HAMILTON -- The Hamilton Tiger-Cats look to add to their momentum swing on Thursday night, as they host the surging Winnipeg Blue Bombers at McMaster’s Ron Joyce Stadium to kick off Week 6 action.
Before a slump-busting 33-23 win in their home opener over the Ottawa REDBLACKS last weekend, Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin identified the matchup in his pre-game address as the true starting point of the season.
Without several key members on both sides of the ball and also without a single win, it felt like a now or never moment for the Ticats. After beginning the season winless and facing former teammates in Henry Burris and Chevon Walker among others, it felt a must-win game.
In the end, that’s exactly how Austin’s Ticats went out and played and, according to Austin, the Ticats character prevailed.
“We have a bunch of guys that really care,” Austin told Ticats.ca. “We have a good locker-room, we’ve always had that.”
“They play hard, they play to win and we made the plays we needed to make to win the football game.”
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The talk of the town this week is a young quarterback who put an injury-riddled team on his shoulders and guided them to victory, out-dueling one of the most prolific passers of all-time on the way to his team’s first win.
His name isn’t Zach Collaros, the quarterback of the future the Ticats added in the off-season to replace Burris, but instead Dan LeFevour. This season hasn’t in any way started out as planned for the Ticats, both in terms of injuries and the win-loss column, but the 27-year-old’s emergence is a perfect example of what it is Austin preaches on a daily basis.
“It is what it is, we don’t focus on injuries at all,” Austin said. “The guys know that the next one up needs to play at a high level and play at a level that allows us to win football games and compete.”
“Your level of preparation should always be the same regardless of whether you’re a starter or not, because your number is going to get called,” he continued. “You need to honour the job that you have and honour your organization and teammates and coaches and prepare really, really hard to be in the game because your time could arrive.”
The Ticats never made any excuses last season, in a year they were forced to play all of their games in Guelph while also dealing with a myriad of injuries and, much like this season, a slow start. They parlayed that into an appearance in the Grey Cup Championship in Regina.
This year they’ve endured a similar start and some similar pitfalls, going on the road for their first three games and also having to play at McMaster University as construction of their brand new home stadium in Hamilton awaits completion.
If you watched last weekend though, you couldn’t have guessed any of what was going on in the background. Running back C.J. Gable had 105 receiving yards and another 62 rushing yards on six carries, while the defence made a number of timely stops as the Ticats moved into a tie with every other team in the East Division and essentially did mark a brand new start to their season.
Most impressive though, was the play of the young LeFevour, who joined a stable of young quarterbacks across the CFL to shine this season with 361 passing yards and a touchdown on 21-30 passing. He noted after the game his ability to bounce back from some early-game jitters, and in the end that seemingly embodied his own team’s resilience.
“We scored, Ottawa would come back and score – a little bit back and forth and when they took the lead we were still confident and we managed to come out and get points and finish the game the right way, and that’s important,” said LeFevour, who earned Offensive Player of the Week honours.
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“We were clicking as an offence as a whole,” he continued. “Without the offensive line doing their job, I don’t have a chance. We had 12 guys clicking on a lot of plays and that’s why things are going the way they are right now.”
Austin said he never doubted LeFevour could be successful, with a work ethic second to none and the composure of a seasoned veteran. Even when the first-time starter was anxious early and rushing through his reads, pulling the ball and taking off too early, Austin said the quarterback was able to diagnose the issue himself.
“He knew it,” Austin said. “He already knew it, he’s his biggest critic and I looked at him and I was getting ready to tell him, and he already stopped me and said ‘I know, I’m hurrying too much’.”
“I said ‘that’s right, just calm down and let the game come to you and you’ll be fine’.”
The Bombers are another team that was forced to overcome some early-season challenges, and they did so in a big way having already eclipsed last year’s win total just five weeks into the season. Expectations were tempered coming into the year as a rookie head coach and a first-time starting quarterback were being asked to shoulder a team coming off a three-win season.
But Mike O’Shea and Drew Willy responded admirably, and with the Bombers just a game out of first in the division they’re not about to let a short turnaround and a long trip to Hamilton stand in the way of what's so far been a successful bounce back season.
The Blue and Gold reversed the tables last weekend following a one-sided 26-3 loss at home to the Edmonton Eskimos in Week 4, traveling to BC and earning a 23-6 win over the Lions. In one of the most difficult places to play they held BC out of the end zone and kept Kevin Glenn off the field, all while cementing their status as a true contender.
Another litmus test awaits with a trip East to take on the Ticats, who the Bombers know can’t be taken lightly despite their record.
“I really don’t think Hamilton is a one-win team,” O’Shea told BlueBombers.com. “They had a ball slip off the tee on a field goal that would’ve tied Calgary in a low-scoring game; they had a chance to score late in the game in Edmonton.”
“I don’t look at their record and think they’re a one-win team, they’re better than that – a lot better than that. They’ll be well-prepared.”
The Bombers found themselves in a defensive duel in BC last weekend, leading 9-6 at halftime on the strength of three field goals from Lirim Hajrullahu and a perfect performance by the defence. In the second half they scored on a hitch pass to Clarence Denmark, who burst through a gaping seam to give the Bombers the game’s only touchdown and a two-score lead.
Denmark finished with 66 yards on four catches and a touchdown, and this weekend he’ll have to shoulder even more of the load as Nick Moore won’t play due to a foot injury. The Bombers aren’t fretting however, as former Ticat Aaron Kelly returns to the lineup to face his former team after also being forced out of action with an injury.
“Obviously Aaron has been a big part of our success early on, so it’s nice to get him back out there,” quarterback Drew Willy told the team’s official website. “His vertical routes are something we like to take advantage of so he’s done a good job getting back into it and he’s gonna be great for us.”
Kelly had nine catches and 172 yards along with two touchdowns before being injured, and most of all he provided a dynamic red zone threat thanks to his athleticism and towering six-foot-four frame. He’s excited to get back to helping out his offence and also getting a shot against his old team.
“I had two weeks to get healthy and get back right, but I definitely didn’t want to miss this game, a chance to go back to Hamilton and play,” Kelly said.
Needing a win to keep pace in the highly-competitive West Division, the Bombers will look to carry forward their momentum from last week’s triumph and earn their first win over the Ticats in six tries, after their last win over the Ticats came in 2011.
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from Ticats.ca/BlueBombers.com