Sometimes the best team doesn’t win but that certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday night when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats lost 30-13 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium.
Here were the results of the first five plays for the Ticats on Saturday: an incomplete pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage, a Dane Evans sack-fumble recovered by Saskatchewan, a three-yard run negated by an Alex Fontana holding penalty, a five-yard completion to Jake Burt, and an interception.
The Riders only managed three points out of all that but the tone was set.
Hamilton did not get their initial first down of the game until their fifth series and didn’t get their second until halfway through the second quarter. This was as bad of an offensive performance as I have seen from this team and the only reason this game was still in doubt late — it was a two-point game with under four minutes left in the fourth quarter — is because of the superb play of the defence.
The Ticats could not handle what the Riders did defensively and because of that, they begin another season 0-1.
Here are more thoughts.
Losing in the trenches
Both teams played excellent defence, but one allowed eight sacks while the other allowed zero. I will let you guess which team was which.
The Tiger-Cats’ play along the offensive line may have been the worst I have ever seen from this team. It reminded me way too much of the 2017 season when the Ticats had one of the worst offensive lines in the sport. That was the year the Tabbies started off 0-8 before Kent Austin stepped aside for June Jones. It was a season to forget and the last time the Ticats missed the playoffs.
Starting left tackle Travis Vornkahl struggled tremendously until he was replaced early by Canadian Kyle Saxelid. Vornkahl was thrust back into the lineup when Saxelid left later in the game due to injury and his play did not improve.
New starting centre Alex Fontana was brutal in his first game action since 2019, taking a holding penalty early and just getting routinely beaten by whoever he was tasked with blocking.
Future Hall of Famer Chris Van Zeyl looked like a shell of himself, getting a holding call that negated a Steven Dunbar Jr. touchdown on the first drive of the first quarter and simply not playing up to his lofty standard.
Ticats’ quarterback Dane Evans was running for his life on what felt like every snap and there was no run game of which to speak, regardless of who was given the ball. It was a disheartening and demoralizing start for a unit that a lot of us had questions about heading into training camp. They did nothing in this game to assuage any fears and, in fact, may have even exasperated them.
Dave Evans struggled in his first game as the unquestioned starter while Jeremiah Masoli shined with his new team in Ottawa. I am sure no Tiger-Cats fans will overreact to that whatsoever.
The offensive line’s ineptitude is the main story of the game but that doesn’t let Evans off the hook. He was truly awful in his first start of the season, going 18-of-28 for 222 yards one touchdown, two interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Evans never looked comfortable and spent the majority of his time on the field running for his life. He was pulled late for backup Matthew Shiltz after the game was well in hand for the Riders.
Evans also let his frustrations show, slamming the ball on the ground after one of the six sacks he was forced to endure. It is hard to blame the former University of Tulsa star for being angry but that is not something you want to be seeing in the middle of the first game of the season.
Rightly or wrongly, this whole year will be a referendum on the Ticats’ offseason quarterbacking decision. After one week, the results are not kind to the Black and Gold.
If you look at the final score, you’ll see the Ticats gave up 30 points and think the team didn’t play well on defence. That could not be further from the truth.
Hamilton’s defence was excellent against the Riders, forcing seven punts, allowing just six second-down conversions and surrendering one or fewer first downs on 12 of Saskatchewan’s first 15 drives (the second last drive was a one-play, one-yard touchdown run and the final drive was kneel-downs).
The defence also kept the team in the game, holding the Riders to a field goal after the first fumble, forcing a two-and-out after Evans’ first interception, making a key third-down stop early in the second quarter and keeping the team in the game by forcing the Riders to settle for five field goals before they finally broke through with a touchdown just before the three-minute warning.
Despite giving up over 300 yards passing, I thought the secondary mostly played well. The linebackers did their thing as usual and the defensive line was fairly effective in pressuring Riders’ quarterback Cody Fajardo, even if it did not result in any sacks.
