The talk in the CFL is that the Tiger-Cats are more than capable of beating the Montreal Alouettes and earning Hamilton its first post-season win in 10 years.
While talk is cheap, one of the tangible edges the Ticats have going into Sunday’s Eastern semifinal is on special teams.
In huge wins over B.C. and Calgary, two teams who may collide in the Western final when all is said and done, it was Hamilton’s return game and cover unit that would switch momentum by either scoring touchdowns or providing the offence with a short field.
“Can are returners be the difference makers?’’ began head coach Marcel Bellefeuille on Thursday following another spirited practice at Ivor Wynne Stadium. “That’s the challenge.”
Marcus Thigpen will be the primary returner, a guy who simply can’t afford to fumble the ball in the manner he did in last year’s bitterly disappointing loss to the Argos on the same semi stage.
Chris Williams will be prominent as will Avon Cobourne, a three-headed monster the Als cannot match.
And there’s the booming leg of Justin Medlock, who won’t have to worry about any swirling conditions or quirky features inside the climate-controlled Olympic Stadium.
Sean Whyte has had a great year in Montreal, but not many kickers in the CFL have Medlock’s leg strength.
Medlock looms as such a key weapon that any possession that crosses midfield is likely to lead to at least a field-goal attempt.
The exact range will depend on how Medlock kicks in the pre-game warmup, a time Bellefeuille often consults with Medlock to gauge potential field goals.
“Low 50s,’’ Bellefeuille responded when asked of Medlock’s range.
It could very well be extended, which allows Hamilton to be more aggressive in its play calling and gives it a huge edge in any late-game scenario where a field goal is absolutely required.
Medlock, who once played for the Argos, is used to playing indoors, but Sunday’s visit to Olympic Stadium will be his first.
“I’ll get a feel during warmup and I’ll get a feel how the balls are going to be on the first kickoff of the game,’’ Medlock said.
There’s a chance the Ticats may move indoors Friday as bad weather moves into the Hammer, but the wind on Thursday forced Medlock to make a minor adjustment in his preparation.
“I didn’t punt as much because of the wind,’’ he confided. “In windy conditions, your drop is different and I wanted to avoid the habit of dropping it differently.”
BATTLE LOOMS IN TRENCHES
Peter Dyakowski pulled no verbal punches knowing full well punches are likely to be thrown in Sunday’s slugfest.
For the sixth time this season, the Ticats and Als will do battle, this time the most meaningful with the winner advancing to next Sunday’s Eastern final in Winnipeg, the loser left to contemplate a long off-season.
Dyakowski’s sixth sense tells him a battle of epic proportions looms inside the trenches where football games are often won when his offensive line takes on Montreal’s front seven.
“They’re big and strong and when you play against guys like that you know you’ll be slugging it out,’’ said Hamilton’s starting right guard.
Montreal will use twists, send linebackers such as Chip Cox off the edge and will do a lot of movement up front to confuse and rattle the Ticats.
Dyakowski knows the guy he lines up opposite before the ball gets snapped may not necessarily be the same guy he’ll have to block when the play unfolds.
“A lot of movement, lot of variety in the way they line up,’’ he added. “They’ll show you different fronts. When you boil it all down, we’ll all have different responsibilities.
“We have to be alert and keep our eyes up to pick up all that garbage they’ll be throwing at you. There’s always bad blood and it always gets physical when we play this team. There’s definitely going to be more bad blood seeing this is the sixth game against them.
“It’s going to be physical, especially along the line of scrimmage.”
Dyakowski wouldn’t want it any other way.
With so much on the line, Dyakowski is expecting nothing but Montreal’s best.
Anwar Stewart and John Bowman are the athletic pieces at end who are more than capable of disrupting Hamilton’s backfield.
In the interior, Eric Wilson and one-time Ticat J.P. Bekasiak provide the inside push.
“We used to be buddies,’’ Dyakowski said of Bekasiak.
For Hamilton, the key could very well be containing Cox, who had a stellar game last time Ticats played in Montreal.
When the Als held on for a 27-25 win on Oct. 16, Cox had seven tackles, one sack, one interception and one knock down.
PRAISE FOR ALS BACK
There was no doubt with Avon Cobourne that understudy Brandon Whitaker would excel.
Watching Whitaker up close gave Cobourne an insight not many could glean, a perspective only Cobourne could appreciate.
“He’s such a humble and hard-working guy, I expected him to do well,’’ Cobourne said. “I’m happy I left Montreal. It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.
“Had I stayed, we may not have seen Brandon Whitaker. And for that, I am grateful I left.”
In Montreal’s two wins versus the Ticats, both at home, Whitaker rushed 29 times for a total of 151 yards.
As a receiver, Whitaker hauled in 39 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns in those two wins.
Many have scoffed at the suggestion Whitaker should have been named Montreal’s most outstanding player, a recognition quarterback Anthony Calvillo would earn.
But Cobourne isn’t among the group.
“He’s the best back in the league this year,’’ Cobourne said of Whitaker. “Hands down. He played lights out.”
The media, many of whom know nothing about football, voted for Calvillo, who has emerged as the East’s nominee.
In reality, it should have been either Whitaker or Jamel Richardson.
“Everybody who plays football knows it should have been Jamel or Brandon Whitaker,’’ said Cobourne.