The game had been far from pretty, but with under a minute to play, Jeremiah Masoli was where every quarterback wants to be.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats had the ball at their own 36-yard line, trailing 21-15. As the offence settled in around him, Masoli controlled everything. The Ticats’ two-game losing streak, his offence’s inability to get in the end zone of late — the touchdown he threw to Jalen Saunders on his previous drive was his first passing TD since Week 3 — it could all come to an end with one trip down the field.
As we all now know, it didn’t. Masoli hurled a 50-yard pass to Saunders to get to Ottawa’s 24-yard-line, but threw incomplete to Rashad Lawrence, then was sacked on back-to-back plays that brought the game to a close. The losing streak is now at three games, the Ticats sit at 2-4 and Masoli, off to a great start overall this season, needs to take the next step in his development as a starting quarterback.
Jeremiah Masoli throws a pass in the first half of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Week 7 game versus the Ottawa REDBLACKS. (The Canadian Press)
While every quarterback wants the ball in their hands with a chance to win the game for their team, only a few of them strike fear in the hearts of a defence. Mike Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell, Matt Nichols and Ricky Ray are a few that are capable of doing it and with a few chances to show he’s one of them this year, Masoli hasn’t gotten there yet.
This isn’t an indictment on Masoli. He’s doing far more good things than bad in his first full year as a starter, sitting second in passing with 1,914 yards. A third of the way through the season, he’s on pace for 5,742 yards, which would have put him in second-place last year, behind Mike Reilly’s 5,830 yards. Even in the loss on Saturday, Masoli threw for 352 yards, his 10th game over 300 in his last 11 tries. Over the last 12 months, Masoli has emerged as a bonafide starter and one of the most productive QBs in the league. For him and his team to take the next step, he has to find ways to produce with the game on the line.
Playing in 10 games in 2016, Masoli had two fourth-quarter game-winning drives. In 12 games, he had two again last year. He’s had chances this season, faltering against Calgary in Week 1 and coming up short in the final minute against Saskatchewan in Week 4, the drive stalling out at midfield. The most clutch quarterbacks in the league, Reilly, Nichols, Ray and Mitchell, had six, four, four and three each last year, respectively. Nichols had five in 2016, with Reilly and Mitchell coming up with three each.
A quarterback can’t do everything on his own in those situations. Protection and receivers making plays go a long way, but the responsibility in crunch time for an offence ends up falling on the QB’s shoulders. There’s only one way to find out if your guy has that ability and it’s to get in those situations and let him learn through them. The Ticats haven’t been a good fourth-quarter team so far this season, scoring a league-worst 23 points.
After taking heat from Ottawa’s defensive line in Hamilton’s final drive, Masoli took some as well from the TSN panel after the game. They said that even under pressure, Masoli had to throw the ball. A flag could have flown, one of his receivers could have made a play and the game may have continued. For Masoli and the Ticats, it’s another lesson learned the hard way, part of their journey and Masoli’s as he continues to figure out who he is as a starter.