When you lose by a little, it’s often the little things that make you lose.
Since June Jones took over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in time for last year’s Labour Day Classic, the team has won eight games and lost only…well, now it’s six, after they succumbed 18-13 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina Thursday night
It was the fifth of those six losses to be decided by eight points or fewer, and in the other — at Calgary on Opening Night — the Ticats had the game in their hands before throwing a late interception.
Thursday, it was in their hands basically the whole game, but when it was really nestled in their mitts they didn’t squeeze hard enough. So, when former Ticat Marcus Thigpen scored the game’s only offensive touchdown with under two minutes remaining it wriggled out of their grasp and smashed on the ground.
Now, the Ticats head into a bye week with middling satisfaction, wondering a bit about what might have been.
They’ll take the acceptable 2-2 record through what was anticipated to be the roughest four-game stretch of their schedule, and return for a Thursday, July 19 rematch with Saskatchewan at Tim Hortons Field. They’ll take the rapid improvement arc of their defence and they’ll take Jeremiah Masoli’s helmsmanship and the bushels of yardage.
But this woulda, coulda, shoulda been 3-1, and the seemingly toothless ones that slip away can come back later to bite you right in the standings.
The offence, once again, was never given a chance to start a drive on the better side of centre field, the defence created only one turnover—although it was huge at the time, negating an apparent Rider touchdown—and the Jones vs. Jones think-a-thon went to Saskatchewan’s Chris on defence over Hamilton’s June on offence. The Ticat offence failed to score a touchdown while the Rider defence scored one itself (34-year-old end Charleston Hughes on a forced-fumble-and-run).
Meanwhile, the Riders were like obnoxious house guests: if you don’t get rid of them early enough, they’re going to hang around and ruin your party at the end.
And that’s exactly what happened. Massoli’s party — he passed for 300-plus yards for the ninth straight game, tying the CFL record — was ruined by the Riders’ winning touchdown with less than 90 seconds on the clock.
But the seeds of that ruin were planted earlier.
Hamilton has to fix its overall return game, which is creating increasingly precarious starting positions for the offence.
Eight times Masoli and his crew started from their own 25-yard-line or deeper, five times from the 15-and-in. That puts undue pressure on any offence, even one which can crank out 418 yards as it did Thursday.
And a running attack that harvested 85 yards in the first quarter, including carries by four different players on the first five runs, netted virtually nothing the rest of the way. And while Masoli threw for 333 yards, he went just 23 for 43 overall, and was unable to convert any of the Ticats’ final five second-down situations, which included an interception.
Yes, the Saskatchewan defence is good but the Ticats could not capitalize on it being forced to spend so much time on the field.
For most of the game the Rider offence was a joke without a punchline, or any punch, rotating quarterbacks Brandon Bridge and David Watford like they were playing pin the tail on the donkey. But they bought some time with quarterback runs, then got hot for about a minute.
Bridge completed three straight passes, including a critical, and acrobatic, Joshua Stanford 29-yarder. Then Thigpen scooted 34 unharrassed yards for the touchdown that allowed an entire province to finally exhale.
All that damage occurred late in the game, but it was set up before that, mostly by a killer instinct gone AWOL.
The Ticats owned the first half, particularly the first half of that first half, but allowed two potential touchdown drives to dissolve into field goal attempts. Lirim Hajrullahu missed one of them, so four points came out of a potential 14. Remind us again of the margin of difference?
Hamilton had the ball for a stunning 10 minutes and 37 seconds in the first quarter which, like all quarters, was only 15 minutes long. And they distilled just those four points from 154 yards of offence.
That’s not Hajrullahu’s fault: He’s 11 for 12 this season, and he punted well Thursday. Five field goal attempts in lieu of any touchdowns is the fault of whatever the opposite of Carpe Diem is. Don’t seize the day, and it will seize you.
It’s becoming evident that this Tiger-Cat team is capable of accomplishing something big. But to go big, they’ll need to turn more of those little-difference losses into little-difference wins.
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