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August 10, 2017

Ferguson: The game within the game

CFL.ca

CFL football.

It’s awesome if you truly love the game. And when it’s awesome, it is REALLY AWESOME.

I was reminded of this while in Edmonton last Friday broadcasting the Tiger-Cats and Eskimos game. The Eskimos would go on to win in a back and forth entertaining battle which came right down to the last play as many games have this year.

I thought the majority of the game was great theatre, but one particular sequence stood out and explains why I enjoy covering this game so much. Not because it was the Tiger-Cats or the fact that I cover the team on a day-to-day basis. Rather the high-stakes poker game that unfolded and could appear at any level of the game.

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The Ticats’ Week 7 loss didn’t come without a coaching shakeup as Jeff Reinebold is out in Hamilton (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

With 10:44 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Ticats trailing 33-21 after giving up a touchdown, Zach Collaros and the Tiger-Cats offence took the field.

An incompletion on first down followed by a good throw to Mike Jones and a great catch by Brian Tyms got the Ticats across midfield. A third straight completed pass from Collaros was followed by a near interception when Kenny Ladler – more about him later – tipped a slant pass intended for Luke Tasker high in the air.

Here is where the game turned from checkers to chess.

On second down and 10 with the Edmonton crowd going wild and eight minutes left in the game, Collaros took the snap with an empty back field and six receivers.

He took off running like it was 2014 – his best statistical rushing season in the CFL with 57 carries for 328 yards and two touchdowns – in hopes of making a game changing play.

It looked like a quarterback draw called from the sideline but all six receivers ran pass routes at a tempo which seemed to indicate they were trying to get open and the offensive line pass protected instead of a typical quarterback draw blocking scheme which would indicate a called run.

Zach took off on his own. The first running play for the Ticats in the second half, even if it wasn’t a called run.

The Hamilton quarterback, feeling the pressure of 10 straight losses as starting quarterback, called his own number 10 yards away from making it a one-score game.

Zach gained seven yards on that run before being tackled by Ladler – still more on him later – which left the Ticats with third down and three yards between them and the end zone. That ever-elusive end zone which the Ticats have desperately tried to visit with relatively low success in 2017.

Despite the loss, Zach Collaros enjoyed his best game of 2017 vs. the Esks (The Canadian Press)

Here is where the game turned from chess to a board game your sister bought you on her trip abroad that has foreign language instructions.

On third and three as the crowd noise grew trailing by twelve points with seven minutes left in the game, Ticats head coach Kent Austin sent in his big team. Backup guard Landon Rice came in which moves starting right guard Ryan Bomben out to tight end while fullback Carl-Olivier Prime got a rare offensive snap — or so he thought.

Edmonton didn’t like its matchups against Hamilton’s heavy set so Eskimos head coach Jason Maas and defensive coordinator Mike Benevides called time out.

Collaros punched the air in a manner of frustration only a quarterback who knew he had an upper hand for once could.

The Eskimos removed linebacker Kevin Jackson and sent in an extra defensive lineman to deal with Hamilton’s heavy set. That was great, until the Tiger-Cats, with Collaros all the way over at the sideline yelling at Kent Austin for direction, pulled extra offensive lineman Landon Rice and fullback Carl-Olivier Prime in favour of receivers Brian Tyms and Jalen Saunders.

This meant that as the play was about to be whistled in, the Eskimos went into a fire drill of removing defensive lineman and linebackers in favour of defensive backs to match the Tiger-Cats’ personnel.

CFL on TSN play-by-play ace Chris Cuthbert accurately described the pre-play posturing as “rush hour”.

While all of this was happening, Collaros ran to the huddle staring at his wrist coach play sheet and broke the huddle with fourteen seconds on the play clock. The Tiger-Cats simulated the snap with their receivers moving towards the line in hopes of seeing the Eskimos defence show its hand.

They did and Austin didn’t like it, or so it seemed.

Despite a never-ending injury list, Jason Maas has coached the Eskimos to a 6-0 record (The Canadian Press)

In the dance of matching personnel in hopes of creating a favourable matchup, second-year receiver Mike Jones hadn’t got the memo and left the Tiger-Cats with eleven men on the field. Full credit to Luke Tasker who was the first to realize, waving his arms at the bench right after breaking the huddle.

Austin saw Tasker and down the sideline the Ticats head coach ran like it was 1988 – his best statistical rushing season in the CFL with 51 carries for 258 yards and two touchdowns – signalling timeout in hopes of saving this crucial moment from the negative outcome he foreshadowed a man short of the Eskimos.

With one second on the play clock, centre Mike Filer snapped the ball back to Collaros.

Whistles blew.

Austin had received his request to use the Tiger-Cats first time out. The second and final timeout would be used with two seconds left in the game, preventing the ability to challenge the final play of the game as teams must have a timeout in their possession to challenge a play.

Collaros spun around, confused as to why he STILL wasn’t allowed to play football only to see Jones sheepishly jog back onto the field.

For a third and final time, Collaros and the Hamilton offence broke the huddle with the intention of running a play still down by 12 and still three yards from the end zone.

As lead official Dave Foxcroft told Collaros to wait a moment while the game clock was properly set to 7:16, not 7:14 where it currently stood, the Ticats quarterback ran 15 yards to the wide side of the field to discuss the upcoming play with Tasker, Jalen Saunders and Mike Jones, fresh from the sideline.

The Eskimos avoided a late Ticats charge for a 33-28 win on Friday night in Edmonton (The Canadian Press)

In doing this, Collaros showed little care about the defence understanding his intentions and three likely targets, but it was a necessary evil brought on by the Commonwealth Stadium noise.

Left tackle Lamar Holmes smashed his fist into the side of his helmet and barked at the Eskimos defensive line as both trenches readied for the play.

A full three and a half minutes of real time since Collaros had taken off on his own and slid down after a rushing gain of seven yards, the ball was snapped.

With proper personnel present and the right number of players on the field, the ball came back to Collaros. The Eskimos blitzed six defenders and left six in coverage on the six potential Hamilton receivers.

Each defensive back on an island in man coverage. Collaros stuttered his feet as he set them, straightened his legs out, threw a perfect spiral into the end zone while falling away from the pressure and it was…

Intercepted.

Kenny Ladler. Who else would it be?

The man who picked off Collaros on the Ticats ‘final drive sending Edmonton to a crossover win in the Eastern Semi-Final last fall picked him off again.

Ladler, the same man who picked off Collaros in Hamilton just three weeks ago to end that closely contested game got him one more time.

That interception didn’t end the game this time, but it certainly took whatever wind was blowing into the Ticats sails away.

Four minutes, three substitution packages, two timeouts all climaxing in an interception in the end zone.

CFL football.