HAMILTON - It’s all fun and games in the Canadian Football League until someone gets hurt. Right now the Montreal Alouettes are feeling hurt.
Really, really hurt.
Twice the defending Grey Cup champions have visited the unfriendly confines of Ivor Wynne Stadium and returned home brutalized, beaten and bowed. Today the Ticats get to prove its not just a “Hamilton thing” and that they truly are good enough to beat a prominent team on the road; today the Alouettes must show that they have not lost the intensity and the ability to play like champions.
“It’s not like we’re fighting for our lives in the playoffs. But it is important for us to focus on getting a win,” defensive end Justin Hickman said as the Ticats stepped aboard the train for Montreal on Saturday. While the Ticats have made tremendous strides from their 3-15 seasons in 2007 and ’08, there is definitely unfinished business. Since Marcel Bellefeuille took over as head coach in 2008 the Ticats have struggled against good teams on the road, losing every contest in Montreal, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Calgary.
“You need to have success on the road and against teams in the upper part of the standings,” said Bellefeuille. “I think we took a major step the way we played in Winnipeg (a 30-27 loss). We played well in Calgary too although we didn’t get the result we were looking for (a 32-20 loss). We did a lot of positive things that made me believe we’re on our way. But it’s something we have to focus on and punch through.”
There has not been a better chance than now in recent Tiger-Cats’ memory to deliver that telling blow. The Alouettes have never seemed more vulnerable. The Ticats have rarely been in such a psychologically advantageous position.
Until a few days before Thanksgiving last year, the Ticats had beaten the Alouettes just once in 22 games. But since then the Tiger-Cats have won four consecutive times, including a pre-season game, by a combined score of 185-70. Last week they didn’t allow Montreal an offensive TD, the first time all season quarterback Anthony Calvillo hasn’t gotten them into the end zone in a game. Any psychological hold the Alouettes might’ve had has dissipated.
The days when the Alouettes could pretty much sleep walk to an East Division title are over. The two-time defending Grey Cup champions are in foreign territory at the season’s midpoint — four points behind division-leading Winnipeg and tied for second with Hamilton.
And, after Hamilton delivered a 44-21 hammer blow last weekend, Sunday’s rematch has the potential for turning nasty. In football, familiarity often breeds contempt.
“In professional sport, because of the competitive nature, it always gets personal,” said Hamilton quarterback Kevin Glenn.
Offensive lineman Jason Jimenez has been in his fair share of scrimmages, name calling and general mayhem. He knows pugnacity, recognizes it coming.
“This past week there was some talk early on and it was all fun, guys were happy to see each other. After a while it got a little nasty. Then it got really nasty,” Jimenez said. “There was a lot of finger pointing. Frustration set in. It’s understandable. When one team is winning big and you can’t seem to do anything on your side of the ball, and your defence can’t do anything it’s frustrating for anyone.”
The Ticats have been able to dominate the Alouettes up front, disrupting Calvillo’s deadly passing game.
“There was an instance when Bowman got into a yelling match with the referee. About what I don’t know. But that’s where a guy’s emotions play into his composure. I don’t know if he got penalized for that but I know he left the game for the next play,” said Jimenez who lined up against either all-star defensive end John Bowman or rush end Anwar Stewart.
This is not a game that will decide who ultimately emerges as a champion but it is one in which both sides have something to prove. Hamilton is a good team, but great teams win on the road. Great teams never let an opponent up when they’re down.
“I told the team about the challenge of winning back to back. The team that doesn’t win the first game usually raises its intensity level the second game and you have to be able to match it,” said Bellefeuille.
“I guarantee,” said Jimenez, “nobody will be looking back at Labour Day. Just because I beat some guy in a previous game doesn’t mean anything unless I can do it again.”
“This is going to be,” said Glenn, “about the ability to do new things in a short time. The team that can execute plays they didn’t use the first game is going to win.”
Still cream of the crop
Montreal may not be leading the standings but there’s every hint that at least statistically they are still the cream of the CFL.
While they may have scuffled collectively, they are dominating the individual statistics at the halfway point in the season. The Als have:
- Brandon Whitaker, the leagues leading rusher with 670 yards.
- Jamel Richardson, the leading receiver and on pace for 1,800-plus yards.
- Anthony Calvillo, on pace for 5,300 yards and the leading passer is multiple categories.
- Sean Whyte, the leading scorer with 104 points and the leading field goal kicker at 92.3% accuracy.
- Whitaker and Richardson also rank No. 1 and No. 2 in yards from scrimmage.