HAMILTON — Once again, on Sunday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats believe darkness will be their ally in what they’re calling their secret weapon: A Playoff Blackout.
The truth is more than 20,000 fans wearing black will create a lot of noise, but what happens for the home team as it plays against the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League’s East Division semi-final is more on the shoulders of the guys wearing the black and gold colours.
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The Tiger-Cats clawed their way to a second-place-in-the-East regular-season finish. While their 8-6 record looked much different than the 15-3 they rolled to in 2019 — a season that concluded with a 33-12 Grey Cup loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — there have been similarities. While they were outplayed in their first two games, losses of 19-6 to Winnipeg and 30-8 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, an argument could be made that the Ticats could have won each of their remaining 12, which included heartbreaking 24-23 and 17-16 losses to the first-place Toronto Argonauts.
“There were close games in 2019. I think a lot of people forget that,” Ticats all-star offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl said in a media Zoom call Friday. “This was a similar year. We just came out on the wrong side of a few of those close games.”
“We know what defeat feels like … it hurts,” Ticats defensive back Cariel Brooks said. “We lost more than we wanted to this season. It was always in our hands to win, to close the games out defensively. We know when the game is on the line how we need to perform, how we need to execute. Losing is not even on our mind. We’ll be prepared to put on a show Sunday.”
Putting on a show will mean the Ticats will need to click on all three phases of the football game: offence, defence and special teams. Preparing to go into battle means up-tempo practices, hoping there are no regrets Sunday, when the winner will advance to play the Argos in the following Sunday’s East final in Toronto.
“What I’ve learned in coaching is just because you execute in practice doesn’t necessarily mean you execute to the level you want to in a game,” Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer said. “Also, vice versa, sometimes you don’t have the best practices and you go out and light it up. What we like to say is we don’t want to leave anything to chance. We’re not going to practise or celebrate sloppy habits. We’re going to create great habits, then we’re going into the game like that.”
For Steinauer, the journey in 2021 is the same, yet different. It’s again an opportunity for his team to challenge for a league championship. But there’s plenty of work to do before that becomes a reality.
“I’m excited about where we’re at,” he said. “We’re going to have an opportunity. You don’t want to be one of the three (eliminated) teams that aren’t practising this week. After this week, there will be only four teams left. You take it one week at a time. I’m excited. I feel like we have the right people and it’s about execution and going out and doing it on game day. There were a lot of moving parts, a lot of injuries we had to overcome, just like any football team. The more you experience, it makes you more well rounded. Does that transfer into more wins? I don’t know, but I don’t think experience in anything that hurts you.”
The Alouettes and Ticats played twice this season. The Ticats won 27-10, then fell 23-20 in overtime. One big difference: Trevor Harris (acquired from Edmonton) is now Montreal’s quarterback. In both games against Montreal, Hamilton did a good job of preventing big yardage from William Stanback, Montreal’s elite running back. Stanback rushed for 1,176 yards in 12 games, but Hamilton held him to 40 and 59 yards.
“We know exactly who we’re playing — full respect — he’s probably the best in the league,” Ticats safety Tunde Adeleke said. “All week, we emphasized getting hats to the ball. We’re not expecting one guy to take (Stanback) down by himself. When guy gets to him, another guy has to get there, then a third guy has to get there.”
On Sunday, it’s actually quite simple: Just score more points than the other team by any means necessary. And if you don’t … well, as they say, there’s always next year.
“The game doesn’t change,” Steinauer said. “It’s still the same amount of minutes in the game, the same amount of people on the field. The difference in playoff football is the consequence is great if you don’t get it done. It’s an elimination game. If you’ve been in those, at least you’ve felt the emotion of it. At the end of the day, it’s football between the whistles. You want to score points, keep points off the board, make solid tackles and don’t turn it over. That never changes.”
“When we do lose, we find a way to bounce back,” Van Zeyl said. “Now we have to find a way to stack them and play consistent football. That’s what playoffs are all about: It’s the team that can stay consistent, build off that and keep it rolling.”
THE END AROUND : It was cold — very, very cold — at Tim Hortons Field for Friday’s Ticats practice. The lightstands and goalposts were rocking in the heavy winds — about 40 km/h — and it seemed like about -10C with the windchill. As a side note, I saw a guy walking through my hotel’s lobby with skis and ski poles. It should be a bit warmer for Sunday afternoon’s game, but the forecast is for 2-4 centimetres of snow … After not practising Thursday, Montreal’s all-star receiver Eugene Lewis was “limited” Friday. If he can’t play, it would be a huge loss … Defensive back Desmond Lawrence will return to the Ticats lineup … It’s likely left tackle Jordan Murray will be out of the Ticats lineup, replaced by Travis Vornkahl. Asked about Vornkahl, Van Zeyl said: “Travis is a guy who really wants to play, he prepares well, AND he loves to get after people, which is a huge plus when you’re going into payoff football and you’re trying to be physical.”