TORONTO -- The Battle of Ontario returns to the Rogers Centre on Friday night, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats visit the Toronto Argonauts in a pivotal East Division battle in Toronto.
With the Ticats looking to pull closer to the first-place Argos while also holding off the third-place Alouettes, a playoff atmosphere is expected in the first of back-to-back meetings to kick off October.
The Argos can clinch their first division title since 2007 as early as next weekend should they sweep this late-season two-game set, and have all the momentum in doing so after September’s historic run during which they played on the road for four straight games, earning a comeback win in each one.
They can also clinch first place with a win tonight and a Montreal loss tomorrow.
Left with a six-point lead for top spot in the division in the wake of four consecutive road wins without the starting quarterback under centre, how close are the Argos to being the team Head Coach Scott Milanovich wants them to be?
|Related: Ticats at Argos|
» Ray to dress but not start vs. Ticats
» Can Fantuz repeat from Week 1?
» The Road Warrior Argonauts
» Argos secondary learning to plug n' play
» Isaac eyes win in first battle with old team
» Watkins looking to corner competition
» Burris healthy in strange year for QBs
» Milanovich: 'They have a lot of belief,'
» Settlement reached with Chris Williams
» CFL.ca Power Rankings: Week 14
» CFL.ca Game Notes: Week 15
» Last Week for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats
» Last Week for the Toronto Argonauts
» Buy: Ticats at Argos Tickets
"Closer,” he told Argonauts.ca ahead of Friday night’s game. “We’re not there yet.”
That’s not Milanovich trying to be humble, but instead pointing out that there’s still work to be done between now and the end of the regular season for the Argos, regardless of where they finish in the standings.
Last Saturday’s 34-22 win over the Eskimos marked the first time in history a team has played four straight road games and won them all, yet the first three quarters of the win showed there’s still room for improvement.
The focus on Friday in particular will be starting better, given that the Argos trailed at halftime in each of the previous four games and were outscored by a 69-33 margin in the first half of football games.
Against the Eskies the Boatmen trailed 15-1 at halftime and 22-1 at one point in the second half, before scoring 33 straight points on the way to their ninth win of the season.
The team had difficulty moving the ball throughout the game, until a 49-yard touchdown run by Kackert and a flurry of turnovers by the defence led to the sudden turnaround.
“From an offensive perspective we didn’t play as well as we need to in the first half, and there are a number of reasons why,” Milanovich said back in Toronto this week. “We dropped some balls, and I said last week I think we need to do a better job as coaches of getting [starting quarterback Zach Collaros] into a rhythm earlier in the game, whatever that means.”
“I think defensively we’ve played pretty strong football, continued to improve,” he continued. “Maybe not exactly where we need to be but they’ve played pretty consistently the last four games.”
Suffice it to say no football team can get in the habit of going 21 points down like the Argos did in Edmonton last weekend, but after outscoring opponents by 102-39 in the second half over this four-game winning streak, the Argos were able to get away with a couple of slow starts.
“Some of it’s the sense of urgency you get when you’re behind, for sure,” Milanovich said when asked to explain his team’s resiliency. “Your backs are to the wall, you manage to focus a little better.”
If the Argos are going to keep their winning streak alive, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to stumble out of the gate against a high-octane Hamilton offence that knows how to make opponents pay for starting slow.
The key to starting quicker may come down to Collaros, about to make his sixth straight start in relief for the injured Ricky Ray and coming off an impressive September, for which he earned CFL Offensive Player of the Month honours.
The second-year pivot’s play in the second half led the team to four straight wins, but now as he heads into Friday night making perhaps his last start before Ray returns, the coaching staff will look to get him in a groove earlier than the third quarter.“
|What are the writers saying?|
» Can Fantuz repeat Week 1 in rematch with Argos?
» The Road Warrior Argonauts and 'Sports Faith'
» Argos secondary learning to plug and play
I’m not sure at this point, we need to get back to the drawing board and find ways to get him playing,” said Milanovich when asked why Collaros has had trouble out of the gate.
