November 17, 2013, TORONTO (ISN) – A historic rivalry is about to take new heights on Sunday afternoon, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats visit Rogers Centre for a duel with the Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Final.
It’s the first time since 1986 they’ll meet for a chance to play in the Grey Cup Championship, making this weekend’s battle one of the most highly-anticipated games between these Southern Ontario rivals in almost three decades.
That was made clearer halfway through the week, when the Argos announced they’d be opening additional seating in the 500 level for the first time since the 100th Grey Cup late last November and not of course without plenty of help from Ticats’ faithful, who were quick to buy up tickets shortly after their team’s 19-16 overtime win against the Montreal Alouettes in the Eastern Semi-Final.
“We’re excited about that, we’re looking forward to a great atmosphere,” second-year head coach Scott Milanovich told reporters. “Obviously Hamilton right down the road, I’m certain they’re going to bring their share of fans and it should really be a great atmosphere, something that’s deserved.”
Sunday’s Eastern Final truly is a dream matchup for fans in both Hamilton and Toronto as well as their surrounding areas because for the first time in a while the Argos and Ticats are not only the top-ranked teams in the East Division, but also two of the most exciting to watch.
This is likely what was envisioned when superstar pivots Ricky Ray and Henry Burris departed from Edmonton and Calgary respectively and moved to Ontario, where they’d continue their same rivalry in front of new fans.
As the teams tied for first in the regular season with 300 passing yards a game, explosive offence has been the name of the game in 2013, especially when these teams go head to head. While Milanovich isn’t making any predictions, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a high-scoring affair.
“I never go into a game thinking, hey this is going to be a shootout’, I always feel like when you try to anticipate either a high-scoring game or a low-scoring game you end up being wrong,” Milanovich said when asked about how some of the previous meetings have gone this season.
The Argos claimed the first game of the season 39-34 in Kent Austin’s Hamilton coaching debut, before the Ticats battled back to win the final two games of the series and claim the Ballard Cup. In all the teams combined for 167 points in three regular season meetings, meaning the team that has the ball last could be the one headed to Regina next weekend.
“We’ll try to come out aggressive and as the game goes on we’ll adjust to how it’s being played and what needs to get done, but I always try to think aggressively and see what we can do to get on top.”
The Argos specifically had a season to remember offensively, boasting an offence that ranked first in several important categories including pass efficiency, interceptions, yards after the catch, red zone touchdown percentage, and two and outs.
And while they’ll have to move forward on that unit without starting running back Chad Kackert, who suffered a broken ankle during practice last week and will miss the remainder of the season, of greatest concern going into the Division Final will be devising a plan to stop Hamilton’s wildcat offence.
Led by a proven offensive mind in Austin, the Ticats’ offence is like no other in the CFL as it leans heavily on multiple sets led by multiple quarterbacks to keep the opponent off-balance. It’s a far cry from last year’s league-leading offence, which rested heavily on the shoulders on Burris, but it clearly works.
“It’s just a situation where it’s a different aspect of our game that brings a running element from the quarterback position, and a passing element from the quarterback position and different formations and different personnel groupings, that we believe can add to our production offensively and continue to move the sticks and keep us on the football field,” Austin told CFL.ca.
It’s also a part of the reason the team is even in Toronto this week, after Dan LeFevour was the one scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime for the Ticats, despite Burris previously leading the offence on a 12-play, 97-yard drive to avoid losing in regulation.
The 26-year-old LeFevour set an all-time league record for most carries by a quarterback in a playoff game, after running the ball 18 times for 61 yards. That broke Matt Dunigan’s previous record of 15 in a game back in 1986, and included nine times moving the chains.
“They’ve got three,” said Argos defensive coordinator Chris Jones, also referring to Jeremiah Masoli who has also at times taken on a role. “They play all three quarterbacks and they do an excellent job of putting you in a bind, whether it’s trying to attack the corner, and all three guys can throw the football.”
“And certainly with Henry being the guy that he is, he’s matched up real well with us in the past so it’s a challenge.”
Considering the Argos are the first team since the Edmonton Eskimos in 2001 to finish first in their division despite having the league’s worst-ranked defence, how they deal with Austin’s troublesome attack will likely determine their playoff fate.
“You have to reduce what you’re going to do, that way you can always make sure that you’ve always got everyone covered down, that’s number one because if you don’t they’re going to burn you,” said Jones, now in his second season as an Argo.
“And so we try to do the best we can to simplify what we’re doing so our guys can play fast.”
The Ticats meanwhile aren’t expecting to see three quarterbacks on Sunday, but they know they’ll have their hands full with just one. The Argos’ Ray is the hottest quarterback in the league dating back to the end of 2012, when he led the Boatmen to an unexpected appearance and victory in the 100th Grey Cup Championship.
Since then he’s gone on to break more records, claiming the single-season crown for completion percentage and quarterback rating despite missing close to half the season with two separate injuries.
The question for the Ticats is how do you stop him?
“If you get that answer, please let me know,” said Austin. “I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time.”
“Highly intelligent, has a great sense of anticipation, very, very accurate. He knows to throw in the towel if you will and dump the ball, he knows where all of his receivers are at,” he continued. “He’s got a great command of their offence and a great understanding, he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback for sure.”
The Ticats’ progress defensively has been well-documented, as first-year defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer has transformed his units into one of the league’s best of late, even earning praise from Austin as one of the best young coaches in the CFL.
Yet as much as that unit has shutdown opponents over the team’s stretch of five wins in six games, Ray’s last time out may have been the best in his career, as he only seems to get better with time in this Argo offence.
“Tough to prepare against him, we just have to look at their offence and try to piece the plan together according to what we think are hopefully some tendencies that we can cover,” said Austin. “The problem with a guy like Ricky is he knows how to spread the football around, and he can read coverages and he knows where the weakness is in each coverage.”
“We’ve got a pretty big challenge ahead of us.”