HAMILTON -- An old East Division rivalry is renewed on Saturday night, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats welcome the Ottawa REDBLACKS to Ron Joyce Stadium for their first game in Hamilton since Oct. 2012.
It’s a time-tested matchup with a new look and some interesting twists, as former Ticats Chevon Walker and Henry Burris return to Hamilton with something to prove while the Tabbies are set to debut a first-time starting quarterback as Dan LeFevour goes under centre.
All that really matters for the Black and Gold however is getting that first win of the season, which at this point would give the Ticats at least a temporary hold of first place in the East. In other words, Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin wasn’t in any mood to discuss feelings towards old teammates.
“Not a bit,” Austin told Ticats.ca when asked if he regrets moving on from the star quarterback over the off-season. “Henry did a good job for us last year, he was a good quarterback and he’s doing a good job for them.”
“Life moves on,” he continued. “I wish him success, not against us though.”
Saturday’s meeting may have more meaning for Burris and Walker, who enjoyed success in Hamilton but were no-longer needed coming into this year. Burris enjoyed two solid seasons in Hamilton, combining for 67 touchdown passes and 10,292 yards through the air despite both years having to adapt to a brand new offensive system under two head coaches.
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Then last November his dominant performance in the Eastern Final against the Argos led the Ticats to an appearance in the Grey Cup Championship in Regina, where they eventually lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Ticats then cut him loose, opting for a more futuristic option with the addition of rising young star Zach Collaros, who won’t get to go head-to-head with Burris as he remains on the sidelines due to injury. If Burris is thinking redemption, he’s pretty good at hiding it.
"Would it be a big victory, yeah for the future, because right now that would put us two games up on Hamilton,” Burris told The Canadian Press.
"I told guys like [John] Delahunt and Chevon [Walker] and Dobson [Collins] and guys that were part of Hamilton last year, that the biggest way that you can make your message heard as far as the decision that they made is going out and just doing what you can do over the course of the season and all that will take care of itself.”
Walker wasn’t so subtle, after seemingly emerging as a star running back in the league in 2012 only to be replaced as the starter by another breakout star in C.J. Gable at the beginning of last season. Gable is considered to be an upgrade in the passing game, but Walker has lightning-fast speed and the ability to break a game open on any given play.
He’s already put that on display this season in the Nation’s Capital, after he was left unprotected by Hamilton in the expansion draft and selected by the REDBLACKS to become their starting running back.
"Going back is definitely going to give me a little extra motivation,” Walker admitted. “It's going to be exciting, it's going to be fun going back.”
“This is definitely one of those games where I'll do whatever it takes to play 120 per cent, which I do every game, but this game gives me a little more incentive.”
Burris isn’t off to his usual quick start offensively, while Walker has 278 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns this season to be the biggest producer for this offence. Both are capable of taking over a game, but as Austin points out that’s no different than planning for any other opponent.
“They’re just two players that we have to stop and two players we have to prepare for and prepare against, no different than scouting any other team and any other players,” the second-year Ticat coach told the team’s official website.
It shouldn’t be anything the Ticats aren’t ready for, as so far they’ve boasted one of the league’s top defences despite facing off against the likes of Darian Durant, Bo Levi Mitchell, and Mike Reilly, holding opponents to 293.6 yards per game and 69 points.
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Last weekend they held the high-flying Stamps to just 10 points, but it was the offence that had some trouble, failing to score a single touchdown in a 10-7 loss on Cow Town. Jeremiah Masoli in his first start managed just 107 yards and an interception on 9-20 passing, leading Austin to make the switch at quarterback for Week 5.
LeFevour, now in his third year with the Ticats, did enough to earn his first career start this weekend.
“I just trust his decision-making based on the last two games and felt like we need to give him an opportunity to see if he can command the offence from the beginning,” Austin said, adding that the swap doesn’t change his team’s approach to preparation.
“We’ve just gotta get the guys ready, it’s my job to get the quarterbacks ready and it’s their job to be prepared and to be ready,” he continued. “It’s no different than any other position, we’ve had a lot of changes at other positions too and we stick to the same philosophical viewpoint, which is when guys are called upon to start they need to prepare and play at a high level.”
LeFevour will go head-to-head with his former mentor, who he said taught him a lot about the game outside of the lines.
“Just perseverance,” LeFevour said of what he learned from Burris, a future Hall of Famer. “First year it didn’t go how we planned, my first year here I think we were 6-12 and the same guy showed up every day in Henry.”
“Win or lose, bad game good game, whatever – he was very consistent with the way he approached practice, and I really admired that being a younger guy in this league.”
While the Ticats search for a win in LeFevour’s first start as well as their first home game at Ron Joyce Stadium on the grounds of McMaster University, the REDBLACKS are coming off a monumental historic win in their own home opener against the Argos.
It wasn’t flashy as the team failed to score a touchdown, but six field goals from Brett Maher and a resilient defensive effort that included two interceptions on previously pickless Ricky Ray, including one on the game’s final play as the Argos threatened, propelled the home team to a euphoric 18-17 win to open up TD Place.
“It’s big for us,” rookie head coach Rick Campbell told OttawaREDBLACKS.com following the game. “We’ve had some close games here the first three games and I’m glad to see us finally get over the top, and it’s a lesson that it’s very hard to get wins in this league and we’re gonna have to earn everything we get.”
“We came up and made a big play at the end there and we made some big kicks, and that’s what it’s gonna take.”
The result was an emotional one as it marked the team’s first win since returning to the league, and also the return of football to Ottawa for the first time since the Renegades finished their 2005 season. But emotions aside, the REDBLACKS know they have plenty to work on.
“Guys are happy with the win but we’re still upset with the way we played in different situations,” Burris said. “We had chances to score and we didn’t make it happen, and we’ve gotta be better offensively, especially with the talent we have.”
“But we came through in the key moments, great job by the offensive line giving me time and Kierre Johnson made a great catch over the shoulder getting downfield and we have to do those things more consistently to become the team that we want to be.”
As a result of the win the REDBLACKS currently own top spot in the East Division, and securing their first road victory of the season in Hamilton would guarantee at least another week in first place. The first win is always the hardest, and now that it’s out of the way Campbell hopes there are many more to come.
“To get one is big, obviously the East is going to be tight so that was a big win,” said Campbell. “We’ll keep it in perspective – we won a football game in July and we’ll be on to the next one.”
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from The Canadian Press and OttawaREDBLACKS.com/Ticats.ca