MONTREAL -- Week 17 comes to a close with a marquee matchup on Sunday afternoon, as the red-hot Hamilton Tiger-Cats visit Percival Molson Stadium for a date with the Montreal Alouettes.
The Ticats can clinch a home playoff game and also move closer to first place in the East Division with a win, after making a bold statement with back to back wins over the division-leading Toronto Argonauts.
Late in Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin's first season with Hamilton, the Ticats are peaking at the right time and have a chance to prove with these next two games that they're a serious contender for the Grey Cup.
The Als, who lost to the Bombers at home last weekend to fall four points out of second place in the East, aren't as clear with their direction.
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Caught in a precarious position of needing to win now but also prepare for a future without future Hall of Fame quarterback Anthony Calvillo, they've switched starters ahead of this weekend with hopes of sparking a struggling offence.
Former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL draft pick Troy Smith is set to make his long-anticipated debut, becoming the fourth different quarterback to start a game for the team this year and the eighth different quarterback in the league to make his first career start.
Head Coach and General Manager Jim Popp hopes that the injection of Smith into the lineup can help his offence score more points.
"At the end of the day it's about winning games, it's about producing more points than we're producing," Popp told MontrealAlouettes.com. "The week before we had a big day, and then the weeks prior we won 17-12, we won 20-9."
"Most of the time your defence isn't going to hold people down that long," he continued. "We need to score points. We need to find a way to score points now and that takes everybody to be on the same page."
An early-season concussion to Calvillo has kept him out through the rest of the season, and earlier this week Popp announced that the veteran pivot has been dealt a setback and will not return in 2013. That's not the news anyone wanted to hear, but for the Alouettes it means they'll continue moving forward exactly as they have since he was hurt.
"We have to go with the guys we have," said Popp. "It's been an open competition, there's nothing set in stone."
The search for the quarterback of the future has been quite a tumultuous one, with a number of highs and lows. Josh Neiswander had the first crack, but in his first career start was pulled after just one quarter of play.
The mobile Tanner Marsh took over from there, dazzling fans with an improbable last-drive comeback win over the BC Lions. Marsh also went into Toronto and beat the division-leading Argonauts, but his audition came to an end early when he was forced out of the lineup with an injury.
Neiswander earned another stretch of playing time and made leaps and bounds since his first stint, but still has struggled to score consistent points.
Now the Als turn to Smith, who first arrived at the start of the season with much fanfare given his prolific career in the NCAA and his big-play potential; although while fans fall in love with his big arm, body strength, and ability to run with the ball, Smith said his job is to make sure the ball gets to the other playmakers in the offence.
"I appreciate it, but having a big arm means nothing if you can't put the ball in the right place," said Smith when asked about his arm strength. "My receivers and my offensive line are doing a tremendous job of helping me out with everything thus far, and hopefully I can just be compatible for those guys on Sunday."
The 29-year-old, who spent time with the Baltimore Ravens among other NFL teams after being drafted in the fifth round in 2007, has every reason to get caught up in the mood of Sunday's game, as he's about to get his chance to lead the Als out of a funk and into the playoffs with momentum.
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But ahead of his first career start he appears composed and ready for whatever comes his way.
"I don't feel any pressure," said Smith. "I've said it before, I think throughout your preparation, that's your salvation. That's the only thing that'll save you through the course of the game."
"I do feel good," he continued. "It's been a long time coming, but honestly the preparation has not stopped. This is a very tough opponent coming up so we have to prepare like there's no tomorrow."
Also making his first career start will be Tyrell Sutton, who's in at tailback after showing his explosiveness in back-to-back games. Against Edmonton and Winnipeg he rushed for a combined 98 yards on just 14 touches and scored in each game, and Popp said he's excited about what the first-year back can bring to the offence.
"He's kind of a combo between Whitaker and Messam, he's kind of the in between," said Popp." He's got tremendous power, strength, cut-back ability, hits it really, really quick, and is one of the best special teams players on our team right now."
Changes at both quarterback and running back show that Popp is hoping for a much different-looking offence this week, after it's ranked near the bottom of the league in virtually every offensive category this season, including third-last in points scored and second-worst in first downs and yards.
"I want to find out what we have these last three games so we're the best we can be when we hit the playoffs, that's what I want to do," said Popp. "We're going to fine-tune this thing and be at our best come playoff time."
The Ticats under newly-hired Austin have spent all of this season doing the same thing, and despite injuries being one of the major themes they appear to be playing their best football as the playoffs draw near.
They recently won consecutive games for the first time this season, outscoring the Argos 57-37 to sweep a pivotal home-and-home set. Since then the focus has moved from securing a home playoff date to catching the first-place Argos at the top of the division, who they trail by just two points.
While they've had one of the league's most explosive offences this season, which is nothing new dating back to that unit's dominance last season, what's made the biggest difference for the Ticats in their recent surge is the play of their defence.
Two weeks ago they stifled a red-hot Zach Collaros in the Rogers Centre, while last weekend they enjoyed their most impressive game of the season in holding the Argos to just 18 points in Ricky Ray's return, while also forcing the veteran quarterback's first interception of the season.
|The last time they met|
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Hamilton 28, Montreal 26
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats improved their record in Moncton to 2-0 as they topped the Montreal Alouettes 28-26 at Moncton Stadium.
Former Argonaut Evan McCullough has been one of the few constants in the secondary, and said players are starting to become more comfortable in the defence, both in terms of the scheme and who they're playing with.
"It's important to know the tendencies of someone playing next to you," the defensive back told Ticats.ca. "You may think somebody's going to be in a certain spot, but he's not because you're used to playing with somebody else."
"It's good to have that connection with the guys you're playing with."
A number of questions surrounded the defence at the start of the year, when the team stumbled out of the gate to a 1-4 start, which included a 37-0 loss in Regina to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Since then though the defence has seemingly improved every week as the team begins to play it's best possible football just before the playoffs.
It's a scenario that should seem familiar to McCullough given that it pretty well describes how Toronto's storybook season went in 2012.
"Well I don't really want to jinx myself," he said with a smirk. "But it's definitely gone through my head that we're similar."
McCullough has taken his experience from that winning Toronto team to a young secondary, which is learning each day under defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer.
"Me being one of the veterans I'm trying to help [the rookies] out with where to line-up, and to help them get confidence," McCullough continued. "Everybody that's in the secondary has been doing a great job, like Coach says we're just trying to get better."
The Ticats will put their improving to the test again this weekend as they go against the unknown in Smith, who Austin said his team will have to prepare for differently than other quarterbacks.
"He certainly has those qualities," said Austin. "He's a big strong kid, throws the ball well, big arm, can run, get out of trouble, break tackles ñ he's a good athlete."
"We're preparing a little bit differently for him, but at the end of the day we have to prepare for what we see over the course of several games with what they're doing offensively but he brings some other things to the table as well."
Kickoff is at 1:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from MontrealAlouettes.com/Ticats.ca