It has been a rough start to the 2012 season for Dave Stala and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
After a busy off-season that had many prognosticators predicting the Ticats challenging for top spot in the East Division, the club is last in the standings with an 0-2 record. Earlier this week, prominent CFL agent Darren Gill told a Montreal radio station Hamilton rookie head coach George Cortez had a strained relationship with defensive co-ordinator Denny Creehan and the players were unhappy playing for Cortez.
Gill publicly apologized to Cortez, Creehan and the Hamilton organization for his comments. But in Stala’s mind, the best way the Ticats can end all the negative talk is beat their arch rivals, the Toronto Argonauts, at Ivor Wynne Stadium on Saturday night.
“If we get a win on the weekend, which we’re planning on, then it will shut everyone up and everyone will jump back on the bandwagon,” the veteran slotback said. “Everything is good in our locker-room . . . the morale is great.
“You can’t get down on yourself, you just have to worry about the next thing that’s going on, which is Toronto ahead of us right now.”
There was certainly standing room only on the Ticats’ bandwagon following the active off-season. The club hired Cortez as head coach and solidified its roster by adding quarterback Henry Burris, receivers Andy Fantuz and Sam Giguere, tailback Martell Mallett, kicker Luca Congi, former Argos linebacker Kevin Eiben and defensive end Greg Peach.
But the changes haven’t translated into wins for a Hamilton team that’s reached the CFL playoffs the last three years with mediocre records of 9-9, 9-9 and 8-10 over that span. The 32-year-old Stala, who had a career-high 85 catches for 1,015 yards and six TDs in 2010, has six receptions for 96 yards and no touchdowns so far this season.
Hamilton opened its season losing 43-16 at home to Saskatchewan before rallying late in Vancouver en route to dropping a 39-36 decision to the Grey Cup-champion B.C. Lions.
“The biggest thing is we need all three phases to play well to win,” Stala said. “It definitely was a positive last week to finish the game like that, we just ran out of time.
“But we can’t just play two or three quarters. We have to play the full 60 minutes.”
Although Saturday’s game is just the third of the year for both teams, it has significance. Not only is it one between division rivals, it’s the first of four head-to-head meetings between Toronto and Hamilton this season.
“We certainly understand that,” said Stala, in his 10th CFL season. “Not only are we trying to get our first win but also they’re down the street and our rivals and we’re going to play them a bunch of times.
“It would be good to set the tone and get a win. There’s going to be some scuffles, it gets real hot out on the field, tempers will be flaring and guys will be flying around making plays. But the biggest thing for our team right now is to get a win.”
Defensively, Hamilton enters action last in the CFL in points allowed (41 per game), touchdowns (eight), sacks (one), rushing yards allowed (329) and total yards (883). The unit also hasn’t forced a turnover. The offence, while second overall in passing yards and total yards, has turned the ball over six times, including three times on downs.
Still, Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich has plenty of respect for Hamilton’s offence.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons and big-play ability . . . on top of that Henry can extend plays and finds touchdowns late in plays once guys have come out of coverage,” he said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us, our guys have to play disciplined and the play is never over until they blow the whistle.”
Toronto (1-1) is coming off an exciting 39-36 home victory over Calgary last weekend as quarterback Ricky Ray, obtained in a blockbuster trade with Edmonton in December, threw for 407 yards and two TDs. Receivers Andrew Durie (10 catches, 118 yards) and rookie Dontrelle Inman (three catches, 107 yards, two TDs) led the aerial attack while tailback Cory Boyd ran for 101 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown.
Both Milanovich and Ray admit because they’re in their first year with the Argos, they don’t fully appreciate the Toronto-Hamilton rivalry yet. But at least for Ray, he’ll be facing a familiar foe in Burris, the former longtime Calgary Stampeders quarterback.
“Definitely it’s something I have to learn, the rivalry out here,” Ray said. “Playing in the West so long it was Edmonton-Calgary but with Henry there that’s going to bring back some familiarity.
“We play (Hamilton) four times so we’ll get used to it quick. And we’re both playing for the same thing, to get first in the East.”
Added Milanovich: “I’ve sensed a heightened level of intensity this week. Maybe it’s because it’s Hamilton, maybe because it’s a division game. I do believe the guys understand the importance of playing in your own conference and winning those games.”
And in Ray’s mind, that’s what makes Saturday’s game important.
“These are huge games,” he said. “You’re jockeying for position all year long and when you get down to the wire these two points you can get early in the season really help out.”
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