TORONTO — Two long-standing rivals get one final dress rehearsal on Thursday night, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats visit Toronto’s Varsity Stadium for their pre-season finale against the Toronto Argonauts.
It’s been seven months since their last meeting, when the underdog Ticats and their boisterous fans silenced the East Division-winning Argos on the way to a Grey Cup appearance – yet just one off-season later the starting lineups are barely recognizable.
Most of the Argos’ defensive unit that gave up nearly 500 yards of offence in last year’s East Final has since departed, which means fans trying to keep track of them on Thursday better have their programs handy.
“We’re still trying to figure out where we want guys,” third-year head coach Scott Milanovich, who likened the transition to that of the offence two years ago, told Argonauts.ca.
In 2012 Milanovich showed up along with quarterback Ricky Ray and a host of other first-year Argos, faced with the challenge of building a Grey Cup-winning offence from scratch.
“We didn’t know where we wanted this receiver and that receiver,” he said. “That’s what we’re going through defensively – where do we want this defensive back, where is he best gonna fit what we do, and same thing with our defensive line.”
In the first week of pre-season the results were mixed. Defensive Coordinator Tim Burke helped the Argos earn a 24-22 win in his first game back in Winnipeg, as three of the Bombers’ four quarterbacks were held to a 50 per cent completion percentage or lower.
Then late in the game, with an eight-point lead, the Argos allowed a lengthy game-tying drive led by fourth-string quarterback Robert Marve, only to preserve the win by stopping the two-point attempt.
“There were some really good things, our linebackers I thought played sideline to sideline,” said Milanovich.
“Our DBs covered well, our defensive line rushed the passer well at the end of the game but not well early, and our defensive backs I thought could have run to the ball better throughout the game.”
“So there’s a lot of good and a lot of bad, that’s what you get in the pre-season.”
The situation is different on offence, which enters its third season under Milanovich’s watch. Set to make their 2014 debuts are Ricky Ray, Chad Owens, and John Chiles as that unit looks to find its form in time for the season opener on June 26th.
Last season it was one of the league’s most explosive, finishing with a league-best 36 passing touchdowns and placing third in total points with 507. Yet those numbers may not even do it justice considering the amount of time that Ray, with 21 touchdowns to just two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 126.4, was forced to miss due to injury.
Of more concern will be the Argos’ running game, as the team had trouble in that area last season and now remains in the process of finding a new starting running back after Chad Kackert’s retirement. Four talented running backs are vying for a chance to start, and so far no one has gained separation.
“The good thing is I think all four of them can play, and it’s gonna come down to the wire,” said Milanovich.
“It’ll come down to that last pre-season game for sure.”
The Ticats are coming off a trip to the Grey Cup, but the visit wouldn’t be enough to make them stand pat in the months leading up to the 2014 campaign as Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin shook things up with some big additions on defence and a swap at quarterback.
The free agent acquisitions of Canadians Ted Laurent and Craig Butler as well as the addition of 2012 draft pick Frederic Plesius at linebacker give the Ticats some of the league’s best Canadian content, and a defence that should easily improve upon last year’s numbers.
Meanwhile, at quarterback, former Argonaut Zach Collaros is now the future after the team parted ways with Henry Burris. Collaros showed well in limited playing time last week against Montreal, going 5-8 for 52 yards to go with a 12-yard run.
“I thought Zach did well,” Austin told Ticats.ca. “He played well, he was accurate, he made a first down with his feet, moved the sticks, made some throws.”
Austin iterated, though, that there’s plenty of work to do and Collaros will get more reps against his former team. The Ticats’ first game is on June 29th, and their first test will be a difficult one as they visit the defending Grey Cup Champs.
“He needs to play a little bit more, he didn’t play a lot last game and we need to get him more playing time and get him prepared,” said Austin.“
“We left a couple of throws on the field across the board, we’re not gonna hit them all but when we get some layups we need to make the layups.”
The biggest star of Saturday’s 28-23 win over the Alouettes was QB Jeremiah Masoli, who’s in contention for the second spot on the depth chart and hopes to earn some more regular playing time come the regular season.
“We’re all competitors and we all want to play, and that’s no different for me,” said Masoli after his performance. “I want to be able to play every game, but whatever coach sees fit is what it is.”
Masoli went 9-12 and threw three touchdown passes on 137 yards through the air, and is expected to take a step forward this season given his familiarity with the offence. He was indeed the most impressive quarterback on Saturday.
“We expect all of our guys to play well, Jeremiah had a great opportunity to play well and he did, and they all had opportunities to do that,” said Austin. “We’re always evaluating, but we’re gonna need multiple players in multiple players to be able to play to have a chance to win championships.”
Last season the Ticats took three of four against their detested rival, including the East Final. This season they won’t meet until Sept. 1 when they square off in Hamilton for the Labour Day Classic – the first of three regular season meetings in 2014.