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June 8, 2024

Encouraging Signs, but Early Mistakes Cost Ticats in Calgary

In the end, they still had a chance. But it was the beginning which ultimately cost them that chance.

“Too many mistakes early in the game, we had to play catch-up in the second half,” Tiger-Cats head coach Scott Milanovich said after Hamilton fell behind 19-7 at halftime and lost 32-24 to the Stampeders, dulling Bo Levi Mitchell’s return to Calgary.

So, the Ticats will have to wait yet another year to try, again, to reverse the discouraging hex of opening day, as they remain stalled at just four Game 1 wins since calendars flipped over into the 2000s.

There were certainly some positive indicators: most notably Mitchell’s significantly re-configured physique and theoretical approach to the game; the offence’s resurgence in the second half;  James Butler’s impactful first time in uniform this season; and some promising work by the receivers; plus a late march which gave them a shot, had they been able to execute an on-side kickoff. 

There were many other positive signs which we promise we’ll get to, a little later in this column.

But there were also too many negative ones to win a road game, a one-score game, in a locale that has so often (one McMahon Stadium win in 19 years) been a dead-end street for the Ticats.

You could start with the last-ditch on-side kick with 71 seconds left and work backwards from there. It didn’t go the legally-required distance of 10 yards and served as a metaphor for the periodic troubles the Cats’ special teams experienced all night, despite getting three field goals from Marc Liegghio and some decent punts from recent addition Nik Constantinou.

They couldn’t stifle rookie Stampeder returner Erik Brooks, who was elusive and elastic. Constantinou’s attempted coffin corner punt instead bounced for an unwanted single point. They sent 13 men onto the field for one field goal attempt. And Liegghio’s only field goal miss was returned 85 yards by Brooks to set up a Stamp field goal that represented a critical 10-point swing, as it followed Ticat rookie Shemar Bridges being unable to grab a catchable sure touchdown pass near the Calgary goal line after a commendable drive by the awakening offence to open the second half. It was one of at least five drops by Ticat receivers.

And the return units were unable to spring Lawrence Woods III, which was compounded by him having to also play wide-side cornerback after defensive back Richard Leonard suffered an unspecified injury in the second quarter and didn’t return. Woods was exhausted.

But it wasn’t just special teams which had game-altering mistakes.

Calgary quarterback Jake Maier confounded the Ticat defence, creating time and space as the Stampeders scored on each of their first five possessions –although the Hamilton defence held them to field goals on four of them –and generally responded with long possessions after Ticat offensive surges. The Ticats had trouble adjusting to play-action, both on the run against the flow and on passes.

And Stamps scored the only touchdown of the first half when Cam Echols outleapt three Ticat defenders surrounding him.  Mills rushed for  87 well-read yards and Maier extended plays by reading the Hamilton attack and rolling out, mercilessly probing the wide side after the Ticats secondary had to recalibrate in Leonard’s absence.

And while the Hamilton offence netted 459 offensive yards before it could even execute their first snap of the season it was flagged for too many men on the field, a mistake for which Milanovich volunteered to take the blame.

“It’s just a bad way to start a game, first and long,” he said.  “We settled down a little bit. I thought Bo settled down and played well, kind of after the interception (late in the second quarter).”

Mitchell and White had trouble getting on the same page all night, Mitchell overthrew White in the end zone and his ball to Bridges went over the rookie receiver’s head and into the arms of new Stamp Demario Houston, the veteran ball hawk who was obtained for exactly that reason. And there were at least five drops, including critical ones by White, Dunbar and Bridges–who was otherwise excellent. White’s miss, like Bridges’, came at the Calgary goal line and who knows what would have happened had either—or both—of them been caught.

“I missed, off the top of my head, five easy passes that should have been completed,” Mitchell countered. “So, no, I’m not going to call any guy for a drop. It’s something we’ll work on; we watch the film and we get better from.”

Milanovich amplified Mitchell’s observation with his own: “It’s interesting because we haven’t dropped a lot of passes all through camp, but we dropped a number in the first preseason game, and a number today. These guys have good hands. I think it’s something we’re going to have to play through.”

