3 storylines to watch in the Eastern Semi-Final
HAMILTON — The Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes begin preparing for their Eastern Semi-Final meeting on Sunday having turned their respective seasons around.
The Alouettes went through a turbulent start to their season, posting a 2-6 record that saw then-starting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. benched for Trevor Harris and later saw then-head coach Khari Jones and defensive coordinator Barron Miles replaced by Danny Maciocia and Noel Thorpe, respectively. The Als went 7-3 in their final 10 games, securing a home playoff date for the third consecutive season.
On Labour Day, an injured Tiger-Cats team took a resounding loss to the Toronto Argonauts and fell to 3-9. The two-time reigning East Division champs looked to be a shell of themselves through their first 12 games. They were a group riddled by late-game mistakes and letdowns, despite having many of the key pieces of the group that had appeared in consecutive Grey Cup games back on the field for another season.
Then, finally, the breakthrough that many were waiting for with this team came. With a healthy Dane Evans back in the lineup, the Ticats hosted and housed the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Week 15, handing them a resounding 48-31 loss. Counting that game, the Ticats won five of their final six, fought off a crossover attempt from the Saskatchewan Roughriders and enter the post-season on a season-high four-game win streak.
These teams met three times in the regular season, with the Alouettes winning twice. Montreal was also the only team to beat Hamilton in the final third of the season. Here are three storylines to follow as the Als get set to host the Tiger-Cats with their seasons on the line on Sunday.
HARRIS VS. EVANS
The question that fans of both teams might be asking this week is which version of their starting quarterback will show up on Sunday?
Last year, we saw Evans step in for Jeremiah Masoli in the Eastern Final and deliver a near flawless performance that propelled his team to the Grey Cup game. He looked like that quarterback in a career-best performance against the Bombers in Week 15, but in the many weeks before that, it wasn’t the same story. Evans’ biggest issue has been hanging on to the ball. Teams have been able to strip it out of his hands, knock it away from him or intercept him, making game-changing plays. To Evans’ credit, he’s cleaned up his game. After a season-worst three-INT showing against Toronto in Week 12, he’s only thrown three picks in his last seven games.
Harris, meanwhile, has put together a very steady 2022 campaign. He finished third in passing yards (4,157) and threw 20 touchdowns to 12 interceptions through 16 games. Harris has had his share of big playoff moments — he led the Ottawa REDBLACKS to a Grey Cup appearance in 2018 — but has been stumped on the playoff stage as well. In last year’s Eastern Semi-Final, he ran into a stout Ticats defence that forced a total of five turnovers off of his team in a tough 23-12 loss. Harris was 28-of-44 for 364 yards with a touchdown in that game, but also threw an interception and lost three fumbles along the way.
Both Evans and Harris have shown that they can be play-making quarterbacks that thrive on that big stage. The one that likely takes better care of the ball on Sunday should be on their way to the Eastern Final in Toronto next week.
SMALL ONLY IN NAME
The Tiger-Cats likely wouldn’t be prepping for this week’s game were it not for the contributions of rookie kicker Seth Small. The Texas A&M alum has been automatic for the Ticats this season, coming into the mix for the team in Week 6 and raising his game through the final month when his team needed points and wins to secure their playoff spot.
In must-win games against Saskatchewan and Calgary, Small was a combined 8-8 on field goals. He was 5-6 in his team’s Week 20, playoff-clinching win over Ottawa and has gone 21-22 through the last six games. His 90.7 per cent accuracy is second in the league behind BC Lions’ kicker Sean Whyte and his 58-yarder against Toronto in Week 12 stands as the league’s longest field goal this year. Oh, and he added a 57-yarder against Calgary in Week 19.
The Ticats should feel fully confident in their kicker this week, in what could turn out to be a defensive battle.
SPOILER: THEY’LL LOOK TO GENO
A look at the Alouettes’ team stats tells you everything you need to know about their offence: Eugene Lewis is the key. The receiver racked up a career-best 1,303 yards through 17 games, making him the league’s third-most productive receiver.
Looking further down that list tells you more of the story. The next closest receiver the Als have to Lewis is Reggie White Jr., who had 722 yards this season. That’s not to say there isn’t depth and talent behind Lewis. In addition to White, there’s Jake Weieneke, Kaion Julien-Grant, rookie Tyson Philpot and Hergy Mayala. All of them are capable of making big plays; it’s just that Lewis has had the vast majority of them this season.
The Ticats will no doubt zero in on Lewis and try to make life difficult for him on Sunday. They won’t be the first team to make that attempt this season. Slowing him in some way will be a key this week for the Ticats, while Maciocia, Harris and the Als’ offence will look to keep their special magic with him going into the playoffs.