The Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ next game is pivotal for their playoff hopes, but Avon Cobourne was wondering out loud Thursday if many of his teammates fully understood that fact.
The Ticats host the league-leading B.C. Lions on Friday night fighting for their post-season lives. Hamilton (5-9) is third in the East Division two points ahead of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but trails the Edmonton Eskimos (6-8) in the crossover battle for the third and final post-season spot in the Eastern conference.
But Cobourne felt some of his teammates didn’t have their minds firmly set on the task at hand during Hamilton’s walkthrough.
“It’s a big game and to be honest, I don’t think we were as focused as we needed to be today as important as this game is,” the veteran running back said candidly. “It was shocking to me for that to happen, to come out here and things not to go smoothly in the walkthrough as they need to be.
“It’s a serious game for us and I don’t know how serious most guys are about it. It’s a big game and I feel like we should win the game if we play well, they’re missing a lot of key players which opens up opportunities for us.”
The defending Grey Cup-champion Lions (10-4) boast the CFL’s top record and are coming off a 27-22 home win over Calgary minus all-star receivers Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce III, offensive lineman John Hamiester-Ries and defensive tackles Khalif Mitchell and Eric Taylor. All won’t play Friday night.
That, combined with the Lions — who play their home games at domed B.C. Place — being forced to play outdoors on a cool, potentially blustery fall evening would be two factors working in Hamilton’s favour.
Despite his feeling from practice, Cobourne believes his teammates will come ready to play Friday night.
“I’m not worried because everybody handles things differently,” he said. “I like things to be sharp and crisp and I just feel from my (perspective) I would prefer it to be a lot sharper than it was.
“But it’s like that sometimes. People are different.”
Ticats head coach George Cortez agrees.
“I think we’re ready to play and they understand it’s an important game,” he said. “As long as we win games we have control of what goes on.
“This is an important game and we need to win it.”
The Lions also have something to play for. They can cement a home playoff game with a win over Hamilton and a Calgary Stampeders road loss Saturday to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“It’s a large game in terms of where both teams stand,” said Lions rookie head coach Mike Benevides. “We have a tremendous challenge in front of us knowing that we have a desperate team.
“The fans here are always very boisterous, it’s always very loud. They love their football and our team knows that and we’re going to have to play extremely well to get the result we want.”
Hamilton’s offence is averaging a league-best 30.1 points per game and is second overall in passing at 294.3 yards per contest. Quarterback Henry Burris has already thrown a club-record 34 TD passes, has completed 64 per cent of his passes and is second among CFL passers with 4,120 yards.
By comparison, Hamilton’s defence is allowing 31.7 points and a whopping 418.4 yards per game, both league highs.
So, predictably, Cobourne believes Hamilton’s offence holds the key to victory.
“The key is to keep our offence on the field,” he said. “We have to make plays on offence . . . we do that and I think we win the game.”
Cobourne has become an offensive force, rushing for 564 yards on 89 carries (5.6-yard average) in just six starts this season. He has combined with rookie Chevon Walker (631 yards, 5.1-yard average) to give the Ticats a solid two-headed rushing attack.
Receiver Chris Williams is Hamilton’s biggest threat, having scored a CFL-high 13 touchdowns, including a league-record six return TDs. The league’s top rookie last season is just two yards shy of registering a second straight 1,000-yard receiving season.
But B.C. counters with a defence that’s allowing the fewest points (19.4), fewest rushing and passing yards (72.5 and 245.4 yards, respectively) and is tied with Winnipeg for most sacks with 32.
“They’re a good defence, there’s no doubt about it,” Cobourne said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, I mean, even when they mess up they still get plays made.
“It’s not going to be easy but it’s an opportunity for us to get a win.”
Cortez said Lions quarterback Travis Lulay, the CFL’s outstanding player last year who has thrown a TD pass in 21 straight games, is the key to B.C.’s success.
“Lulay is the reason they are where they are, to be quite honest,” he said. “If you let him get outside the pocket he’s very dangerous because you can only cover the guys for so long.
“It’s a big, wide field. He will run but he’s really looking downfield to make a play.”
Lulay is third overall in passing with 3,800 yards and has 25 TD passes with 10 interceptions. He’s also the league’s top rushing quarterback with 467 yards on 64 carries (7.3-yard average).
“Travis has been spectacular, Travis has taken care of the football, he has delivered the ball and taken what the defence has given him so he has done an outstanding job,” Benevides said. “There’s no doubt the MVP of this league is the reason why we are where we are.”
But Lulay also spearheads a potent Lions offence that even without Bruce and Simon still boasts versatile Winnipeg native Andrew Harris at running back. Harris is third in CFL rushing with 915 yards, averaging a solid 6.4 yards per carry. He has also registered 43 catches for 403 yards and leads the league in yards from scrimmage with 1,544.
The Lions’ offensive line not only anchors the league’s top ground attack (130.6 yards per game) but has allowed a CFL-low 14 sacks.
“What I’m most proud of this group this season is the expectations, adversities, all the things we deal with, it has been about team,” Benevides said. “Travis is what makes us go but there’s a tremendous offensive line that protects the quarterback better than anybody else.
“There’s a tremendous balance in the running game.”
Lulay said while the Lions lose veteran experience with Simon and Bruce out of the lineup, they gain plenty with youngsters Earnest Jackson, Kierrie Johnson and Nick Moore lining up at receiver.
“What we lose in savvy and experience not having Geroy and Arland we gain a little bit with youthful exuberance, the excitement to play and appreciation for an opportunity,” Lulay said. “Those guys are hungry to go out and play and want to play well for their teammates.”
NOTES — A Cobourne supporter went to great lengths to put his name on Hamilton’s Wall of Fame at Ivor Wynne. Someone scaled the roof of the stadium and put a banner with Cobourne’s full name over Don Sutherin’s No. 22 (the number Cobourne wears). Cobourne was of two minds about it Thursday. “I appreciate the fans doing that but that guy (Sutherin) worked hard to get his name up there and it’s kind of disrespectful but at the same time it’s an honour for someone to take the time to do that.” . . . Players on both teams will be donning pink-coloured apparel as part of the CFL’s effort to help raise awareness for women’s cancers . . . Veteran Canadian Kevin Eiben and rookie Brock Campbell will start at linebacker for Hamilton with Markeith Knowlton and Jamall Johnson both injured.