In a big game usually dominated by big men, the smallest guy on the field was the deciding factor.
Brandon Banks, generously listed as 5-foot-7 and 153 pounds, scored two touchdowns on punt returns to spark the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to a 40-24 victory over the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL East Division final Sunday at Tim Hortons Field.
Banks had a day for the ages. He ran, he caught passes. But most of all, he returned punts for a playoff record 226 yards. Three of them were returned for touchdowns, though one was called back on a holdiing penalty.
``Brandon Banks is a special football player," said teammate Brandon Stewart. ``He's shown it multiple times this season and in the big game he's a big-time player."
As if his contributions weren't enough on their own, it was the former Washington Redskin's timing that was really the deciding factor. The Ticats had built up a 13-point lead late in the third quarter, but the Alouettes were starting to look like the team that had won nine of its last 10 games.
A Sean Whyte field goal and S.J. Green's third touchdown of the day brought the Als to within three points and the sellout Hamilton crowd was starting to sound a little less vocal. A Justin Medlock field goal restored some of that big lead, but the Als were looking strong.
Then it happened. With a little more than four minutes left, Banks hauled in Whyte's punt near the Hamilton 20 and destroyed Montreal's hopes by picking his way through the Als cover team for an 88-yard touchdown run.
At that point, the Alouettes needed divine intervention and none was forthcoming.
``It was almost like Casper the Ghost, because we were just grasping at air and he wasn't there," lamented Montreal head coach Tom Higgins. ``He had an outstanding performance and hats off to him."
Hamilton's Kent Austin, off to his third straight Grey Cup game as a CFL head coach, knew he had something special when he signed Banks late last season after he was released by Washington.
``When you block hard for a talented returner ... you always have a chance," he said. ``It was a big, big piece of the game."
Banks deflected all praise after the game, giving credit to his blockers. ``There were a lot of guys working for me," he said.
Instead, he wanted to talk more about how the Ticats overcame a dismal 1-6 start, endured a month on the road as their new stadium was being built and then turned everything around.
``It just goes to show what kind of guys we have on this team," he said. ``The guys were willing to fight even when we were facing adversity and weren't playing well. There's a lot of character in this room."
After being nomads for a more than a season -- playing last year a tiny University of Guelph stadium an hour's drive from their city and homeless for part of 2014 -- the Ticats have established themselves as real homers. They are now on a seven-game winning streak at the House that Doughnuts Built and have yet to lose.
Maybe the Cats and their fans appreciate the place more.
``You see that crowd out there," said Stewart. ``They're crazy. It's electric, every time. We can just feel the emotion coming from the fans. We love playing here."
They also loved being able to silence the Alouettes, some of whom were less than diplomatic in guaranteeing a victory over Hamilton.
``They guaranteed a win, didn't they? So they're eating their words," Banks said.
Despite his performance, Banks wasn't the only factor. Hamilton quarterback Zach Collaros, while not exactly lighting up the scoreboard, took care of the ball except for losing a first-quarter fumble in the shadow of the Montreal goalposts.
But 199 yards passing was far outshone by Alouette Jonathan Crompton's 315 yards, but Collaros didn't give up an interception. Crompton was picked off three times, with one by Eric Harris leading directly to a touchdown.
And Hamilton's defence did what it had to do in shutting down Montreal's running game. But in the end, it was the special teams -- and a special returner -- that made the difference.