penalty, one that Milanovich took the blame for post-game.

Brandon Revenberg took a bad unnecessary roughness penalty late in the first quarter that put Hamilton in second-and-long. The Ticats were able to recover with a 25-yard dart to Brendan O’Leary-Orange but those are the types of undisciplined penalties that have plagued this team for the past two seasons.

The other costly penalty was a time count violation midway through the third quarter. Hamilton went from being second-and-eight to second-and-long, leading to a dropped pass from Shemar Bridges that resulted in Liegghio’s missed field goal. It was a six-point swing, as Rene Paredes kicked a field goal on the ensuing drive taking three points away from Hamilton and giving Calgary a 15-point cushion.

Maybe the penalty doesn’t change the result of the kick, but it was the start of a three-play chain of unfortunate events for the visitors.

Lack of pressure

Much was made of Hamilton’s new-look front four in the offseason, with Casey Sayles returning to go along with prized free agent signings Brandon Barlow and DeWayne Hendrix.

Still, Hamilton struggled to put consistent pressure on Maier in their debut, only nabbing one sack on the evening and allowing Calgary to rush for 117 combined yards on 21 carries. I thought the defence did a decent job of limiting Calgary on first down, but there were too many times on second down where Maier was able to sneak away from pressure and connect with one of his receivers for a first down.

There are eight new faces on the defensive line, with only Sayles returning from last season, so some hiccups are to be expected. If the Tiger-Cats are going to achieve their goals on defence, they will need their front four to be much better in the next 17 games.

Up next

The Ticats will return to action on Sunday, June 16 to start a home-and-home with the new-look Saskatchewan Roughriders. Hamilton will host Saskatchewan at Tim Hortons Field before Saskatchewan returns the favour on June 23 at Mosaic Stadium.

The Riders and Ticats only played once in 2023, with Hamilton coming away with a decisive 38-13 victory on October 7. Both teams made a lot of changes in the offseason and it will be a good test for the Tabbies to see if they can bounce back after a disappointing Week 1 loss.

Troy Durrell is a University of Calgary and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology graduate. He covers the CFL and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.