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December 6, 2021

O’Leary: Five Grey Cup storylines to follow

Peter Power/CFL.ca

Two full years after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers topped the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup, they get to do it again when they meet on Sunday at Tim Hortons Field.

The Ticats’ home field advantage will be an interesting wrinkle in their rematch with the Bombers. If you dig into Hamilton’s history, you’ll see some comforting trends. We’ll start with the sore spot: The last time the Ticats won the Grey Cup was in 1999. It was the Ticats’ second consecutive appearance in the game, after losing the 1998 Grey Cup to Calgary on a Mark McLoughlin field goal.

In ’99, the Ticats got their revenge, topping Calgary in a rematch, 32-21. The link between that 1999 team and the present is of course, then-safety and now head coach of the Ticats, Orlondo Steinauer.

That Stampeders team was better than them by a game (a 12-6 record against Hamilton’s 11-7), but they weren’t the giants that these Bombers are in 2021. These teams haven’t seen each other since the opening game of the 2021 season, a day that the Bombers owned in a 19-6 win. A lot has happened in the four months that have followed, including the Ticats’ impressive comeback win over the Argos in the Eastern Final.

As we head into the final (party-filled) week of the 2021 season, here are five storylines to keep an eye on as we wait for the 108th Grey Cup to kickoff.

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Dane Evans came off the bench in the Eastern Final and made all 16 of his passes to lead the Ticats back to the Grey Cup game (Peter Power/CFL.ca)

Who’s your starting QB?

It didn’t take long before Steinauer got the question on Sunday afternoon. His decision to pull Dane Evans off of the bench in relief of a slow-starting Jeremiah Masoli was gutsy and turned out to be the right call. Evans showed no signs of sideline rust and was a perfect 16-16 for 249 yards and a touchdown. It’s also worth mentioning that he had one incredible strip of an Argos-recovered fumble at the end of the first half that could have saved the game for them.

Steinauer didn’t give an answer on Sunday, asking for a day before he had to tackle that topic, but the assumption has to be that Evans gets the start on Sunday. Evans’ performance in Toronto and his status through this week will likely be the No. 1 topic leading into the game.

The Ticats’ o-line’s greatest test yet

The Bombers are a juggernaut this season and it starts with their defensive line. The Bombers had 39 sacks this year, good for third in the league, headliners of a defence that’s allowed a league-best 13.4 points per game.

The Ticats’ o-line has had its struggles this year, allowing 40 sacks (tied for eighth in the league). They gave up five in the Eastern Final against Toronto and will have to tighten up against the Bombers’ relentless attack, which had five sacks in the Western Final against the Riders. On the other side of the trench battle, the Bombers have allowed just 16 sacks this year, another league-best.

What’s Hamilton’s defence capable of?

When the points weren’t coming in the first half of the Eastern Final, it was the Ticats’ defence that arguably saved their season. The Argos got to Hamilton’s two- and three-yard line on separate first-half drives and settled for field goals in both instances. A 12-0 halftime deficit isn’t great, but when you consider that it could have been a 20-0 game had those short-yardage situations turned out differently, you can only thank your defence for its work.

Tunde Adeleke had two breakups in the end zone on Sunday and had he not run out of real estate in the end zone at BMO Field, would have had a game-sealing interception on McLeod Bethel-Thompson. If you haven’t yet seen d-lineman Ja’Gared Davis’ incredible work defending a would-be TD pass in the first half, go watch it now and watch it again for good measure. Then maybe watch it once more.

There’s rightfully been a lot of discussion about the Bombers’ defence this year. In the Eastern Final it looked like the Ticats’ defence took a big step forward at the right time.

Did we see the Bombers at their most vulnerable?

They had about a month to play through and wait through before they got to host the Western Final, so there was the possibility of rust. Their star tailback stepped into game action for the first time in seven weeks, with his durability and conditioning in question. Then the most poised and consistent team in the league had five first-half turnovers and ended up coughing up the ball six times overall.

They still won.

If you take a step back and look at it, the Bombers may not have been any more vulnerable this season, playing in biting temperatures with each turnover trying to chip into their confidence. Maybe it’s an indictment on the Riders’ inability to put them away (and on the Stamps’ inability to do the same to the Riders a week earlier), but as the great, legendary Bob Irving pointed out on Twitter after the game, escaping a situation like that can do a lot for your confidence.

The continued adventures of O’Sh and O

The former teammates, coaching colleagues and great friends off the field are turning into fierce rivals on it. One of the highlights of Grey Cup week in 2019 was watching Mike O’Shea and Orlondo Steinauer sit down for their coaches press conference in Calgary. It provided a glimpse of both coaches that we rarely get to see and shed a light into their relationship.

Two years later, with a cancelled season sandwiched in between and the limited contact we’ve all had with the people we normally saw on a regular basis, I can’t wait to see what their exchange is like on Wednesday in Hamilton.

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