Head to Head: Who has the edge in the Eastern Final?
HAMILTON — The last time Trevor Harris faced the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Harris set a playoff record with six touchdown passes to send the Ottawa REDBLACKS to the Grey Cup.
That was a year ago, and a lot has changed since then, as Harris switched teams while the Ticats set a franchise record in 2019 by compiling a 15-win season led by a dominant Orlondo Steinauer-coached defence.
On paper, the Ticats appear to be the heavy favourite to defeat the Eskimos and advance to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw. The Esks, after an 8-10 season, are chasing history, looking to become the first crossover team ever to appear in a championship.
Yet Sunday’s game brings some mystery, as the Ticats have yet to face the Eskimos with Harris at quarterback. Logan Kilgore started both games against Hamilton, while the Eskimos are coming off an impressive road win over the Alouettes in the Eastern Semi-Final.
On paper, this matchup could be much closer than it appears. CFL.ca breaks it down, position by position.
How efficient is Trevor Harris? The Eskimos’ starting quarterback set his own record in the Eastern Semi-Final, completing over 92 per cent of his passes for the highest single game efficiency in playoff history. Ticats’ quarterback Dane Evans caught fire the second half of the season, averaging 11 yards per attempt or better in four of his last seven starts. He’s been one of the stories to watch in 2019, but Harris has experience on his side, with three playoff starts plus one in the Grey Cup to his name.
It’s a battle of the veterans at running back, where Tyrell Sutton and C.J. Gable go head to head with nearly 9,000 career rushing yards between them. After running with purpose in his return to the lineup, the Eskimos’ Gable gets a shot at his former team in an Eastern Final. Sutton has been effective for the Ticats, averaging 5.8 yards per carry in four games, but the addition of Shaq Cooper as a speedy, change of pace should give the Eskimos an advantage if they can utilize both.
Earlier in the season the Eskimos might have had the edge here. Greg Ellingson leads a three-headed monster along with Ricky Collins and DaVaris Daniels, and the trio works perfectly in conjunction with Trevor Harris. Still, no pass-catcher in the CFL is more dangerous than Brandon Banks, who could have a Most Outstanding Player honour in his near future. Banks and Bralon Addison combined for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns, forming the league’s most productive receiving duo.
No quarterback gets rid of the ball quicker than Trevor Harris, but the Eskimos’ O-line still deserves credit for allowing a league-low 25 sacks. Towering offensive guard Matt O’Donnell anchors a physical group along with rookie tackle Kyle Saxelid and veteran Colin Kelly. On the other side, Hamilton’s O-line has paved the way for the CFL’s most productive offence. Chris Van Zeyl is a ratio-breaker, Mike Filer is a trusted veteran at centre and Ryker Mathews is virtually unbeatable on the left side. It’s close. Sack totals are the deciding factor here.
Sunday’s Eastern Final may feature two of the most dominant defensive lines in the CFL. For the Ticats, Dylan Wynn leads all interior linemen with 11 sacks this season, forming a duo with national Ted Laurent. Ja’Gared Davis was second in the league with 13 sacks, while Julian Howsare is also dangerous off the edge. The Eskimos — led by Mike Moore and Almondo Sewell in the middle — were able to contain Vernon Adams Jr. in the semi-final, making him uncomfortable in the pocket while forcing three interceptions.
Both of these teams are deep at the linebacker position, with the Eskimos’ Vontae Diggs and the Ticats’ Nick Shortill both listed as backups. The Esks’ tandem of Jovan Santos-Knox and Larry Dean bring plenty of experience, and Dean gets to face his former team in a return to Hamilton. But no linebacker has had a better season than Simoni Lawrence, who had a career-high 98 tackles, including a record-breaking 17 in one game vs. Winnipeg. Lawrence is the heart of the Ticats’ defence, while Justin Tuggle has also had a career year with 80 tackles.
Despite allowing 270 passing yards per game, the Ticats’ secondary was one of the CFL’s best in 2019, holding opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 79.9 — the lowest in the league. Orlondo Steinauer’s unit also allowed the fewest touchdown passes (17) and ranked third in interceptions (22). Led by Josh Johnson‘s three interceptions, the Eskimos’ secondary enjoyed a strong showing in the Eastern Semi-Final. They hope to have injured starters Forrest Hightower and Money Hunter back in the lineup on Sunday.
Not only have the Eskimos gone four years without scoring on kick returns, they were also burned by Alouettes return specialist Mario Alford on a 99-yard touchdown in the semi. The Ticats have two of the CFL’s more dynamic gamebreakers in the return game, with Frankie Williams handling most return duties but Brandon Banks also available. The Esks turned to Jamill Smith following a season-ending injury to Christion Jones, but the Ticats have a decisive edge in the return department.
Steady as always, Sean Whyte made all five attempts in the Eastern Semi-Final for the Eskimos. The veteran kicker has completed six straight seasons of 87 per cent efficiency or better, and is no stranger to pressure situations in the post-season. Lirim Hajrullahu has had a nice season for the Ticats, and the challenges of Tim Hortons Field are well documented. In the end, however, the Eskimos duo of Whyte and punter Hugh O’Neill give Edmonton a slight edge in the kicking game, though both teams are in good hands.