Sun Nov 14 05:00pm EST
Today's East semi-final started with a whimper and ended with a bang. The Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats seemed hell-bent on putting the unexpectedly small crowd of 27,828 (by contrast, 30,319 showed up for the Labour Day regular-season game between these teams) to sleep for much of the first half, only recording nine points before the break. Both teams turned it up down the stretch, though, and they delivered a spectacular finish.
Hamilton started slowly, but took a 6-3 lead heading into the half-time break, and they were at least moving the ball. After two quarters, Toronto quarterback Cleo Lemon had completed nine of 14 passes but had only thrown for 35 yards against the 161 Kevin Glenn put up for Hamilton. The Argonauts stepped it up after the break, though; their offence still struggled, but their defensive players (like #9 Ricky Foley, pictured above in pursuit of Marcus Thigpen) and special-teams units made plenty of plays, particularly with kicker Noel Prefontaine capitalizing on his opportunities.
Hamilton almost sent it to overtime at the least, turning it on with the wind in the fourth quarter. They trailed 16-6 heading into the final frame, but Glenn returned from injury and led a touchdown drive that put them within three. The Tiger-Cats defence then stepped up with just over a minute remaining, forcing Toronto into a third and two. Argonauts' head coach Jim Barker elected to punt rather than go for it, a decision I disagreed with, and that almost ended up costing them. Glenn was clinically efficient, driving the Tiger-Cats down the field, and he had them potentially in range for a long game-tying field goal attempt with 11 seconds left.
It was appropriate that Toronto's defence made a season-saving play, however. Perhaps concerned about DeAngelis' struggles, Hamilton opted for a pass to try and reduce the distance required. Byron Parker made a terrific interception, sealing the game for the Argonauts and ensuring that the late-game heroics of Glenn (pictured at right under pressure from Ronald Flemons) would be overshadowed by his failure in the final moments. Toronto's defence had been the league's best by points allowed this season, and they came through when the chips were down.
Perhaps the most critical play of the game came in the second quarter, though, when embattled Hamilton kicker Sandro DeAngelis shanked a 17-yard attempt off the left upright. Those three points proved crucial in the end; if he had made that field goal and everything else had remained the same, this would have gone to overtime at the least, and he might have even had a chance to win it in regulation. Chaos theory dictates that the entire game could have played out differently if he'd made that, so it's a stretch to say that that miss definitively cost the Tiger-Cats the game, but it definitely didn't help.
In addition to the performance of the defence, the Argonauts' special teams also stepped up. Two of their biggest gains in the first half came off punts muffed by Hamilton and recovered by their coverage guys. They mostly contained Marcus Thigpen in the return game, and Noel Prefontaine was generally excellent on both punts and kickoffs. Chad Owens wasn't his normally spectacular self thanks to excellent coverage by Hamilton, but he didn't have to be. Toronto did enough to win without a stunning performance from him today.
The path ahead only gets tougher for the Argonauts, though. They now travel to Montreal to face the rested Alouettes, and a Cleo Lemon - Anthony Calvillo showdown doesn't seem likely to end well for them. Still, they have a solid running game with Cory Boyd leading the way, and their defence and special teams have stepped up all year. This victory alone is a huge step forward for a team that was 3-15 last year, but it's too early to completely write Toronto off. This team has done the unexpected all year; can they keep that up in the conference finals against the dominant Alouettes? We'll have to wait for next weekend to find out.