It fell apart at the end — the second of Dane Evans’ interceptions gave the Roughriders the ball at Hamilton’s one-yard line, which they easily converted for a touchdown — but for most of this game, the only reasons the score wasn’t even more lopsided was due to the play of the defence.
Here we go again
A Ticats-Riders game with a controversial hit on the quarterback, never heard of that happening before.
Regardless of whatever side of this debate you are currently on, nothing is going to change your mind. If you think Ticats’ linebacker Simoni Lawrence’s hit on Cody Fajardo was high, late and dirty, you are going to continue thinking that. If you think it was neither high, late nor dirty, you are not going to be convinced otherwise either.
However, one thing I think we can probably all agree on is that Fajardo should have been taken out of the game. He took a hit to the head and neck area and laid on the field for a small spell before ultimately getting back up and resuming play.
On Friday night, we saw the injury spotter remove Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ quarterback Zach Collaros from the game during a critical late-fourth-quarter drive after the reigning Most Outstanding Player and Grey Cup MVP looked to have possibly sustained a head injury. That was absolutely the right call, even if fans in Winnipeg were less than thrilled with the decision.
Less than 24 hours later, in a similar situation, the metaphorical ball was dropped after Fajardo was allowed to stay in the game after suffering a similar hit.
If the CFL wants to be taken seriously on player safety, then these instances need to be consistent. If Collaros was rightly taken out on Friday, then Fajardo should have been taken out on Saturday.
Running to nowhere
One of the aspects of the Tiger-Cats’ offence that fans were interested to see was the team’s renewed commitment to the running game. The team brought back Don Jackson and Sean Thomas-Erlington this offseason and after Jackson provided a spark a year ago, it felt natural to be excited for what was to come in 2022.
After one game, the results are not good. The Tabbies ran the ball just 11 times for 26 yards with receiver Tim White being the team’s leading rusher with 11 yards on two carries. Jackson had just one yard rushing on five carries while Thomas-Erlington did not register a single rushing stat.
The Ticats could not handle what Saskatchewan was doing with their front four at all but seeing a 2.4-yards per carry average should still be a cause for concern, even if the running game was just another victim of the team’s woeful offensive line play.
Special teams silver lining
Thankfully for the Ticats, their coverage units were good, because they got a lot of work on Saturday night. Hamilton punted the ball nine times but allowed just 77 total punt return yards with the Riders’ longest return being a 12-yard one by Jamal Morrow.
The kicking games were mostly solid as well. Punter Simon Laryea, who the team signed late last week, was mostly excellent punting the ball. Michael Domagala was fine in his placekicking duties too, hitting two of his three field goals. His one miss was a doink off the left upright on the final play of the first half but he was otherwise solid.
There were some concerns about the Ticats’ special teams units following the departure of former special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold this past winter, but new coordinator Craig Butler has seemingly put all those concerns to bed after the team’s first game.
The coverage units were the standouts, but all aspects of special teams more than carried their weight. Hamilton has shown a commitment to fielding a superior special teams unit through both the draft and via trade, so it comes as no surprise to see that area of the team excel in their first real test of the 2022 season.
Saxelid’s injury a big blow
The one time Hamilton’s offensive line did not look like a burning bag of garbage was the small amount of time that Canadian Kyle Saxelid replaced American Travis Vornkahl as the team’s left tackle.
The switch was short-lived, however, as Saxelid left the game in the second quarter after sustaining an injury. The broadcast showed Saxelid clutching at his left knee after being bowled over by a Riders defensive lineman. When Saxelid was shown again, he was pounding his fist on a nearby table and was later shown being taken off the sideline in a cart.
Later in the broadcast, Saxelid was spotted on the sideline, out of pads, and using crutches, which is not a great sign for his prospect of returning to the field any time soon.