“In the BC game we started fast, in the Calgary game he played well in the first half, had a couple of fumbles that weren’t his fault but really he played a four quarter game against Calgary,” he continued. “Last week was a little bit different.”
While the Argos hope to get off to a quick start and move one step closer to clinching the East, Friday’s game for the Ticats will be about momentum, and potentially swaying it in their favour heading down the stretch run.
The Boatmen showed just how powerful momentum can be, not only on this recent four-game winning streak, but also last season, when the team played .500 ball through the regular season before winning playoff games over Edmonton and in Montreal en-route to eventually winning the 100th Grey Cup Championship.
The Ticats, who much like the Argos last season are a team in transition under newly-hired Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin, seem to have a lot of the same characteristics as last year’s Grey Cup Champions -- a team loaded with talent but looking to achieve positive results on more of a week-to-week basis.
After playing some of their best football of the season for a long stretch, the Tabbies ran into the West Division leaders last week in a 35-11 loss in Guelph to the Calgary Stampeders.
“We didn’t play well,” Austin told Ticats.ca. “They played well, we didn’t play well -- it’s always a combination. The key is what do we take from that, and does it linger over into the following week.”
This week the Ticats look to bounce back just as they have all year, and make an important statement as far as who will be contending for the Grey Cup come November.
“I think our guys have been pretty consistent all year -- our guys have come back to work,” said Austin. “If you look at our season and the weeks that we’ve lost or not played as well as we want to play, we’ve rarely taken that into the next week or the week after.”
“We’ve bounced back pretty well and that’s due to guys that believe in each other, believe in the coaches, believe that they can prepare better and play better the following week when they come back to work, and that’s what our guys have done this week.”
|The last time they met|
Friday, June 28, 2013
Toronto 39, Hamilton 34
Jason Barnes scored two touchdowns while the Argos defence held off a last-second Hamilton surge to defeat the Tiger-Cats 39-34 in front of 29,852 boisterous fans at Rogers Centre.
» Read more.
Henry Burris, who is putting up career numbers in 2013 but was pulled in last Saturday’s game following three interceptions and little offensive production, wasn’t shy to talk about just how important these two points are coming up against a division rival.
“We know it’s huge, especially from here on out because right now you’re battling not only to catch up to the Argos but for playoff position, but even beyond that become the team that we know we can become,” said Burris, who has a league-leading 3,899 yards this season and is on pace to beat his career high.
Burris is the only starting quarterback in the league yet to miss a start due to injury, and has played a substantial role in his team’s success despite it being Austin’s first year, and also despite throwing a league-worst 15 interceptions this season.
“Of course we’re coming off a loss where we felt we embarrassed ourselves out there,” continued Burris. “Calgary did what they were supposed to do but we didn’t play the way we were supposed to play.”
“Well here’s a chance to make amends for that and bounce back against the Argos, and this would be a great week for us to get things on track and makes this push towards the playoffs.”
Perhaps the most motivated player wearing the Black and Gold will be linebacker Brandon Isaac, who returns to the Rogers Centre for the first time since being released by Milanovich's Argos during the summer. Since joining the Ticats he has 11 tackles, two sacks, and an interception, but on Friday night will have something more -- an opportunity for redemption.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, thinking about an opportunity to go out there and show up these guys,” said Isaac.
In the end, however, the key for success for Isaac will be keeping his composure, and ultimately helping his team come away with the all-important two points.
“Regardless of what I do, if we don’t win it doesn’t matter,” said Isaac. “I want us to win and I want to go out and just have fun, hit people, and just be myself.”
The Ticats visit the Rogers Centre for the second and final time this season, after falling 39-34 in the season opener back in June. The Argos, meanwhile, return home for the first time since a 20-9 loss to the Alouettes back on September 3.
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from Argonauts.ca/Ticats.ca