With the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ season hanging in the balance, rookie quarterback Dan LeFevour delivered.
LeFevour’s two-yard TD run in overtime rallied Hamilton to a thrilling 19-16 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the East Division semifinal Sunday.
The six-foot-three, 230-pound LeFevour handled the ball on six of Hamilton’s eight snaps in overtime after Montreal went ahead 16-13 on Sean Whyte’s 34-yard field goal. All were runs — including two successful third-down gambles — and an 11-yard scamper that took the Ticats to the Alouettes’ two-yard line to set up LeFevour’s game-winning TD.
LeFevour’s touchdown secured Hamilton’s first home playoff win since ‘01 and prompted teammates to hoist him on to their shoulders, something the former Central Michigan star was uncomfortable with.
“I was telling them to put me down actually,” the humble LeFevour said. “This is a team game, shoot, the defence carried us all the way into the fourth quarter. Hank had a great drive going into the wind.
“I really feel I was a small piece . . . everyone put in their two cents today.”
Ticats head coach Kent Austin had no hesitation putting Hamilton’s season in a rookie’s hands.
“The package Dan runs is suited for Dan,” he said. “When you play a defence like this you have to play 12-man football on offence and by that I mean you have to add your quarterback to the run game otherwise you play 11 against 12.
“Dan gives us the ability to run those packages. He’s just a highly competitive, very focused, very unselfish quarterback that is a winner.”
The weather was the big story of the game. An Alumni Stadium gathering of 13,320 endured intermittent rain and a biting 45-kilometre an hour wind that gusted up to 66 kilometres throughout, making it feel like -1 C with the windchill.
Predictably, both teams struggled with the conditions, committing four turnovers apiece and punting a total of 17 times. At halftime, Montreal led 2-0 but Whyte forced overtime with a 32-yard field goal at 14:55 of the fourth as each squad came up with big drives into the howling wind.
Hamilton surged ahead 13-10 on Henry Burris’s 17-yard TD strike to C.J. Gable with 1:04 remaining in the fourth, capping a smart 97-yard, 12-play drive against the wind. In the third, Montreal went ahead 9-6 on Troy Smith’s 29-yard TD strike to Duron Carter at 10:27 to culminate a four-play, 75-yard march.
Burris finished 23-of-36 passing for 203 yards with a TD and interception and said the weather conditions made it tough to execute offensively. But he said patience was a key factor on Hamilton’s fourth-quarter drive.
“Oh man, Mother Nature was not on my side today, it took me a while to get in sync there,” he said. “Our defence did one heck of a job of keeping us in the game and to be able to make that one drive and get the touchdown to put us in the lead and get us into overtime, that was special.
“We were taking what they gave us. They weren’t giving us much downfield so we just kind of chipped away at it. Guys just made plays.”
Austin admitted the Ticats pondered going with LeFevour in the fourth but opted to go with the more experienced Burris, 38, who led the CFL in passing this year, his 15th in Canada.
“At the end of the day Henry has a lot of experience and has been in these situations before,” Austin said. “We just said we’d empty out and Hank, you’re going to have to find the receivers and understand coverage, which he does.
“It was just a guy we believe in that’s played well for us this year.”
At least Hamilton won’t have to worry about weather in the East Division final. The Ticats face the defending Grey Cup-champion Toronto Argonauts next weekend at Rogers Centre, which is a domed facility.
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said Hamilton’s willingness to use multiple quarterbacks will be something his defence must prepare for.
“It puts a lot on your defence,” he said during a conference call. “You have to essentially prepare for two different styles of offences.
“How much they’ll do that against us, you won’t know until game day but you have to prepare for it. That makes it difficult, takes time out of practice, and when you’re preparing for a bunch of different things there are things you can’t cover.”
It will be the first East Division meeting between Hamilton and Toronto since 1986.
“I really hope they keep the roof closed,” said LeFevour, who finished three-of-six passing for 36 yards while running 18 times for 61 yards.
The conference champion will advance to the Grey Cup on Nov. 24 in Regina.
Hamilton was hosting its first home playoff game since 2010 after taking the season series with Montreal 2-1.
Montreal’s loss tarnished an outstanding performance by Tyrell Sutton, who ran for 142 yards on 21 carries. First-year quarterback Troy Smith was 14-of-26 passing for 142 yards with a TD and interception in his first CFL playoff game.
“We had a rough time this year finishing games and holding leads and as well as we played at times (Sunday) you’ve got to give them credit for going down the field and scoring,” said interim Als coach Jim Popp. “The last two times they had the ball they scored touchdowns, that’s what they did.”
Sunday’s defeat caps a roller-coaster season for Montreal, which saw GM Popp assume coaching duties after firing rookie head coach Dan Hawkins. And during the year, the Alouettes lost a number of veterans to injury, most notably quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who was on the sidelines Sunday.
But the Alouettes head into the off-season with no shortage of questions, including who will coach the team and will Calvillo be able to return in 2014 from his concussion.
Notes: As expected, linebacker Kyries Hebert (knee) was among Montreal’s pre-game scratches . . . Cornerback Delvin Breaux and slotback Greg Ellingston both returned to Hamilton’s starting lineup from injury . . . Hamilton was 6-3 the second half of the season, tied with Toronto for the best record in the CFL behind Calgary (7-2). Montreal was 4-5 . . . . Montreal’s defence features six East Division all-stars, including outstanding defensive player nominee Chip Cox, who had a CFL-high 115 tackles and team-leading 12 sacks . . . Hamilton’s Marc Beswick is the East nominee as outstanding special-teams player. He’s only the second non-kicker or returner to win the award as B.C.’s Jason Arakgi was the first in ‘09 . . . Hamilton dressed a CFL-record 88 players this season, with 57 making at least one start.