They remember Drew Tate for the throw that inspired the catch that produced the biggest win in University of Iowa football history.
“Nine seconds to play and Drew Tate doesn’t know that. The game’s going to end on this play. He fires downfield … it’s caught! And into the end zone. Touchdown Iowa! Touchdown Iowa! No time on the clock. I don’t believe what I just saw.”
That was the call for the 56-yard jaw-dropper at the 2005 Capital One Bowl, Iowa over Louisiana State, 30-25. It earned Tate legendary status as a Hawkeyes quarterback, a Texas titan with a winner’s touch. The Lone Star Tate, one headline read.
Six years and two pro leagues later, Tate is prepping for his first playoff start for the Calgary Stampeders, and once again he may have to break out the implausible with the clock ticking down and CFL history ahead on the scoreboard.
Experienced quarterbacks have dominated the postseason for two decades now. Anthony Calvillo. Damon Allen. Doug Flutie. When those veterans weren’t winning November games and Grey Cups, they were usually losing them to other veteran quarterbacks. Tracy Ham, Danny McManus, Dave Dickenson, Henry Burris.
Ricky Ray was one of the few exceptions. In his rookie year with the Edmonton Eskimos, he took over for Jason Maas during the season then helped defeat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in his first playoff game, the 2002 West Division final. He then went on to win the 2003 and 2005 Grey Cups.
This Sunday, Ray and the Esks play host to the Stampeders in the West semi-final at Commonwealth Stadium. For Ray, 32, it’ll be old hat; for Tate, 27, it will be a new venture.
How he handles it will determine if the Stampeders move on or exit.
“You try not to think about it, to be honest,” Tate said of the mounting expectations. “Everything I’m doing is [based on]preparing for the game so I can execute. I can’t control anything else. I just have to do my job.”
Tate has plenty of experience around him, from head coach John Hufnagel, a former CFL quarterback, to offensive co-ordinator Dickenson, to backup quarterback Henry Burris. Tate is also blessed with a seasoned receiving corps and a solid running game led by the versatile and dangerous Jon Cornish. That said, those who have jumped from the heat of the regular season into the fire of the playoffs say the adjustment is noticeable and harsh.
“You have to remind yourself, ‘It’s just playing football,’ ” said Ray, who was 23 in his playoff debut and has now passed for more than 40,000 yards in an illustrious career. “You can’t put too much pressure on yourself or think you’ve got to play better. It is easier said than done.”
Edmonton offensive co-ordinator Marcus Crandell quarterbacked the Stampeders to a Grey Cup title in 2001. He was 27 then, and got hot at the right time. He remembers what it was like in his first playoff start.
“Things happen very fast and there’s a different type of atmosphere,” Crandell said. “For the quarterback, even in the regular season, the key is to slow things down. It’s just so intense.”
It’s because of that pace coaches would rather have a pressure-treated quarterback. The vets have pretty much seen it all; newcomers, as B.C. Lions coach Wally Buono admitted, “have no point of reference. … Part of it is nobody is willing to put their neck on the line [to go with a rookie passer]”
“I think it’s because of the CFL game. It’s a totally different ball game [than the U.S., four-down version]” Crandell insisted. “It takes time to get a feel for the [CFL]game. Ricky’s an exception.”
From his perspective, Ray likes what he sees in his Stampeders counterpart; how Tate will throw downfield instead of just taking the short completions underneath defenders; how Tate operates with an air of assurance. (“You can see the difference between a guy who is prepared and a guy who is not,” Ray said.)
Tate threw for 791 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions in his three starts by preparing himself his way, often by being alone, watching game tapes. This week, it’s been about working the game plan, honing his timing and trying to keep his nerves at bay. He knows how critical Sunday is and that his stepfather, Dick Olin, Tate’s high-school football coach in Baytown, Tex., will be in Edmonton to watch him play.
“We’ve got good players here on offence. It’s about getting the ball to them,” Tate said. “I’m really excited. Just the anticipation. Waiting is driving me crazy.”