O’Leary: Ticats must move forward without their starter
Jeremiah Masoli took the snap, sized up the 22 yards in front of him and made one quick move.
So often in football, everything changes in one fraction of a second, one blink of an eye.
With one quick jab to his right, Masoli changed the game, getting the best defence in the league to bite on his fake. To his left, a sea of blue and gold parted and Masoli ran to the end zone.
Up 14-0 just near the 10-minute mark of the game, Masoli made a move to get away from the incoming D-line and everything changed again. This time it was on the wobble of his left knee, which led to the motor of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Grey Cup hopes falling in a heap to the turf at Tim Horton’s Field.
On Saturday afternoon, the Tiger-Cats confirmed what all Hamilton and CFL fans alike were fearing — Masoli was done for the year. Not unlike Zach Collaros back in 2015, the Ticats starter suffered a torn ACL at home when the Ticats looked to be in all but cruise control in the East Division.
Lost in the injury was a solid outing where they topped the league-leading Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer said after Friday night’s win that there was no further information on Masoli’s status — he’d be examined by doctors on Saturday. The team practises on Sunday, the start of a short week that sees them head to Saskatchewan to meet the Roughriders on Thursday.
And just like that, the harshest reality of the game reared its head. The starting job now shifts over to Dane Evans, who made 13 of 25 passes for 94 yards with one interception filling in for Masoli. In Masoli’s absence, the Ticats offence survived on a diet of field goals — Lirim Hajrullahu hit all three of his attempts — and the defence came up with a huge game, forcing Matt Nichols into three interceptions after he came into the game with just one on the season.
Special teams cancelled each other out, with both cover teams keeping the star returners — Hamilton’s Brandon Banks and Frankie Williams and Winnipeg’s Lucky Whitehead — under control and out of the end zone all night.
“Football’s always going to come down to execution,” Steinauer said, “but how are you going to handle all the other things that are thrown your way?
“When it happens to players that it’s happening to the first time, you just don’t know how they’re going to respond. So that’s where the veteran leadership steps up. I’m just proud of the guys. I think the bond got stronger and winning obviously helps, there’s no doubt.”
Evans, 25, came to the Ticats late in the 2017 season. He saw action in three games last year and got in late in Hamilton’s season-opening blowout win over Toronto. He said he’d been comfortable around the team for a long time and that for him, coming into the game felt like a smooth transition.
“It’s the most unique job in the world,” Evans said of the backup role.
“You never know when or if you’re going to play, but you’ve got to prepare every week like you’re gonna play every play. So you’ve got to be ready when your number’s called.”
Evans said that early in the night after he got onto the field with the offence, he looked at Ticats centre Mike Filer and told him that if he was doing anything wrong, to yell at him. He could take it.
“I’ve got thick skin,” Evans said. “He didn’t say anything to me, so I’m going to take that as I did OK.”
Filer laughed about the instruction and said that there was no need.
“In the huddle it wasn’t really much of a change for us,” he said.
“I think any time a player like Jeremiah goes down or something happens, there’s a bit of a regression, you’re trying to regroup mentally and physically. That’s one thing you can’t stop about this sport, it’s the next man up. It’s going to happen, you have to prepare for it to happen.
“Dane prepares like a starting quarterback. He did a good job tonight to come in and fill in and help us win this game.”
Evans was asked flat out in the post game if it came to it would he be ready to lead the team? He didn’t flinch.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” he said.
Steinauer said the thing that impressed him the most about Evans this season is that he’s been Masoli’s No.1 supporter.
“When he signed back here he knew the chances of him being the guy weren’t great. Full confidence in Dane. I think Tommy (Condell) deserves a lot of credit for the play calls.
“The team believes in Dane, but it’s tough to get reps in practice and he’s (still) always prepared. He’s professional, and time will tell because they’ll come after him now.”
The Ticats’ gutsy win was almost lost in the long-term implications of Masoli’s injury. Either way, the Ticats improved to 5-1 and took down the only undefeated squad in the league. If their previous wins were going to be questioned — they’d beaten Saskatchewan, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary — there’s no shortchanging the three-phase effort they put in to do what no other team in the league had been able to do yet.
“There’s something special in this room that I haven’t really seen in the eight years that I’ve played here,” Filer said, having played his 100th career game.
“We were able to overcome things and just keep working as a team. I’m just so happy to be a part of this great team.”