HAMILTON -- The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are set to open brand new Tim Hortons Field in style on Monday afternoon, as they begin a pivotal September stretch against the hated Toronto Argonauts in the Labour Day Classic.
While the first-place Argos head on the road looking to create separation in the CFL East, the Ticats have a chance to make it a bigger dogfight than it already is, as only two wins separate first from last. Finally home just in time to tear into their provincial arch-nemesis, Labour Day provides a perfect opportunity for the Ticats to swing their momentum.
“It has a lot to do with just it being our stadium – our stadium, not a stadium, though we tried to make the other stadiums ours as well,” Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin told Ticats.ca, when asked about being at Tim Horton’s Field this week.
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“But it’s different, it’s different when you know that’s our place going forward long-term and it’s also fun for our fans,” he continued. “You combine the two for our organization and for the fans of our football team, and it’s easier to make it feel like home.”
Adding to the anticipation of finally having a true home field is also the excitement of Labour Day, which the Argos and Ticats missed out on a season ago while the Ticats spent the year playing in Guelph. These two clubs have met 43 times on Labour Day, with the Ticats holding a 29-13 edge over the Argos along with one tie.
As Ricky Ray comes to town to square off against his former understudy in Zach Collaros, expected to suit up after returning from the six-game injured list due to a concussion, Monday opens a brand new chapter in Labour Day lore.
“We’re gonna convey it, but we’re gonna try to strike a balance too because you don’t want to emphasize one game compared to others, you know how we feel about that,” Austin said. “That being said, it won’t be long after we kick that ball off that they’ll realize how important it is.”
“It really is what makes football great,” the second-year Ticat continued. “You need rivalries, you need big games whether they’re regular season or playoffs – that’s what makes sports and competition special.”
The Argos and Ticats have combined for just four wins this season, but as fall football rolls around and all four teams remain in the running, Monday should feel like an early indication that playoffs are on the way.
These two clubs were division favourites entering the season, and on paper are pretty close to equal. Their records differ only slightly, as the Argos have two extra wins but have also played a pair of extra games – meanwhile, the Ticats have lost four of their six games by seven points or fewer, including three by fewer than six.
“I think we’re a good football team,” Collaros said after practising with the offence this week for the first time since suffering a concussion back in Week 2. “We’ve left some plays out there, we’ve been in every game but you can’t talk like that – we didn’t deserve to win if we didn’t win the game, we didn’t make those plays.”
“We’re approaching this week like we do every week,” he continued. “We’re going to prepare to the best of our abilities and go out there and hope we get the win.”
Collaros’ CFL career took off with the Argos, when last season he became the primary backup to Ray and notably helped the team win four straight road games when called upon mid-season.
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He signed with the Ticats to become the starting quarterback after Henry Burris was released, but after boasting a 98.4 quarterback rating with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, he sputtered out of the gate this year, completing just 56.1 per cent of his passes in two starts.
Now with fill-in Dan LeFevour out for the season due to a knee injury, Collaros must quickly get back on page with his receivers and fill the void under centre if the Ticats are going to compete down the stretch.
“I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back out there, I just miss being out there with my teammates and competing,” Collaros said at the start of the week. He said he was happy to complete some passes back in practice, but that at first things were moving a little fast for him. Since then he said he’s starting to feel more comfortable.
“I was able to settle in and get some rhythm back and timing with the receivers, and we were able to get together during the bye week and work on that as well so that was huge for me,” he continued. “I thought we did a good job of settling in.”
Collaros said he feels ready to go, but if plans change then quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Stephen McGee will be on standby.
While the Ticats look to turn their season around, the Argos are in a similar situation following their worst two-game stretch since the end of 2009, before Head Coach Scott Milanovich ever coached them.
Two weeks ago they appeared to be headed in the right direction, just a game below .500 and riding a two-game winning streak. However a home game against the Lions on a short week ended in a 33-17 loss, before a trip to Edmonton the week after proved equally frustrating as Ray was picked off three times on the way to a 41-27 loss.
“You’ve gotta play four quarters, not just two,” Milanovich told Argonauts.ca when asked about his team’s difficult first half. Inconsistency has been prevalent for most teams in the CFL this season, but especially for an Argos team that hasn’t yet put together a complete game.
Part of the issue has been a lack of continuity, as they’ve been forced to use 67 players thus far throughout the season, second to only the Ticats. This week the Argos released three more players, as defensive back Dwight Anderson along with Jeremiah Johnson and Terrell Sinkfield were let go.
Milanovich said it was no indication that the last two losses were on their shoulders, but what’s clear is the third-year head coach is looking for more production from those positions as the all-important stretch run looms.
“At some point somebody’s gonna have to start separating themselves,” said Milanovich during a conference call this week. “Going against each other, teams are gonna have to step up and decide who’s gonna be the one to take this thing.”
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Despite two straight losses and now being on the road for three more consecutive games, there are some bright spots for the Boatmen, such as a rapidly-improving defence; increased red zone efficiency; and fewer penalties.
Best of all, following an unprecedented number of unfortunate early-season injuries to star receivers on offence, the Argos remain in first place in the East Division and can expect both Chad Owens and Andre Durie to return to the lineup soon after Labour Day.
"I guess the weird thing about this year is we’re in first place,” Ray said. “I’ve been on a few other teams where we’ve gotten off to a slow start and we’ve been three or four games back, just trying to find our way into the playoff mix.”
"We can build on our lead or keep that lead, and in that sense it has been a blessing,” he continued.
“We feel like everything’s kind of been thrown at us early in the season and the second half. When we get guys healthy and everybody’s playing together better, we can get on that run and take advantage of that lead that we do have.”
While Ray waits for Durie and Owens to get back into action, for now he’ll have to rely on the likes of Spencer Watt and Jason Barnes, along with possibly recent signee LaVon Brazill, a former NFL wide receiver who joined the Argos this week.
The all-star quarterback meanwhile will try and bounce back from his worst stretch in recent memory, after throwing five interceptions in the last two games compared to just four in his first seven games of the season.
It’s a far cry from last year’s historical season, during which he broke CFL records with a quarterback rating of 126.4 and a completion percentage of 77.2, while throwing 21 touchdowns to just two interceptions. But Ray insists he feels as good as ever ahead of Monday’s Labour Day Classic.
“I feel pretty good out there and nothing’s holding me back from doing what I’ve been able to do in the past.”
Kickoff is at 1:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL.ca Gamecast.
- With files from Ticats.ca/Argonauts.ca