GUELPH -- The Battle of Ontario heats up on Thanksgiving Monday, as the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats close out Week 16 with a pivotal meeting at Guelph’s Alumni Stadium.
Both the Ballard Cup and the East Division crown hang in the balance heading into the third and final meeting of the season between these heated rivals, and it doesn’t matter who you cheer or play for, it’s an exciting time for football in Southern Ontario.
“You should as a player and as a staff feel excited about a rivalry game,” said Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin, who endured plenty of rivalries out west during his time as a head coach in Saskatchewan.
“I know it’s a sellout, that’s good, it’s good for both teams,” he continued in an interview with Ticats.ca. “We should want an environment like that as a football team as opposed to an environment where it’s less caring, that’s no fun.”
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The rivalry endured ups and downs over the past decade, but seemingly took a turn last season when two premier quarterbacks came East from Edmonton and Calgary in Ricky Ray and Henry Burris respectively.
The latter helped the Ticats become the one of the league’s explosive offences last season under George Cortez, which a year later continues to progress under the newly-hired Austin. Ray, on the other hand, led the Argos on a Cinderella run and a victory on home turf in the 100th Grey Cup a season ago following an 8-10 season.
Led by two of the league’s brightest offensive minds in Austin and Scott Milanovich plus a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, suddenly the Argos and Ticats are the top teams in the East Division. Add in some Thanksgiving pigskin and the fact that it’ll be their second meeting in as many weeks, and you have the makings for a classic.
“The sold out crowd, you know it’s going to be an exciting atmosphere with the Canadian Thanksgiving and it’s my first Canadian Thanksgiving, I think it’ll be an exciting game,” said rookie receiver Luke Tasker, who caught his first career touchdown pass against these very same Argos a week ago.
“But I’ve never really had the chance to do this back to back games with the team, certainly the energy and the emotions and the competitive environment will be increased because of that,” he continued. “It’ll be exciting.”
The Ticats not only evened up the season series at a game apiece, but also made a bolt statement thanks to a 33-19 win over the Argos at the Rogers Centre last weekend. That ended the Argos’ four-game winning streak and pulled the Tabbies to within four points of first place, while also setting up a rubber match for the tiebreaker on Monday.
Burris bounced back from being pulled in a loss the previous week with 274 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as the Ticats jumped out to a 22-6 first-half lead. The Argos, with Ray still out of the lineup due to a shoulder injury, pulled to within four points in the second half, but the Ticat defence buckled down and helped preserve the eventual win.
“I thought the defence played great,” said Austin. “They really played well, they were aggressive, they hit, we covered well against a pretty good football team, so I’m really proud of their effort.”
Primed to return the same starting lineup in the secondary as last week for the first time this season, they'll have a chance to carry over that success after dealing with a rash of injuries this season.
“Any time you have some continuity, it’s obvious, every team wants continuity, especially when you have to make adjustments,” said Austin. “We make adjustments in the secondary like we do in our passing game, and you really don’t get that communication consistently without playing together.”
“They’ve improved in that area and it’ll be good to see them play again.”
Continued growth on defence and especially in the secondary will be pivotal on Monday, as the Ticats are set to go up against Ray, returning to the lineup for the first time since injuring his shoulder in the first quarter of a loss to the Stampeders back on August 23.
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Ray is putting up one of the best statistical seasons for a quarterback the league has seen in a long time, with a completion percentage of 78.3 and a quarterback rating of 134.0 and both of which put him on pace to break records. Meanwhile he’s thrown 15 touchdowns and hasn’t been intercepted once, and is capable of picking apart a defence at will.
“He’ll do some things a little bit differently than their other quarterback,” said Austin. “He’ll check the ball down more, he’ll utilize more of the entire field with respect to his receiving core, he understands defence.”
“He’ll throw the ball when the defence is most out of position, so it forces us defensively to be more sound in our drops, how we’re spacing the football field, how we’re patterning, and those types of things.”
Ray was flawless in his only appearance against the Ticats, a 39-34 win, during which he out-dueled Burris in throwing for 368 yards and four touchdown passes.
And while the Argos enjoyed some success with Zach Collaros under centre, including a historic stretch of four straight wins all away from home, Milanovich and the Boatmen are happy to have Ray back in time for this upcoming showdown.
“We built this offence around him and to suit him and put in the pieces of the puzzle that we thought would complement him best,” Milanovich said in an interview with the Canadian Press. “Having him back certainly gives us a lot of confidence and a little bit of a comfort level just that we can kind of go back to how we built this offence.”
“Having Ricky back will be big.”
Ray, meanwhile, hasn’t had any issue bouncing back from injury so far in the past two seasons. After returning from a long layoff due to a knee injury last season, he threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns in his return against the Bombers, which kicked off one of the best stretches of his career and led to a Grey Cup win.
|The last time they met|
Friday, October 4, 2013
Hamilton 33, Toronto 19
Henry Burris was solid, completing 19 of his 30 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns, as the Tiger-Cats ended the Argonauts' 4-game winning streak with a 33-19 win at Rogers Centre on Friday night.
» Read more.
This year after missing a game due to another knee injury, he returned against a stingy Alouette defence with three touchdown passes on 15-18 passing in a half of work.
In this instance however the injury is on his throwing shoulder rather than his knee, meaning bouncing back so quickly could be a tougher task, although Ray didn’t seem concerned in the week leading up to his first game back.
“[The shoulder] is feeling pretty good,” said Ray. “Most of the rust was just getting back into it, seeing things a little bit faster and getting back into the flow.”
“Really, I didn't have any issues with my arm.”
He returns just in time to resume his rivalry with Burris, which long predates their days in Southern Ontario. For seven years before moving East they went head to head in the Battle of Alberta, while they faced off as early as 2003 when Burris was still a member of the Roughriders.
“He's a great decision-maker, that's why he hasn't thrown any interceptions this year,” Burris said of Ray. “Ricky has been given the keys to that Ferrari and he's doing a great job of managing it.”
“With the playmakers he has, he's doing a great job of just taking what the defences give him.”
Burris meanwhile is on pace for a career high in passing yards, and his two years in Hamilton so far have been full of explosive plays, although sometimes not in Hamilton’s favour. He’s thrown for a league-high 4,173 yards with 22 touchdowns, but has also thrown a league-worst 16 interceptions.
Yet Ray said during his time in Edmonton he often watched helplessly from the sidelines as Burris rallied Calgary to late victories, and even though they’ve never actually met on the field, the rivalry continues to be one of the league’s most exciting.
“He's a tough quarterback to play against because he's going to go out and put up points,” Ray said. “The other thing too is when it has come down to the last few minutes and you're on the sidelines, he has led game-winning drives and come back to haunt you.”
On Monday the quarterbacks will add another chapter to their storied past, as the they prepare for a game that could very well decide the East Division.
Kickoff is at 4:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from Ticats.ca and the Canadian Press