In a CFL East semi-final where every yard was a struggle through cold screaming winds with spitting sideways rain, backup quarterback Dan LeFevour bounded in for a two-yard touchdown in overtime as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats overcame the Montreal Alouettes 19-16 to move within a victory of advancing to the Grey Cup.
The Ticats had struggled all afternoon to find the end zone, playing under ominous skies as biting winds gusted at some 60 kilometres an hour while rain and hail fell, and they fought a stingy Montreal defence. But they mustered two touchdowns in the dying minutes, when it mattered most – with their season hanging by a thread.
First Ticats quarterback Henry Burris led a 12-play, 97-yard touchdown drive against the wind in the final five minutes of the game and found rookie running back C.J. Gable, who bounced 17 yards off defenders for the touchdown. The Alouettes tied it with a field goal to force overtime, before the Ticats held Montreal to a field goal in OT and persevered to push LeFevour in for the winner, then hoisted him on their shoulders in victory on the blustery afternoon at Alumni Stadium.
"Mother nature was not my friend today," said Burris, who completed 23 of 36 for 204 yards, one major and an interception. "I was able to put everything that had happened in the game in the past and just dedicate myself to that one drive."
The victory earns Hamilton a matchup with the reigning Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts in next Sunday's East final. It will be indoors at the Rogers Centre, a welcome respite after Sunday's bitter, challenging weather.
Two points by the Als on a couple of singles were all that was added to the scoreboard in the first half, nothing for Hamilton. The Tabbies tallied a mere 94 yards of total offence that half, the Als not much better with 144.
There were eight turnovers, stymied offences, field-goal attempts dying in the wind and coaches strategizing to call plays suited to the wind.
The Ticats leaned on the kicking game to get on the board. Luca Congi hit field goals of 26 and 35 yards to take a four-point lead, after first missing one for 48-yards.
Then in just his fourth CFL start – his first in the playoffs – Montreal quarterback Troy Smith threw an expertly threaded 75-yard spiral to Duron Carter's outside shoulder, and the son of NFL Hall of Fame receiver Chris Carter hauled it in tight to the pylon for the first touchdown of the game. It gave Montreal a 9-6 lead, and then it added another pain-staking single a few plays later.
The Ticats didn't capitalize when they were playing with the wind. They tried many things on the day, such as using LeFevour in various situations. They even ran a trick play in which receiver Dave Stala took the ball via a reverse and tossed a long ball toward the end zone to Andy Fantuz, but the slotback couldn't quite haul it in.
Gable's touchdown in the dying moments sent a thunderous charge through the frozen Hamilton crowd at the 13,000-temporary home at the University of Guelph. He had popped out a fumble earlier in the game, one recovered by Montreal's Chip Cox. He vowed to be a difference-maker.
The East rookie of the year and former USC Trojan said the score ranks as the top moment of his football career.
"The fumble, I don't know how it came out," Gable said. "But I knew I had to make that up somehow, some way."
Hamilton has only appeared in the East final once in the past 11 years – a 2011 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Ticats coach Kent Austin joked that the weather and the drama provided a playoff game so intense that he felt he had aged in dog years.
"It's a real credit to the guys in that room," Austin said. "That they didn't waiver or quit."