HAMILTON -- The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are heading to the CFL East final for the sixth time in the past eight seasons after beating the Montreal Alouettes 23-12 in the division semifinal on Sunday at Tim Hortons Field.
The win, before 21,892 chilly fans sitting through light snow, sets up a date in Toronto against the arch-rival Argonauts on Dec. 5.
Here are five takeaways from the league’s playoff opener:
TURNOVERS ARE ALWAYS CRITICAL
It’s very hard to win a football game when you don’t win the turnover battle -- especially in the playoffs.
A ferocious Ticats defence forced five turnovers (including three fumbles by besieged Als quarterback Trevor Harris) while Hamilton never turned it over.
The Ticats were second in the league in turnover ratio during the season (plus-13) -- and that stat loomed large on Sunday.
“It’s huge. We preach that every week and every day,” Ticats defensive end Julian Howsare said. “Create turnovers and make things happen.”
Three turnovers in the second quarter led to 13 points for the Ticats as slow-starting Hamilton (it had the ball for just 3:26 in the first quarter) turned a 3-0 deficit into a 20-3 halftime lead.
Fittingly, even when it looked like the Als caused a turnover, it ended up being overturned on a review. Montreal was called for no yards after a fumbled punt by Papi White in the fourth quarter when the visitors still had a chance.
The turnover discrepancy is the biggest reason the Ticats won while being severely outgained in total yards (410-237). Harris’ 364 passing yards may look nice on paper, but that hardly matters now.
“While we may have given up a lot of yards, we didn’t give up a lot of points,” Ticats coach Orlondo Steinauer said. “When you are able to take the ball away, it definitely offsets the plays they were able to make.”
TICATS’ DEFENSIVE FRONT DOMINATES
Howsare and fellow Ticats defensive linemen Ja’Gared Davis, Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn were the stars of the game.
The Ticats sacked Harris six times and limited Als star running back William Stanback, the division’s most outstanding player, to 29 yards on 12 carries.
“We knew all week the game was going to be decided up front,” Davis said. “We just took it upon ourselves to come out and impose our will as best as we can.”
An early play by Davis set the tone. With the Als threatening to go 104 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive, Davis stuffed Stanback in the backfield -- causing Montreal to settle for a short field goal, a moral victory for Hamilton.
“On the second down near the goal line, they made a play,” Als coach Khari Jones said. “Wouldn’t necessarily take the call back, but we just have to win those one-on-one battles to get over the hump.”
Davis is a big-game player; he went to the Grey Cup in all four of his previous years in the league (three with Calgary, one with Hamilton).
He says the Ticats defence reflects Steeltown.
“It’s a steel-mill town, it’s a hard-working town. The history of this team and this town has always been defensive and hard-working ... . We want to give out the image and basically have them on our back,” Davis said. “We want to be the spitting image of this town."
Als linebacker Patrick Levels started the week by guaranteeing a victory when talking to reporters.
He was asked after the game if he regretted that.
“No. That’s how I play the game -- to win,” he said. “We just didn’t win. They were better today. Congrats to Hamilton.
“You play the game to win -- it’s just that simple. I don’t play for anything else. So, the biggest game of the year, I’m going to guarantee that to you every time.”
Ticats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was off-target early, but did bounce back to make some plays when required -- including a 20-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Banks after a fumble recovery and a 45-yard return by Howsare.
Still, it was by no means a great outing for the offence. Masoli finished with a pedestrian 184 passing yards. He’ll likely need more next week against Toronto.
“It always looks better when your offence is going up and down the field,” Steinauer said. “As you saw, their offence was going, but it didn’t result on the scoreboard.”
The Ticats and Argos will renew their Battle-of-the-QEW rivalry next week in the East final for the first time since 2013.
It will be just the third East final between the teams in the past 35 years.
The Argos, of course, have had attendance issues for years -- and there’s every chance Toronto supporters will be outnumbered by Ticats fans, who would love to see their team in the Grey Cup back at home on Dec. 12.
Hamilton hasn’t won the Grey Cup since 1999 -- the league’s longest drought. In Steinauer’s first year as head coach, in 2019 (the 2020 season was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic), the Ticats lost to Winnipeg in the Grey Cup after finishing 15-3 in the regular season.
“When it comes to this rivalry with Toronto, I’m just excited,” Steinauer said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to go down there and try to get a win.”