For a football fan, that was one of the best weekends of football the year has to offer.
The CFL has hit the mid-point which means as important as the games were, they are even more important from this point on. The Canadian university season is beginning and that means people do play football for free, which sometimes I forget. The NCAA machine and its 117 Division 1 teams have started and come Thursday night, the ruthless efforts of Super Bowl experience begin with the Baltimore Ravens in Denver to take on the Broncos.
I thought the B.C. Lions played their best game of the year against the Ticats on Friday night. Travis Lulay hit the 300-yard passing mark and threw for three touchdowns for the first combination of that defined success this season. But there is still something missing. Last year, B.C. was 13-5 and in first place. This year, it will depend on Week 19 and rising to the challenge of that week. Maybe that is good, remembering that if you win the West, there is no guarantee you win the Grey Cup.
If the Tiger-Cats can stay healthy, they will be able to beat anybody as the season move on. The only weakness I sense is the secondary but what was a major weakness has improved since the start of the season. The defensive line, led by Brian Bulcke, is becoming effective, receiver Greg Ellingson continues to impress and Joel Figueroa gives Hamilton two good offensive tackles. Over 50 per cent of the Ticats' 42-man roster are first or second year players. This is a young and hungry team being molded by a Grey Cup-winning quarterback/head coach in Kent Austin. With a new stadium on the horizon, it's not a bad time to be a Ticat fan.
It's also not a bad time to be a Rider fan. At 8-1 and nine games to go, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are looking good. I give a lot of credit to Winnipeg for playing a very good first half but not a full game. Often discussions occur about half-time adjustments and what goes on. If you have a significant lead, not much is said. You just want to keep doing what you're doing. If you have to overcome a deficit, the focus is on what to eliminate and what to focus on. And if the game is close, then much of the critical interaction is about what mistakes to avoid and what plays to create. But I wonder if coach Cory Chamblin simply told his guys to 'calm down' at half-time. 'That's all we have to do is concentrate on what we do and execute our game. To stay calm and focused on the goal; winning.'
The third quarter changed things for the Riders. They opened with a seven-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that took almost four minutes off the clock, followed by a field goal and another touchdown to end the third and start the fourth. Add three interceptions from a humbled Justin Goltz and his receivers equals 48 points and an easy win. The combination of George Cortez as coordinator and Cory Chamblin as head coach was impressive with whatever was said at half-time. Maybe it was complex jargon of elite understanding or maybe it was just calm down and do what your trained to do. Regardless, it was a solid second half as Darian Durrant passed for 103 yards and the Bombers just two.
With no Toronto at Hamilton Labour Day game, all the focus was on Edmonton at Calgary. I don't know how to evaluate the fourth quarter comeback by Edmonton. Part of me says great job by Mike Reilly and the offence of the Eskimos executing football plays under fourth quarter pressure. The other part of me says how can you let the game get so out of hand at one point (37-7). Did Calgary become complacent in the fourth quarter? Yes. At the end of the first half, the Eskimos had 33 passing yards and 30 rushing yards. They were being totally dominated. The hidden hero of the game was defensive coordinator Rick Campbell because going into the game, Edmonton was starting inexperienced players at left guard, centre and running back. Campbell designed many effective fronts, stunts, blitzes and combinations to shut down Edmonton completely... until the fourth quarter.
In the rematch on Friday, I don't think you will see anything passive from Calgary all game as they will stay aware of the possible consequences. I'm still a believer in Mike Reilly, though. He went into this game completing 70 per cent of his passes and produced three consecutive 300-plus passing games. Of more significance, he has great courage and heart and can take a beating and keep on ticking.
For Edmonton, they are closing in on 'a point of no return'. If they do not win Friday night at home, they will be 1-9 with nine games to go. Just to have a 9-9 season, they would have to go undefeated. When do you consciously or subconsciously start planning for 2014?
One last thought about Monday's game. I don't give enough credit to John Hufnagel. Friday will be his 100th game as Stampeders head coach. The only other person to surpass that number is Wally Buono, who is well past 200. Overcoming injuries, producing three good quarterbacks, new coaches, Hufnagel is exceptional at overcoming adversity and building winners, which they are again at 7-2.
Finally, it was Tuesday night football in Toronto and I don't like it. The Rogers Centre could not make the transition from baseball to football fast enough and the University of Guelph was committed to 'homecoming (understandable), so Tuesday night it is. Hopefully it doesn't happen again. Tuesday is a regeneration day, not a football game day. Enough said.
As for the game, it makes you realize just how good Anthony Calvillo and Ricky Ray are. That is not a criticism of Collaros or Marsh. Marsh was experiencing his first start ever in pro football and Collaros was experiencing his second start. I actually thought Collaros would do well again as he has three former quarterbacks coaching him through the week. Head coach Scott Milanovich was a quarterback, quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady was a quarterback and receivers coach Jason Maas had great success in Edmonton as... a quarterback.
I think you can say right now that the team to beat in the East may be the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Burris is still healthy and they are improving. A football season has major lows and major highs. Toronto and Montreal are hitting the lows but it is just a matter of time before the highs come back. With nine games completed and nine to go, each team will play rematches in Week #11. Learn from your mistakes and press forward.
Fall football is coming soon.