While Mitchell wasn’t happy with the overall result, after going 8-for-15 for 65 yards in the first half he finished the game at 27-for-38 for 300 yards and completed a 72-yard drive with a touchdown pass on to Kiondré Smith with just over a minute to go.

And he not only ran for 36 yards — more than he has over the entire season five of the past six years –on three carries, two of them for first downs including a 3rd-and-6, he read rushes and side-stepped them, and when forced out of the pocket extended plays long enough for receivers to work open.

“I think that’s who I was in the past,” Mitchell said.  “I was able to get out and move and escape the pocket. I’m not necessarily a runner but I had the ability to make guys miss in the pocket. The O line did a great job of allowing me to get out on some of those. I just wish I could have done a better job in some of the check-downs, JB (Butler) was open a couple of times. But obviously, I still needed to do something more.”

Three weeks ago Mitchell, who was on the six-game injured list twice last year, was in a walking cast. He said he’d be ready for the opener and he was. He credits the vigorous training and constant challenging by strength and conditioning coach Marcellus Bowman, for changing his body shape. He also pointed to Milanovich teaching him, “to take what someone gives me and if they’re going to give me the coverage and allow me to move, then it’s my job to get out of the pocket.”

With his recent injury history, time stood still for a moment when Mitchell ran for a first down late in the opening half but didn’t slide soon enough and absorbed a hit to the head. He took the next snap but was then ordered off the field via concussion protocol and Taylor Powell stepped in and completed his only pass to set up a Liegghio field goal.

“I had a slow start,” said Mitchell who didn’t play the final seven quarters of the preseason. “The hit kind of locked me in, kind of got me ready for the second half. I think there were some good plays. There were some timing things that we have to clean up but they’re things that are easy to fix if we go out there and work at it.”

Butler was technically a game-time decision but that decision was made the previous evening. He was outstanding with 131 yards from scrimmage, 119 of them on 13 carries as Milanovich held true to his vow to establish, and keep riding the run.

“I thought he was great,” Milanovich said. “They were playing some soft zone coverage and it felt like they were asking us to run it, so James had to do his thing and I thought the O line did a nice job with that.”

Mitchell also praised the “crazy” hole the offensive line opened for Butler: “It makes it easy on a quarterback when you can give No. 9 the ball and watch what he does.  I felt if we stayed on blocks downfield could have gone farther. But we’ll learn from that and get better at it.”

Among some of the other positives were some hard hits by safety Stavros Katsantonis, a perfectly-timed knockdown by Woods, a sack by Casey Sayles set up by DeWayne Hendrix, a great tackle by Dexter Lawson Jr. to force the first Calgary punt of the game and seven catches for 85 yards by Bridges, five for 48 yards by Dunbar, and four for 62 yards by Brendan O’Leary-Orange. White also caught six of the passes that were targeted for him.

There was also an off-the-field positive when the Stampeders showed a highlight film to welcome Mitchell back. He said he acknowledged it with “the little two-finger wave” but was focused on the next play, although several of his teammates in the huddle did watch it.

But, as we said at the start, in the end, the positives were outweighed, if only eight points worth, by the negatives. Not a lot, but enough that to get to .500 the Ticats will need a win in the home opener next Sunday against Saskatchewan.

CATS CLAUSES: Versatile running back Ante Litre, who was five-for-five as the short-yardage quarterback in the final preseason game against the Argos did it again Friday night, scoring a major from under centre on 3rd-and-goal from the Calgary one-yard-line with Taylor Powell also in the game. That closed the gap to 22-14Jake Maier was 21-of-26 for 252 yards and 2 TDs … Reggie Beggleton was always dangerous, with four receptionsErik Brooks had 165 yards in total returns … Clarence Hicks had the only Calgary sack … Scott Milanovich said he was heartened about Bo Levi Mitchell’s work: “It was encouraging. The most encouraging thing was what he did with his legs. Getting out of the pocket, we talked about that a lot in pre-season. He kept some plays alive, he ran for a couple of first downs, he scrambled and made plays throwing the ball so there was a lot to build on for sure..”