Photo: The Canadian Press
In a shortened CFL season it’s reasonable to expect some chaos. Less games means each one means more. Combine that with the schedule being pushed further back in your calendar than normal and it takes some adjustment as a fan.
Your ‘sports brain,’ ‘body clock’ or any other idiom you use to describe how your CFL fandom rhythm interacts with the games we all love is likely trying to figure out how to absorb a December Grey Cup in a season without playoffs starting until after we usually crown a champion!
It all feels so different this year, even if the tweaks are only a week or two here or there. For all the adaptation required in this wonky season, the Argos and Ticats are doing their best this Friday to make you feel as normal as can be by delivering what will look, feel and play out like playoff football, right on time.
Hamilton and Toronto have much to play for this Friday at BMO Field. A win or tie by the Argos clinches first place in the East, the always sought after bye week and a home playoff date Dec. 5 in the Eastern Final. A Hamilton win of course denies Toronto that in Week 15 and would give Hamilton a shot in the final weekend of the season to steal the East and be two home games away from a Grey Cup championship for the first time in over 20 years.
The value of home field for these two can’t be undervalued. Toronto is undefeated at home after escaping the BC Lions in overtime Week 13, while Hamilton has beaten Toronto in every game but two at Tim Hortons Field since the building opened in 2014.
So what will decide this all important regular season/playoff hybrid of a game?
Put bluntly, who knows?! One of the many beautiful things about the CFL is that even in a nine-team league with divisional teams playing each other multiple times, each game takes its own unique shape and storyline. One look at the score differential of the three Ticats-Argos games this season drove that home.
Hamilton controlled Labour Day, Toronto the rematch and the third was mostly Hamilton until the closing stages. Well, that’s the simplified version of events. In reality there was a missed extra point in Week 6 that denied Hamilton a chance to keep fighting for the all-important road win, despite losing QB Dane Evans to injury.
The previous game saw Nick Arbuckle barely miss a couple deep shots that would have changed the game, before McLeod Bethel-Thompson relieved Arbuckle and eventually accelerated his trade to Edmonton. The third and most recent matchup on Thanksgiving Monday had an entirely different feel, as Jeremiah Masoli took his first snaps against the Double Blue in 2021.
These are two teams that have experienced a plethora of ups and downs, roster changes and scheme alterations. Each game is unique, but the product is always entertaining and worth trying to understand.
So, what can we learn from the first three meetings of the regular season?
The backfield arms, not legs will dominate the day. Despite having deep — when healthy — and talented backfields, the rush defence for both teams is above average. As a result, the top rushing performance of the season head-to-head was John White for Toronto at just 84 yards.
We should also recognize the greatness of Hamilton’s defence at setting the tone in each half. While Winnipeg has set the standard for fourth quarter defence at a level we’ll likely never see again, Hamilton has denied Toronto ANY points in the first or third quarters this season in three games, although I’m sure they’d love to clean up the whopping 43 points allowed in the final frame.
Thirteen Toronto receivers have made a catch against Hamilton this year, while 10 Hamilton pass catchers have hit the box score in the same three matchups.
The standout for Hamilton is Jaelon Acklin with 23 targets and an efficient 16 catches, while Brandon Banks has only six targets against Toronto in 2021, all from Labour Day before suffering a rib injury.
DaVaris Daniels also has 23 targets for the Argos, albeit with a more varied depth of target and lower success rate, while emerging star Kurleigh Gittens Jr. trails closely behind with 21 targets.
Much of the difference between top targets can be explained by the differing approaches of these two offences. Toronto is first down pass heavy with a higher completion percentage but on second down they throw less, and less efficiently than Hamilton. The Ticats give up too many sacks, but have essentially eliminated interceptions from their 2021 to do list while throwing more vertically on any down with Evans and Masoli combined compared to McBeth and Arbuckle.
As for personnel groupings, the two teams are relatively similar in their base packages with one large difference: Fullback usage. Hamilton leads the CFL with a fullback — namely Nikola Kalinic — involved in 47 per cent of offensive snaps so far in 2021. Toronto trails well behind, primarily bringing Declan Cross or Dion Pellerin in for short yardage packages.
This matchup is a potential Eastern Final preview, one that links Bethel-Thompson and Masoli — longtime friends and familiar foes — once again. Here’s a look at each of their performances against the others’ defence this season, with Masoli limited to Week 10 reps and McBeth getting some relief duty on Labour Day to go with the Thanksgiving stunner.
Thanks to a torn ACL, the COVID-cancelled 2020 season and a few missed games, Masoli hasn’t beaten the Argos since June 22, 2019! That day he was 23-31 (74.2 per cent) for 338 yards, three touchdowns and one interception as Hamilton romped 64-14 at BMO Field.
If Masoli can harness anything close to that, Hamilton could be one step closer to an East Division crown but make no mistake; Toronto holds all the cards as we close out the 2021 regular-season with a playoff-like showdown.