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July 8, 2024

Another Early Deficit Proves Costly For Ticats

It’s beginning to sound like a broken record, and the Tiger-Cats have to use their bye week to change the tune. Or they’ll be in even greater peril than they’ve just put themselves in.

Again and again –three times in their first five games—they have fallen behind significantly in the early going. As a result, carefully constructed blueprints need to abruptly change, confidence is severely tested and swimming upstream tires out their arms.

Last night, Vernon Adams Jr. and his B.C. Lion sidekicks fluidly worked their way downfield right from the opening series against far too little resistance, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions –into the wind—and racking up points on seven of their first nine possessions to beat the Ticats 44-28 in front of 20,210 disappointed patrons at Tim Hortons Field.

This game was a major step backward for a team which felt it had been building on some positives, most of which were nowhere in evidence last night until things got somewhat into gear late in the first half. By then, though, the tide had carried them far enough offshore that the coastline was barely in sight. Realistically, the final score flattered the Ticats.

Hamilton didn’t play complementary football all night: when a couple of good defensive plays would provide some hope, the offence couldn’t keep them off the field. When there was a good punt by Nik Constantinou, there would be a penalty, or the defence wouldn’t take advantage of the field position.

But it all comes back to the opening arguments, and the Ticats couldn’t mount any. It’s confounding coaches and players as to why they’re so regularly falling behind, so quickly. Last night, 24-1; two weeks ago in Saskatchewan, 18-0; opening night in Calgary, 19-4. That is the ugly, but factual, math of an 0-5 record.

“It was 24-1 at one point before we started playing,” head coach Scott Milanovich said tersely. “Nobody’s having fun in there, I can promise you that. It’s our job as coaches to put them in a position to execute and we’re going to see (on film review) if we did that. And if we did that and guys weren’t executing, we’re going to have to figure that out. We can’t start games like that.

“You are what your record says you are.  I thought we would be better than this at this point. We’re 0-5. There’s no hiding from that.”

Milanovich, his quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, and several other players contacted in the locker room were flummoxed with how they were, for the third time, chasing the game right from the opening kickoff. They were all willing to shoulder the blame, but there are a lot of shoulders this should rest on.

The arithmetic of that early deficit is so indicting it’s hard to fathom. Four plays and two minutes after the opening kickoff, running back William Stanback found himself so isolated on a 48-yard pass reception right up the middle that all he had to battle against on his way into the end zone was loneliness.  The next drive took 40 seconds and two plays longer but still covered 70 yards with Justin McInnis hauling in the first of his two touchdown receptions. Adams had 11 completions, 202 yards passing and two touchdowns, and McInnis made seven catches for 125 yards, and Stanback had 62 yards, all by the end of the first quarter.

By halftime Adams had thrown four touchdown passes, going 18-for-25 and 321 yards.

Still, this being the CFL, the Ticats got it to within two scores in the final minute of the third quarter, with Luther Hakunavanhu continuing his return from injury with a touchdown reception from Mitchell.

Early in the fourth, the defence registered back-to-back sacks on Adams, but the offence quickly went two-and-out; followed by a stalled drive on its next series; then the Lions controlled the ball for nearly six minutes, culminating in Stanback’s short run that put the game out of reach at 44-21 with under two minutes remaining.

That was the opposite of “complementary football.”

“I think football is a beautiful sport because you have three different entities–offence, defence and special teams–that have to work cohesively when they’re not on the field at the same time,” Mitchell said.

“Complementary football is when the defence goes two-and-out, punt team gets a good return, offence puts together a long drive to keep the defence off the field, and puts up points. There just wasn’t enough of that, there hasn’t been enough of that yet.

“We’ll figure it out. We HAVE to figure it out. Nothing’s going to happen naturally and I think that’s one message we have to get across: there’s no magic antidote that’s all of a sudden going to fix everything. Nobody is going to show up at that door and all of a sudden turn this team into a different team. It’s going to take the guys in this room, the staff in this room, to put our heads down and keep working.”

On the opening couple of drives, the Lions employed more blockers than the Ticats had rushers and the secondary seemed a little afraid of being beaten deep because B.C. does like to attack downfield rather than east-west.  An 0-4 team that should have played with a sense of urgency, started without it. Mitchell said he sees the urgency in practice but it isn’t transferring into the games.

“Slow start,” Mitchell said.   “It was all around … they got on us early, took the wind out of the crowd. We just have to respond fast. As an offence, I know you can’t think about trying to get the points back too fast but sometimes you’re up against a really good offence and you know it’s going to be a slugfest. You have to go out there and push the ball.

“I wasn’t good enough early.”

Not only are the Ticats winless overall, they’re now 0-2 at Tim Hortons Field, where they’re trying to regain home-field dominance after going 3-6 last season. Mitchell was entirely correct in his assessment of the Lions removing the fans from the equation: those fans cheered derisively when a long punt by Nik Constantinou – one of the bright spots last night– took a bad bounce and went for an unwanted single point, the Ticats’ first of the game.  They also booed the team at halftime. Based on the evidence, they were well within their rights to do so.

It doesn’t get a lot easier. After a week off, the Ticats return to face the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday, July 20 at Tim Hortons Field, then visit the Elks in Edmonton then return for a home-and-home against the Montreal Alouettes who are running away and hiding from the rest of the CFL East.

The Ticats clearly need the mental break that the bye can provide but in a week in which one coaching change was made,  Milanovich says he doesn’t think the timing of the downtime alters the way he’s looking at this team.

“We’ve been evaluating the whole time, and we’ll continue to do that,” he said. “There are some teams we have to game-plan for over the week. I just told the players and coaches, everything is going to be evaluated and decisions are going to be made based on what’s best for this organization.”

CATS CLAUSES: There was a touching tribute shown on the stadium video board to longtime fans Steve and Barb and the crowd responded with healthy applause … Bo Levi Mitchell was 32-for-48 for 374 yards with three TDs … James Butler, after a game off in concussion protocol, had 27 yards rushing on nine carries, and nine receptions for 108 yards … Kiondré Smith scored his fourth touchdown of the season on his fourth catch of the game, on the final play from scrimmage … Shemar Bridges had six catches, four of them on second down, for 87 yards … Davon “Smoke” Harris had 31 yards in punt returns and 150 in kickoff returns including a 61-yarder in his CFL debut … Marc Liegghio was 2-for-2 in field goals and made all three convert attempts … Casey Sayles and David Ménard had the Ticats’ sacks … safety Stavros Katsantonis and LB Penei Pavihi were injured in the first half and did not return … the Ticats had nine penalties, six on offence and three on kick returns … Vernon Adams Jr. was 26-for-36 for 383 yards and four touchdowns … Justin McInnis had 10 receptions for 144 yards and two TDs … Alexander Hollins caught all six of his targeted passes for 116 yards and a touchdown … Williams Stanback had 82 yards rushing and 74 yards receiving … Sean Whyte went 3-for-3 in Lions’ field goal attempts … Boseko Lokombo, Amir Siddiqi and Josh Archibald had the Lions’ sacks … the Ticats and Lions meet again Sept. 27 in Vancouver.