In one moment, when it was time to impose their will, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats failed to summon the necessary gridiron grit.
It was a moment that would define the day and ultimately doom the Ticats, a team whose season officially ended on the frozen turf at Canad Inns Stadium.
One defensive stand, one series to turn momentum around and yet Hamilton failed, just as it failed when so many plays and opportunities were available.
Inside the locker room in the aftermath of Sunday’s crushing 19-3 loss to the Blue Bombers in the CFL East Division final, the mood was sombre, in stark contrast to the euphoria from last week’s stunning overtime win in Montreal.
From a track meet to a snail-like pace, everyone knew this East final would be short on points, both in style and on the scoreboard, where Hamilton went from posting 52 points a week earlier to just three.
But this was not a game in which offence would determine a berth in the Grey Cup, not a game for anyone looking for high-octane offence. It was a game where winning the line of scrimmage and establishing the run would loom as crucial.
And there was no more crucial a sequence than Winnipeg’s first possession in the fourth quarter after Ticats’ Justin Medlock boomed a wind-assisted punt that pinned the Blue Bombers back on their own nine-yard-line, holding a 13-3 lead.
When they won the coin toss, Hamilton deferred to the second half, opting to have the wind in the fourth quarter when no lead is safe. All of a sudden, so much could be produced when so little had been generated, but it all hinged on Hamilton’s defence stopping Winnipeg.
“I really felt good being down by 10,’’ Hamilton head coach Marcel Bellefeuille said. “We had the wind. We had weathered the storm and we had a great opportunity.”
It would turn out to be an opportunity wasted as Bombers running back Chris Garrett began the drive with a seven yard run followed by a great Clarence Denmark reception, when he leaned back to catch a poorly thrown Buck Pierce pass to move the chain.
More touches for Garrett would get Winnipeg to its 46-yard-line and the Tiger-Cats’ big opportunity had vanished. When the game had to be won by making a stand, the Ticats failed.
“We really had a chance,’’ Bellefeuille said. “But we needed to make a few plays and we didn’t.”
“We knew what they were going to do and we weren’t able to do it,’’ Ticats middle linebacker Rey Williams said. “At the end of the day, their will was stronger than ours.”
By dominating the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball, the Bombers were able to book their trip to Vancouver next Sunday night.
While Hamilton was left to lament its loss, the fact remains that Winnipeg beat the Ticats all four times this season, including when it mattered most.
Garrett was the difference in this game, rushing for 190 yards — remarkably, just two fewer than Hamilton’s combined offensive production for the entire afternoon.
He scored a one-yard TD with no time remaining, so there was no point in attempting the convert as Winnipeg’s football faithful witnessed the final game played at Canad Inns Stadium.
Up until Garrett’s plunge on third down, the game’s only touchdown came in the opening half on a receiver-eligible play involving Bombers defensive lineman Jason Vega and backup quarterback Alex Brink.
“He’s a patient back and he hides behind blockers,’’ Williams said of Garrett. “He has great vision, but he’s very, very patient.
“You’re not going to get killed in this league running the football. You’re not going to get points. And up until that last score, their offence had 13 points.”
Hamilton’s bend but not break defence did keep Winnipeg out of the end zone, but when it was time to change the flow of a game the defence did not deliver.
“We had them at the nine,’’ Williams began. “We knew it was a big down, we knew it could change field position. We just didn’t get it done.”
And now, the Ticats are done like dinner.