O’Leary: Evans’ winding road leads to ESF

MONTREAL — Danny Maciocia wasn’t exactly giving away game day secrets when the topic of Dane Evans came up, but he was honest when he was asked about the quarterback his team will be facing on Sunday.

“We’re going to have to challenge people at the line of scrimmage,” the general manager and interim head coach of the Montreal Alouettes said.

“We’re going to have to cause some challenges to their quarterback by disguising some of our coverages and getting him to hold onto the ball and making sure that we can…put him in a situation where he feels like he’s under duress and we capitalize on it.

“That’s going to be something that’s going to be extremely important to us. If you watch the sequence of the last four weeks, the ball gets out quick and they know where they want to go with it. Rarely are they in second-and-long, so we’re going to have to try to make that an uncomfortable situation for him.”

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As Evans leads the Hamilton Tiger-Cats into Sunday’s Eastern Semi-Final against the Als at Molson Stadium, discomfort is something he’s gotten to know well this season. After two seasons — and two Grey Cup appearances — of splitting starting duties with Jeremiah Masoli in Hamilton, Evans was named the team’s starting quarterback for the 2022 campaign.

That first-year starter tag felt like a technicality. Evans had led the Ticats through the bulk of the 2019 season and stepped in during last year’s Eastern Final to get them to the Grey Cup game. It felt like the torch didn’t need to be passed; it just stayed in Evans’ hands this year.

Then the unexpected came.

“It’s been tough, I’m not going to lie to you,” Evans said on Sunday afternoon, in the same seat that Maciocia was in a few hours earlier.

“But I haven’t had anything easy my whole life, honestly. It’s just kind of my story.”

Evans was plagued by turnovers through the first half of the season. There were interceptions; a league-worst 16, with eight of them coming in the team’s first four games. There was a strip that went back for a touchdown in Week 2. There were costly fumbles and injuries. Banged up after a three-interception performance against Toronto in Week 12, Evans watched from the sidelines as the Argos thumped them on Labour Day. The Ticats sat at 3-12 and many figured it was a matter of time before Ottawa caught up to them in the standings or Saskatchewan would cement its crossover status.

“It’s definitely not how we drew it up,” Ticats’ defensive lineman Julian Howsare said. “As a team that’s sometimes something that will help you in the long run, going through those ups and downs along the way. You kind of find yourself and it forces you to work.”

For Evans, that involved facing his issues head on and putting himself out there in front of his team, accountable for his mistakes. After that Week 12 loss, he addressed his teammates and promised them he’d be better.

Evans was the fourth-leading passer in the league in 2022, with 3,883 passing yards through 15 games (Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca)

“I felt like as a man like I had to just face it. It’s a scary situation when you let everybody in the locker room down and I wanted to go stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I did do that but this is what I’m going to do,’ he said. “Now we’re here where we still wanted to be anyway. I think it’s just kind of part of my journey.”

The Tiger-Cats won five of their final six games shifting into playoff mode along the way. They fended off Saskatchewan’s crossover attempt, swatted away Ottawa’s final playoff push and have arrived in Montreal, not ready for their season to come to an end on Sunday.

“Sometimes to address your biggest challenges, you have to admit that there are challenges,” Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer said of Evans.

“I think he was man enough to do that and correct it the best he could and also credit to all of his teammates and everybody else. This game itself is a game of imperfection. You have to be given a certain amount of grace. Within that there has to be a certain amount of accountability also.”

The Als will no doubt try to test Evans in every way that they can. They’ll search for ways to provide discomfort and try to bring Evans back to the shaky ground he stood on early in this season. He knows that and says he’s ready for it.

“I’m stronger than I think I am. Not physically. I probably get out-benched by everybody in the weight room,” Evans said of what this year has taught him.

“But I think I’ve learned that my mind is a powerful thing. I think whenever I have my confidence where it’s at and when I have my self belief where it’s at, I think I’m a pretty good football player. I can promise you that a couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have said that, especially on camera.

“I think going through those things got me and this team to where we are now. Hindsight being 20/20, I don’t think I’d change anything. Everything that went on happened for a reason, I’m a firm believer in that. We’re still where we wanted to be at the end of the day.

“We just took the long, windy road.”

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