Tiger-Cats’ and Riders’ victories are both surprising, but from different angles

Andrew Bucholtz
55 Yard Line

Saturday's victories by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders were each surprising in their own way. From Saskatchewan's side, a Week Three victory over the B.C. Lions, the defending Grey Cup champions and favourites to win the title again this season, might have seemed a little unlikely at the start of the year. The Roughriders were coming off a CFL-worst 5-13 season in 2011, after all, and while they were predicted to be better this year, most expectations were still pretty modest. However, when you figure in Saskatchewan's impressive Week One and Week Two wins and the Lions barely eking out a victory last week, a Riders' victory at home didn't seem out of the question heading into Saturday's action. It was the reverse in Hamilton, where the Tiger-Cats were widely seen as Grey Cup contenders following their splashy offseason moves, but slumped to an 0-2 start and were accused of locker-room drama; a Week Three win over Toronto looked more likely before the season started than it did this week. Both teams managed to pull off victories, though, and while that goes to show that you can't put too much faith in either preseason expectations or the first few weeks of action in the CFL, it also doesn't necessarily quench all the doubts about these teams.

Saskatchewan's win was by a narrower margin (23-20 as opposed to 36-27), but it might have been the more remarkable of the two. The Riders weren't perfect, as their aerial attack in particular could definitely stand a few improvements (Darian Durant completed a reasonable 18 of 28 pass attempts, 64.2 per cent, but only threw for 172 yards and didn't have a passing touchdown), but they put on impressive displays in just about every other aspect of the game. Running back Kory Sheets collected 76 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries (an average of 5.1 yards per carry), and the team got huge plays from their defence and special teams. The defence picked off B.C. quarterback Travis Lulay twice and held running back Andrew Harris to 37 yards on eight carries, and the special teams turned in the play of the day, Tristan Jackson's 129-yard touchdown return of a missed Paul McCallum field goal. The Riders still found a way to triumph over a very impressive opponent on a day when their biggest supposed strength wasn't clicking, and that's quite notable.

The Tiger-Cats deserve full credit for their own victory, of course, and it's certainly going to help them put aside all the distracting storylines. However, digging into the boxscore brings up several problematic aspects for Hamilton. Most notably, despite the three passing touchdowns the Tiger-Cats picked up, their aerial offence really didn't have a good day on the whole, and certainly not one that will make the discussion about their decision to briefly bench starter Henry Burris last week go away. Burris did anything but bounce back Saturday, completing just 12 of 27 passes (44 per cent) for 181 yards, and he had an interception to go with his three touchdowns. The defence also struggled against the run, letting Toronto running back Cory Boyd collect a career-high 168 yards on 19 attempts (8.8 yards per carry), and the special teams gave up several big returns to Chad Owens. The Tiger-Cats will just be happy to get their first victory of the year, but they'll need to do more to keep winning this year.

Overall, Saskatchewan's win and improvement to 3-0 suggests pre-season expectations are far from the most crucial factor for teams, while Hamilton's victory shows that even teams in terrible slumps can turn them around quickly. However, both games also show that even a win doesn't cover over all your flaws. You're not going to win many CFL games when your quarterback throws for less than 200 yards, and improving the aerial attack will have to be a focus for both the Riders and Tiger-Cats. Sure, pre-season expectations aren't everything, and neither are results from the first two weeks, but a Week Three victory isn't proof of a team's ineffable greatness either. This is a big step for these teams, but it's just a step, and there are plenty more to climb.