HAMILTON — Lirim Hajrullahu and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats protected their home turf Saturday night.
Hajrullahu's 40-yard yard field goal with two seconds remaining earned Hamilton a 21-18 win over the Toronto Argonauts in the regular-season finale for both teams. The Ticats not only earned their sixth straight victory but finished the regular season 9-0 record at Tim Hortons Field.
And that's significant considering Hamilton (CFL-best 15-3 record) hosts the East Division final Nov. 17. Predictably, though, Ticats rookie head coach Orlondo Steinauer downplayed the importance of a perfect home mark.
"I think 9-0 is important because it was this next game at home," he said. "Heading into the playoffs, I don't know what kind of momentum that carries and if it does or doesn't.
"We think it's an advantage for us and we earned the opportunity to play at home. The game is always going to come down to execution so that's what we're going to be striving to do, execute at our highest level as we head into the East final."
Hajrullahu's boot capped an eight-play, 43-yard march orchestrated by David Watford, delighting the Tim Hortons Field gathering of 22,804. Hamilton also swept the three-game series with Toronto and Steinauer tied the CFL record for most wins by a first-head coach set in 2014 by Calgary's Dave Dickenson.
"Well, I'll say this, I think Dave is an elite coach," Steinauer said. "The individual accolades are great, we notice them and they do deserve to be recognized and talked about.
"I think the individual things . . . I'll be better to reflect on after the season. Winning is fun, don't get it twisted with anything else. I don't want to make light of it, it's definitely the way to go. This is a total organizational, staff and team effort."
Hajrullahu's dramatic kick capped a game that felt — and often looked — like a pre-season contest as both teams didn't dress most of their starters. Hamilton had already clinched first in the East Division, and home field for the conference final Nov. 17, while Toronto (4-14) was eliminated from post-season contention a while ago.
Punter Ronnie Pfeffer, not kicker Zach Medeiros, had a chance to put Toronto ahead but missed a 22-yard field goal that went for a single to tie the score 18-18 at 12:38 of the fourth. Hajrullahu's 57-yard single at 8:57 put Hamilton ahead 18-17.
Hamilton rookie Hayden Moore was 18-of-28 passing for 218 yards in his first CFL start with four interceptions — two more were nullified by penalty.
"He definitely had a rough go," Steinauer said. "I was very pleased with his demeanour . . . with the support he felt on the sideline.
"We'll look at it and get the true meaning behind it but sometimes it doesn't go as planned. It wasn't his day but I think behind his disappointment he's going to be happy for the football team."
Moore took the loss in stride.
"I've got some work to do," he said. "I've just got to learn from this experience, I need to take it with the rest of my career and get better from it.
"I guess it (winning game) makes it a little bit easier. But at the same time I have to play better so we're not in that situation where we have to kick a winning field goal."
Watford was 5-of-8 passing for 74 yards. Hamilton's Cam Marshall ran for 109 yards and two TDs.
Third-year pro Dakota Prukop started for Toronto, completing 4-of-9 passes for 118 yards and a TD in the first half before giving way to Canadian rookie Michael O'Connor to start the third. O'Conner was 10-of-16 passing for 112 yards.
"He looked pretty good in terms of where he was as a young quarterback and showed some good things there playing with a young O-line," head coach Corey Chamblin said of O'Connor. "It was like a glorified pre-season (game) tonight."
Toronto's Armanti Edwards had four catches for 62 yards to crack the 1,000-yard plateau (1,014) for the first time.
The loss ended a miserable season for Toronto, which hasn't made the playoffs since winning the '17 Grey Cup. First-year coach Chamblin is under contract through the 2021 season but hasn't spoken with club president Bill Manning, new GM Mike (Pinball) Clemons and vice-president of player personnel John Murphy about his future.
"Without a doubt," Chamblin said of his desire to remain Toronto's head coach. "I signed the contract.
"The biggest thing is going to be making sure we're all on the same page in how we're going to do it. It's not just what I need, it's what we all need and making sure their vision aligns with mine and it's our vision going forward. "
And Chamblin has definite thoughts about how Toronto can turn things around in 2020.
"I've had a whole year to look at this team and see how everything functions from the inside out," he said. "Pinball and those guys came in late so they've been able to see it.
"We just have to sit down, come together and see how we want to build this thing."
Hajrullahu booted two converts and two field goals.
Rodney Smith and Shaq Richardson had Toronto's touchdowns. Medeiros added a convert, field goal and single.
The teams were tied 17-17 at the half. Medieros missed a 29-yard field goal for the single at 12:47 of the second to make 17-17 after his successful 42-yard boot at 11:06 had pulled Toronto to within 17-16.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press