HAMILTON -- The Hamilton Tiger-Cats look to get back in the win column on Saturday afternoon, as they welcome the Calgary Stampeders to McMaster’s Ron Joyce Stadium to kick off a CFL double-header.
A difficult challenge marks a pivotal early-season game for the Ticats, a club that so far has fallen short of big expectations in 2014. The four games lost by a touchdown or less for the Ticats this season say they’re a team that’s positively better than its record indicates, but before too long they’ll have to flip the script and turn last-second heart-breakers into thrilling victories.
It’s something they hope to accomplish in a rematch with the Stamps, a team the Ticats fell 10-7 to in a trip to Calgary last month on a botched fourth-quarter field goal attempt.
“We’re all positive in the locker-room and when we were in Calgary we thought we played a good game and we certainly had a shot to win,” receiver Samuel Giguere told Ticats.ca. “So we’re looking forward to the rematch, and if we clean up some stuff and put emphasis on the details we’ll be able to get the win.”
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Every week it’s more of the same for the ‘Cats, doing almost enough to win but falling just short. That was the case last week in BC, when they stormed back from a 17-3 deficit to lead the game at halftime only to fall in a back-and-forth affair 36-29.
Down just a point throughout most of the fourth quarter, the Ticats controlled the ball for just four minutes and gained only 46 yards while the defence surrendered three drives with three or more first downs, 165 total yards, and 10 total first downs.
Yet as the team tries to capture last year’s response to a slow start, the Ticats rattled off nine wins in their final 13 games plus two playoff wins to earn a spot in the Grey Cup Championship following a 1-4 start, the positives clearly outweigh the negatives.
After starting the season with 12 turnovers in their first three games, the Ticats have turned the ball over only three times in their last three games, including their first turnover-free contest in 22 games last weekend against the Lions.
On special teams they’ve gotten return touchdowns in consecutive games from two different players, as Quincy McDuffie’s touchdown against the Bombers was followed by Brandon Banks’ against the Lions – both explosive game-changing plays that nearly altered the outcome.
And most promising might be the team’s quarterback situation, which despite the absence of Zach Collaros appears brighter each week with the emergence of Dan LeFevour.
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“Dan’s decision-making is getting better, his anticipating is getting better, his throws,” said Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin, now in his second season with the team. “Not holding onto the ball as long because he’s going through his progressions faster, simply from a level of comfort, and understanding what’s in front of him defensively and how to execute what we’re asking him to execute.”
LeFevour threw for 298 yards and rushed for another 103 of his own against the Lions to eclipse the Ticats’ total offensive production (taking into account losses), but more than that he was comfortable and in command against a defence that’s given most quarterbacks headaches this season.
“One thing that a quarterback has to have is the ability to make decisions, and I think that’s improving with Dan week in and week out,” Austin added.
Giguere is one player on offence benefitting from LeFevour’s success, coming off a career-high 130 receiving yards against BC on just three catches. He now has 248 yards in six games and is 301 off his career-best of 549 in 2012.
“It was a good last week and I was able to recognize coverage properly, a lot of stuff we do on offence is option routes so we run different routes depending on what the defence gives us,” Giguere said. “So for Dan and I to see the same thing and to execute correctly is necessary.”
While Giguere tries to build on his success and the offence continues to build chemistry with LeFevour under centre, a new face could enter the fold on Saturday as C.J. Gable’s status remains in the air. Mossis Madu would make his first career start if Gable is unable to go, after catching three passes for 48 yards against the Lions last weekend.
Austin is confident Madu can fill in just fine.
“Moses is a skilled football player,” he said. “He’s got great feet and really good ball skills.”
“He’s a good blocker in the backfield and he comes from a great program in college, and we feel he’s a player who’s proficient in all three areas – the kind of tailback we like.”
While the Ticats try to figure out how to win close games, the Stampeders’ approach is a little simpler: win big.
Head Coach John Hufnagel’s team rebounded from its first loss of the season in fine fashion last weekend, with a 38-17 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS in which they jumped out to a 28-0 lead and never really looked back.
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Defence dominated as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Calgary Stampeders could only manage 17 points, however the Stampeders were on the winning end, 10-7 at McMahon Stadium Friday night.
“I thought we came out and looked good in the first half, we were definitely a lot better about hitting the intermediate routes and attacking some of their weaknesses,” quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell told Stampeders.com after throwing for 289 yards and three touchdowns in the win.
“But in the second half we’ve gotta finish, that’s something I definitely want to see out of myself first, then out of the rest of that offence is coming into that second half really strong and making sure we finish.”
As Mitchell pointed out they weren’t perfect in the second half, but when you have a 28-0 lead you don’t really need to be. That’s been the case for the Stamps almost all season, having outscored opponents 104-43 in the first half in 2014 – a trend that’s continued from 2013, when they held a 317-214 first-half scoring edge.
Last weekend’s barrage against Ottawa added to that, as star receiver Marquay McDaniel broke out with a nine-catch, 117-yard performance while Jeff Fuller kicked in with another 60 yards receiving on five catches. Both had touchdowns, as the Calgary offence looked more like the one that took the league by storm in the first two weeks of the season.
“I expected to have a big game and I wanted to get a touchdown, that was my main focus and I had a big game and a touchdown so that was big,” said McDaniel after the game. Most importantly, the sixth-year receiver added, Mitchell appeared to be back in the same groove that allowed him to win the first seven starts of his career.
“He looked comfortable to me, he looked like he was making reads quickly and getting the ball out of his hands,” McDaniel said. “Guys were spreading the ball around and we were consistent on offence, and he did a good job clicking with everybody and making plays.”
Fuller meanwhile was able to take advantage of his size in one-on-one coverage, bumping his yards total for the season to a career-high 307 to go with his fourth touchdown grab of 2014.
“When someone plays you man across the board you kind of take it as a personal challenge, so that’s what we did and I’m glad we came out on top,” Fuller said.
What’s most impressive about the Stamps’ start to the season is the fact that they’ve continued to win games despite a revolving door at running back. Hugh Charles is set to become the sixth featured runner in the team’s offensive backfield as a result of injuries, as he’ll play for his third team in this young season after previously suiting up for the Eskimos and Roughriders.
“He’s an experienced running back who’s had success in the league – a very good, explosive runner; he’s good catching the football and does a good job with pass protection,” Hufnagel said. “He’s been here a couple of weeks and he’s comfortable with the system, so I’m pleased that we have him available to help us win the game.”
The running back situation this year and the quarterback situation last year both epitomize what it is that’s made the Stampeders so successful over the past decade, as they’ve proven capable of adapting to whatever’s thrown their way.
Calgary’s 5-1 start this year marks 10 straight seasons starting at least .500 through six games, something no other team has currently managed for longer than three seasons. On Saturday they’ll look to build on that on the road, as they look to keep pace in the competitive West Division with a win against a hungry Ticats team.
Kickoff is at 3:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from Ticats.ca/Stampeders.com