By beating the Toronto Argonauts for a second straight week, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are making a serious push to wrestle the East Division title away from the reigning Grey Cup champions.
Toronto held a comfortable lead atop the CFL's East Division much of the year, but now, with just three weeks left in the regular season, Hamilton has maneuvered within a game of the Argos by topping them 24-18 on Monday. Hamilton once again denied Toronto the chance to secure the title, which comes with a coveted bye to the East Final.
During their Thanksgiving Day game at The University of Guelph, the Ticats capitalized on turnovers, got touchdowns from Dan LeFevour and C.J. Gable, stopped Toronto's late-game comeback attempt, and dampened the return of Argos quarterback Ricky Ray, who had just sat out six games with a shoulder injury.
Henry Burris completed 27 of 36 passes for 350 yards and an interception, while receiver Luke Tasker caught seven passes for 113 yards, and Gable exploded for 118 yards on 17 carries, along with five catches for 46 yards.
"Offensively, we were able to do it last Friday in Toronto and our defence was able to do it here in such a key situation to get Ricky and all those weapons on the field, and for us to be able to pound CJ to run that clock out," started Burris. "It shows that we are becoming that team that regardless of who is out there, we are able to get the job done when the pressure is one, and we'll need to be that way going forward and into the playoffs."
A bizarre series of first-quarter blunders accounted for the opening points for both teams.
First Henry Burris fumbled a snap on Hamilton's first offensive possession and Argos cornerback Neiko Thorpe recovered it. The Argos then drove it downfield and set Swayze Waters up for a field goal, but a poor hold caused a bobbling, weak kick, and they had to settle for a single point.
Then the Ticats went ahead 2-1 when Tasker made a catch but fumbled it in the red-zone and Argos defensive back Jalil Carter inadvertently kicked it through the end zone while trying to recover it, so Hamilton was awarded a safety.
But it was Hamilton who recorded the first touchdown, as Burris hit receiver Dobson Collins with a long pass which he carried 27 yards to the one-yard line, then backup Dan LeFevour finished the drive by scoring on a one-yard push.
Ray hit Argos receiver Jason Barnes with a sharp pass, which Barnes hauled in but fumbled, and Ticats halfback Arthur Hobbs recovered it. The Ticats capitalized on the turnover as Burris lead the team down-field, and LeFevour once again came in to finish the drive with a one-yarder.
But late in the first half, the Argos finally came alive. A Burris pass was picked off by Argos defensive back Ricardo Colclough. and Ray took Toronto down delivered a 32-yard touchdown shot to receiver Spencer Watt.
The Ticats bolstered their lead again when the second half opened, this time with a two yard touchdown run by Gable. They also added a single point on a missed field goal by Brett Lauther.
"I knew they were coming to me because they know I can make the plays," said Gable, who also recorded two tackles on the night and chewed up much-needed yardage in the closing moments to secure the win. "So whatever they gave me, I was just making sure to go hard on it."
After being held to a field goal in the third quarter, the Argos made their push in the fourth as Ray connected with Barnes for a 12-yard touchdown pass to pull within a score. They drove nearly the entire length of the field in the dying moments, when Ray threw his first interception of the season – right into the hands of Hobbs in the end zone.
"I'm really proud of the defence getting a turnover at the end of the game," said Ticats coach Kent Austin. "A few times this year, we haven't been able to close teams out on that side of the ball, but we were able to do that tonight against a really good football team and a great quarterback in Ricky."
Ray completed 26 of 34 passes for 303 yard and two touchdowns. He was without some of his top offensive weapons, like running back Chad Kackert and receiver John Chiles. On defence, Toronto was without two starting defensive backs, Pat Watkins and Matt Black.
As the teams resume jockeying for their playoff spots, Toronto has two games remaining against last-place Winnipeg and one against Montreal, while Hamilton has a pair against Montreal and finishes versus Winnipeg. Thanks to the Bombers' 34-27 victory over the Alouettes earlier on Monday, the final playoff spot in the East remains up for grabs between the two remaining East teams and the Edmonton Eskimos, who still could challenge for a crossover berth.