Saxelid now joins Canadian receivers Lemar Durant and Tyler Ternowski, and fellow Canadian offensive lineman Coulter Woodmansey as a member of the walking wounded. That is a lot of top-end Canadian talent that will not be in uniform in the immediate future which could cause some ratio issues for a Ticats team that was already dealing with trouble in that area entering the game against the Riders.
A fumble rule that makes sense
Riders’ linebacker Derrick Moncrief’s fourth-quarter interception of Dane Evans sealed the game for the Green and White. The Riders would score a touchdown one play later and that was all she wrote.
Had that game been played in another football league, the outcome of that play would not have been the same.
Moncrief fumbled the ball out of the side of the end zone at the end of his interception run. In the CFL, that means the Riders retain possession where the ball was last touched on the field of play. In this case, that was around the one-yard line.
In the National Football League, however, the outcome would have seen the ball revert back to the Tiger-Cats, who would have then scrimmaged from their own 20-yard line. The fumble out of the back or side of the end zone is essentially treated as a touchback.
This rule in the NFL has come under a lot of rightful scrutiny over the years — most recently in a playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns following the 2020 NFL season — because the rule is, quite frankly, dumb. It is nice to see that the CFL has a much more reasonable rule on the matter.
Mosaic nightmare continues
Everyone knows the house of horrors that McMahon Stadium has been for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Hamilton has not won in Calgary since 2004, and only just recently started beating the Stampeders away from their home — Hamilton’s 2019 victory at Tim Hortons Field was the first time the team had defeated Calgary since 2011 and last year’s win was the first time the team had beaten the Stamps when Bo Levi Mitchell started at quarterback.
But McMahon isn’t the only western locale where the Ticats have had trouble getting wins, as Mosaic Stadium, both old and new, has been a nightmare factory for the last decade.
In the last 10 games the Ticats have played in Regina, Hamilton has won just once, a 31-21 triumph in July of 2015. In the other nine contests against the Riders, which includes the 2013 Grey Cup, Hamilton has lost by a combined score of 272-124. The Riders have scored 30 or more points in six of those nine wins, while the Ticats have scored 20 or fewer points in eight of those nine losses.
Hamilton has yet to taste victory at the new stadium, which opened in 2017.
Winning on the road is not easy, but it also shouldn’t be this hard. Luckily for the Ticats, they don’t play the Riders again at Mosaic this season… unless the two teams meet in the Grey Cup, of course. If that were to happen, I think we all know where we should place our money.
Glen Suitor praise
I want to give kudos to Glen Suitor, who spent a lot of time this weekend giving shoutouts to late-round picks from recent CFL drafts. In the abstract, this does not seem like a big deal but given that the role of Canadians in the CFL has been a major topic of discussion, I do not think Suitor mentioning these players multiple times on multiple broadcasts is a coincidence.
Whether Suitor’s comments are a subtle shot at CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie and his seemingly never-ending campaign to diminish the impact of Canadian players, especially backup and depth Canadian players, or not, I appreciate Suitor standing up for the types of players who make up the backbone of the league but may not be household names.
Suitor has always been a champion of the Canadian player and I cannot imagine the talk this offseason has landed well with him, so good on him for using his large platform to say what a lot of his colleagues have been too scared to do.
The Ticats do not have long to lick their wounds, as Saturday sees the team play its home opener against another team that has given them trouble over the years, the Calgary Stampeders.
Hamilton has won their last two home games against the Stamps, ending a home losing streak that stretched back to 2009 (the 2011 “home” win by Hamilton was in Moncton, New Brunswick in that year’s Touchdown Atlantic game).
Calgary does not come into this game without their own questions to answer after a thrilling 30-27 win over the Montreal Alouettes in their season opener last Thursday.
Despite the win, Stampeders’ quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell left the game with an ankle injury and his status for Saturday is unknown. If Mitchell cannot play, second-year man Jake Maier would start in his place.
The Ticats want to do everything they can to avoid a second-straight 0-2 start and they need to show the faithful on their home field that the game against the Riders was an aberration and not a sign of things to come.