Hamilton Tiger-Cats' heartache swells with East final loss: 'Welcome to the game of life'

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli throws the ball to Andy Fantuz during first quarter eastern final CFL action against the Ottawa Redblacks in Ottawa on Saturday, November 22, 2015. (CFL PHOTO - Patrick Doyle)

Greg Ellingson made The Play, after Jeremiah Masoli and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats made the game.

The instant-classic CFL East final that the Ottawa Redblacks captured 35-28 at TD Place on Sunday, by the margin of ex-Ticats' Henry Burris and Ellingson's 93-yard catch-and-run collaboration with 1:11 left, might yet mark a watershed for Hamilton. A core group of players only gets so many shots to win a Grey Cup, and the outcome left the Ticats, who have 34 free agents, on outside looking in after back-to-back East titles. The loss also came after depleted Hamilton, with Masoli passing 30-of-42 for 349 yards and getting his Oregon Ducks-style option on for a team-high 44 rushing in his third career start, pulled out all the stops against highly favoured Ottawa. It piles on top of last fall's Grey Cup loss to Calgary, where a potential game-winning punt return TD by speedmeister Brandon Banks was negated by a penalty.

"All I can think about right now is how determined this band of brothers were today," said Masoli, who was elevated to starter in Hamilton after season-ending injuries to Zach Collaros and Jeff Matthews and a brief rotation with Jacory Harris. "We gave it a hard fight. We're disappointed, but we have to tip our caps to Ottawa. I just appreciate what this team did.

"I don't know if I'd use the word 'happy' with my performance," added Masoli, who tied the game on a beautiful 22-yard TD to Luke Tasker on a end-zone corner route with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter. "We kept going backwards after big plays. "I wanted to go the Grey Cup."

Whatever Masoli's long-term prospectus in this league, attention should be paid to a masterful effort. The former Oregon and Mississippi QB shrugged off a twisted ankle and kept Ottawa guessing all afternoon in front of 25,000-plus. The Redblacks, who led the CFL in regular-season sacks, were shut out. Masoli kept all of his playmakers engaged: Tiquan Underwood had four catches for 111 yards, while Tasker (8 for 90), pending free agent Andy Fantuz (7 for 88) and scatback C.J. Gable (73 rushing-receiving on 12 touches).

"What you saw with Jeremiah is why we wanted to keep him," Tiger-Cats head coach Kent Austin said, "He has taken a lot of heart over the years. He has grown immensely through his experiences. It was his fourth start and he played exceptionally."

Austin would not indulge comparing the gutting ends. Punt return taken off the board versus a 93-yard TD when the Ticats had both defensive backs Emanuel Davis and Ed Gainey n deep pass coverage on second-and-25. The TD also came one play after defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, starting in place of injured Eric Norwood, dropped an interception on a pass Burris rifled right at him.

"Every loss hurts, especially when you have a chance to win at the end," Austin said. "They're all difficult. You have to give Ottawa credit. They are well-coached and make plays. It's good for them, it's good for the league.

"I told them the team, 'it's not always going to work out; welcome to the game of life,' " added Austin. "The most important thing is that every player in that room learns from the experience and puts it toward being a better player, a better teammate and a better contributor to the organization. And keep us at a level where we can play an outstanding brand of football and get back to a championship football game."

Little details missing

However much the loss will haunt Hamilton in the long run, special team penalties were again a contributing factor. It led to a five-point swing in the final 90 seconds of the first half. Gascon-Nadon was called for holding on a punt return, pinning the Tiger-Cats on their five-yard line with 1:08 on the clock and a 17-14 lead. On second-and-11, Underwood caught a short sideline pass short of the sticks and stepped out of bounds untounched, meaning the clock wouldn't start for the next play until the ball was snapped. Justin Medlock conceded a safety.

Burris (17-of-32, 326 yards, one TD) and the Redblacks ultimately took over with 37 seconds to work with on the Ticats' 46 probably about the same field position they would have gained if Medlock had simply punted. Ottawa got in range for the first of Christopher Milo's four field goals for a 19-17 halftime lead and never trailed again.

"Those three things led to five points," Austin said. "We got backed up by a penalty so we're on the five. Then we end up going out of bounds, and giving up the safety, and they get the field goal. That put us down by two points when we expected to be up by one."

At that point, one might have intuited that Ottawa, with a home crowd, exponentially more experienced quarterback and a strong defence, would right itself and pull away in the second half. Instead, because CFL, the Tiger-Cats, helped by two Ted Laurent sacks, kept Ottawa out of the end zone for the next 28 minutes 49 seconds. Masoli kept making just enough plays.

"I just appreciate what everyone did today," Masoli said. "Whatever we didn't do, what comes to mind was penalties. We kept backing up, get near the end zone and back up."

Collaros, once he gets the all-clear to play, will be The Guy in Hamilton. While Austin, in class coach-speak, said "the most important thing about this is that ever player learns to be a better teammate and a better player," the CFL learned a lot more about Masoli than it did a month ago.

"I will be watching the film as soon as we get on the flight," he said softly.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.