TORONTO — The Battle of Ontario commences for the fourth and final time this season on Thursday night, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats put their season on the line against the Argonauts at the Rogers Centre.
The Ticats enter the final week of the 2012 season looking to keep their playoff hopes alive, meaning tonight’s matchup is a must-win game.
A win tonight, combined with an Edmonton loss on Friday would secure Hamilton’s spot in the post-season dance. Should the Ticats earn their way into the 100th Grey Cup Playoffs, they will return to Toronto to take on the Boatmen in the Eastern Semi-Final on Nov. 11.
Ticats QB Henry Burris is relishing the opportunity the Black and Gold are presented with.
“Toronto is a team that beat us the last two games and just like Winnipeg it’s a team that we’ve been hoping to play again,” said Burris, in his first year with the Ticats after spending seven years in Calgary.
“Here’s our opportunity.”
You wouldn’t expect the Ticats to need any extra motivation heading into their second-straight elimination game, but looking back on their season series with the Argos so far, the team might just have a little more to fuel their competitive fire.
Through three games, not including a pre-season meeting back in June, the Argos hold a slight 2-1 edge in the season series. But one of those games was in the final Labour Day Classic at Ivor Wynne Stadium, when the Argos fought back from a second-half deficit to win the contest on a last-minute field goal.
“If we want to get into the playoffs, we’ve got to beat the team that right now has the season series against us. Hopefully we can go in there and do the things that it takes to get this victory,” Burris said.
“This is a team we want to play, one that’s our rival and a very good team. So we’ll be up to the challenge.”
The Ticats kept their playoff hopes alive and well last weekend, on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon that marked the final game at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
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Burris threw an early touchdown pass to Chris Williams, while Greg Peach scored a defensive touchdown on a fumble to pace the Tabbies to a 28-18 win, effectively knocking the Bombers out of the playoff hunt thanks to a strong defensive performance.
A remaining chance to host a home playoff game quickly dissolved though, as the Argos clinched second in the division just hours later with a road win over the Roughriders.
But while the Ticats realize need some help in the prairies, they know they can only focus on their own task at hand on Thursday night.
“If there’s one favour that they can do for me and my teammates, it’s definitely taking care of business up in Edmonton,” said Burris of his former team. “One thing about the Stamps is that I know that Coach Hufnagel always makes sure that they go in with a winning attitude regardless of the situation in the game.”
“But it means nothing if we don’t handle business on Thursday against Toronto,” he continued. “That’s the only thing on our minds, because if we’re going to have any opportunity to get in, it’s going to have to start with a victory on Thursday.”
One thing the Ticats can take comfort in heading into Thursday’s game is that they’ll know the weather conditions well ahead of time.
For much of the season, especially the last two weeks, Burris and co. have had no shortage of experience dealing with the elements, playing through a blizzard in Calgary two weeks ago and a monsoon back at home last week.
This week George Cortez had the team practising indoors for the first time this season, knowing that the Ticats won’t play another game outdoors this season, even if they do make it to the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto.
While Burris showed no ill effects due to the weather in the last two weeks, getting out of the cold is still music to the quarterback’s ears.
|The last time they met|
Chad Kackert had 239 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, as the Argos surged to a 45-31 win over the Ticats to sweep the Labour Day series at the Rogers Centre. Ricky Ray threw for 331 yards on 26-32 passing in the win, while an interception return for a touchdown by Patrick Watkins gave the Argos a first-half lead that they never looked back on. Henry Burris had a strong second half for the Ticats, finishing the game with three touchdowns and 272 yards passing for the Black and Gold. Avon Cobourne, meanwhile, had 119 yards on 13 carries.
“Domes are always really good places to play,” he said. “You never have to worry about any other factors than the 12 guys on the opposite side of the ball. You can just focus on executing. You don’t have to worry about Mother Nature playing a part, even though I feel like we’ve played well dealing with the circumstances.”
“But now that’s one more obstacle that we don’t have to worry about. All we have to do is go out there and line up and play football.”
Another thing going Hamilton’s way heading into this final affair is the fact that Ricky Ray won’t be lining up under centre in Double Blue.
While most of Toronto’s lineup remains a question mark heading in, the team did announce on Tuesday that Ray would sit the season finale out, as he rests up and tries to get closer to being 100 per cent healthy before the East Division Semi-Final on Nov. 11.
Jarious Jackson, Trevor Harris, and Zach Collaros will all get playing time at quarterback for the Argos, and while the former has no shortage of CFL experience, no Ray is good news for the Ticats.
The 33-year-old pivot, coming fresh off his first weekly offensive honour as an Argo, has eight touchdown passes and just one interception over his last two starts since returning from a knee injury, as the Boatmen appear to be hitting their groove on offence.
With a playoff game wrapped up, relative good health, and a surging offence, rookie head coach Scott Milanovich appears to have everything he needs heading into the regular season finale with the Ticats.
Most importantly, though, Ray finally looks comfortable in Milanovich’s complicated offensive scheme.
“We hadn’t played well the last couple months,” Ray told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We were just letting opportunities slip out of our hands, and it was nice to come [to Regina] and take advantage of this opportunity where we win, we get [into the playoffs].”
Ray, nevertheless, still looked strange wearing Toronto double blue after 12 games this season.
The quarterback was the most accurate passer in the league then at 68.3 per cent, but the sense of calm and reliability that defined the 33-year-old’s nine seasons in Edmonton just wasn’t the same as usual. Milanovich tried in vain to explain away the Argos’ red-zone troubles (a league-worst 11 touchdowns) and dearth of passing touchdowns (12, sixth in the league).
Milanovich said during training camp he was not sure how long it would take his quarterback to adjust to a passing game that required Ray to shorten the field and patiently work through his progressions. Ray was sometimes visibly frustrated after losses.
“I have to do a better job of getting Ricky prepared,” was Milanovich’s frequent explanation.
But with some time to watch following a knee injury in Montreal back in Week 13, Ray seized the opportunity to get a better grasp of the offence.
An obvious sign Ray and Toronto’s offence has greatly improved is the Argos’ newfound perfect execution near the end zone. Ray has thrown six touchdowns on six trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line in the last eight quarters.
“For more than just myself, for us as a unit to get this win [in Saskatchewan] and to be in the playoffs it’s going to boost our confidence,” Ray told reporters.
A well-rested Ray heading into the playoffs is ideal for the Argos, which means on Thursday, it’ll be up to some of the backups to take care of their hated rivals.
Despite missing Ray and possibly some other starters, don’t expect the Argos to lie down – especially when there’s a chance to eliminated the Ticats in front of their home fans.
Kickoff is at 7:30 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 Postmedia