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The Ticats and the REDBLACKS.
It’s becoming a matchup Hamilton and Ottawa fans circle on the calendar annually. Some for the history, others for the high esteem which they hold the matchups quality, but to most in the East this matchup has become must see football simply because you don’t know who is going to separate one team from the other.
Despite Ottawa’s overall dominance, the games between Hamilton and Ottawa since 2015 have always felt close. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons the burgeoning rivalry was flamed by the fuel of Henry Burris’ feeling wronged in his steel town departure and Simoni Lawrence’ aggressive tackling which Smilin’ Hank was none too afraid to put on blast for all to hear.
In the last two years this game – be it regular season and now post-season – has been all about Hamilton’s frustration with not being able to get over the hump and finally win a Grey Cup for the first time since 1999, while an expansion franchise has made the CFL’s biggest show twice in three seasons while claiming the ultimate crown and recently as 2016.
As an analyst I love the Hamilton-Ottawa matchup because the personalities involved are always interesting and the football is always dynamic.
Ottawa has a high-powered passing attack based in accuracy and efficiency while Hamilton becomes more willing to take the deep shot each day. The Ticats offence prides itself in physicality and man coverage skills while Ottawa has followed suit since Noel Thorpe transitioned to Defensive Coordinator in the nation’s capital from Montreal.
The offensive and defensive matchup is about as much a guessing game as you can have going into a big game like Sunday’s Eastern Final.
So does a clear advantage exist in any aspect of the game and if so where on the field does Hamilton or Ottawa separate from their East Division opponent?
Ask around to anyone who follows the league – often even Hamiton fans – and they’ll tell you the kicking game appears to favour Ottawa.
REDBLACKS return man Diontae Spencer – a threat to change the game himself Sunday – knows why.
“Both of those guys they pay attention to the details in meetings and on the field they’re locked in,” Spencer said after practice on Thursday. “They always ask me questions about how the ball is spinning, how I like to catch the ball and what my perspective is as a returner. I always tell them what I don’t like and they try to use those small details to make life tough for who we play.”
For punter Richie Leone, the reason for Ottawa’s special teams excellence is simple, “we spend a lot of time here in Ottawa emphasizing special teams and at the end of the day you have an expectation of getting to the Grey Cup. We have to do our jobs at a high level to make that happen.”
Standout rookie kicker Lewis Ward has learned how to approach the game from Leone while taking down record after record but to Ward, like Leone, the approach to kicking is about the team not the individual.
“It’s been a great year,” said Ward. “Richie and I have done our part but our mindset is we have to do whatever it takes to help the team get where we want to be.”
Ward has had one of the best kicking seasons in the history of professional football. It feels crazy to write but that is NOT hyperbole, its the truth. Multiple times this year Ottawa has bludgeoned opponents to death via Ward’s right foot but it all began with a miss before Ward hit his next 51 consecutive kicks.
“I kick myself a bit for that miss at the start, I remember telling Richie after that miss to start the year that I wouldn’t miss another one, I wouldn’t let that happen again. We corrected the mistake and had a great year.”
For Ottawa special teams have to play a large role in a trip to the Grey Cup if they are to beat Hamilton for a fourth time this season. To beat a time three times takes a great level of skill, and maybe just a bit of luck in Ward’s own words.
“Maybe there’s a bit of luck involved too but that luck I like to believe comes from the work we put in every day.”