June 14, 2019

Riders Fall to Ticats in Close Week 1 Battle

Saskatchewan quarterback Isaac Harker hands the ball off to William Powell during third quarter CFL action between the Roughriders and the Ticats in Hamilton on Thursday June 13, 2019 (CFL PHOTO - Geoff Robins )

HAMILTON — Frankie Williams scored on a 68-yard punt return touchdown and Brandon Banks added another, leading the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to a 23-17 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders Thursday night at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field.

Riders quarterback Zach Collaros left the game and did not return after being injured on the opening drive, while backups Cody Fajardo and Isaac Harker fell just short of a comeback as the Ticats’ defence shut the door late in the fourth quarter.

Jeremiah Masoli threw for 169 yards and a touchdown on 17-of-28 passing to lead the Ticats, including six completions to his top receiver Banks for a game-high 77 yards. Canadian running back Sean Thomas-Erlington rushed for 68 yards on 11 carries before leaving in the fourth with an injury, though he appeared to be alright afterwards.

While the top offence of 2018 battled a top-notch Riders defence, it was a special teams play that turned the tide for the home team, as Williams’ punt return touchdown midway through the third quarter stood up to be the winner. Williams also started the game at corner for the Ticats.

Despite the loss, it was a valiant effort for the visiting Riders, who were down to their third-string quarterback after Fajardo was injured in the second half.

William Powell had a game-high 104 rushing yards and a touchdown in his first contest as a Rider, while sophomore KD Cannon led the club with four catches for 66 yards, all of which coming in the second half.

Harker, a 23-year-old rookie straight out of college, finished with 128 yards on 8-of-14 passing, but was intercepted twice. Fajardo threw for just 66 yards on 9-of-17 passing, but added 34 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Things started ominously for the Riders when Collaros was injured on the third offensive play of the game. The veteran pivot took off on a draw before sliding feet first, but was hit late by Ticats linebacker Simoni Lawrence. Lawrence was issued an upgraded 25-yard penalty for contacting the head, while Fajardo took the place of Collaros, who headed to the Riders’ locker-room.

The Ticats appeared to have Fajardo under wraps after back to back incompletions, but Delvin Breaux‘s second penalty of the opening drive — this one for unnecessary roughness — kept the offence on the field. Two plays later Fajardo was in the end zone, scoring on a two-yard keeper to give the Riders a 7-0 lead just 3:25 into the game.

While the Ticats’ offence started slow in its first game under new offensive coordinator Tommy Condell, Lirim Hajrullahu would get them on the board with a 48-yard field goal before the end of the first quarter, making it a 7-3 game through 15 minutes.

That seemed to bring life to the Hamilton offence, which opened the second quarter with a 41-yard touchdown from Masoli to Banks on second-and-12. Banks was well-covered by Riders corner Nick Marshall but a well-placed ball by Masoli allowed Banks to eventually separate. The five-play, 51-yard drive put the home team ahead 10-7 early in the second quarter.

As Fajardo tried to find his legs, the Riders’ defence kept Hamilton’s high-octane offence at bay throughout much of the first half. Late in the second quarter it was the offence able to break through, with some hard-nosed running from the team’s star off-season signing in Powell.

The former REDBLACKS running back ran it three times for 30 yards and also caught a pass before fighting his way through the defence on his second goal line attempt. Powell’s one-yard effort capped off a 10-play, 55-yard drive and took 5:33 off the clock, though Brett Lauther‘s extra point sailed wide, giving Saskatchewan a 13-10 lead at halftime.

The Riders started the second half with what looked like one of their more promising drives of the night, when Fajardo found Kyran Moore for back-to-back completions, including a 26-yard pickup into Hamilton territory. But after Powell was stopped two yards short on second down, a third down gamble failed to cash in when the running back was stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

It was a major turning point in the game because after the Riders’ offence was stopped again on a Dylan Wynn sack, Ticats returner Williams made them pay, running a punt back 68 yards to restore the lead, 17-13.

The Riders’ quarterback woes continued late in the third, when Fajardo was forced from the game after taking a hit from Ticats defensive end Julian Howsare. After a 39-yard field goal from Hajrullaju extended the Ticats’ lead to 20-13, it was Harker’s turn to lead the Saskatchewan offence into the fourth quarter.

Fajardo would return to the Riders’ sideline, and even entered the game to run short yardage. But Harker earned the faith of the Riders’ coaching staff, remaining in the game. The third-string pivot completed four straight passes, including a 19-yarder to Shaq Evans on second down, setting the offence up in the red zone.

The drive eventually stalled after a sack by Lawrence on second down, but Lauther’s first field goal of the night, a chip shot from 19 yards out, cut the Riders’ deficit to 20-16 with 11 minutes left in the game.

Some tough running by Thomas-Erlington set up Hajrullahu’s third field goal of the night, extending the Ticats’ lead to 23-16 with 5:36 remaining after a five-minute drive.

A 37-yard catch-and-run by Cannon had the Riders back on the doorstep, as Harker continued to lead the Green and White. But again Hamilton’s defence refused to break, and Lauther’s second field goal of the night — this one from 41 yards — sailed left, leaving the Riders with only a rouge.

The Rider defence responded when needed, forcing a two-and-out to get the offence back on the field with 2:05 remaining. With completions on five of his first seven passes, it was Harker’s game to win. But two late interceptions doomed the rookie, including a last-play Hail Mary, sealing a Ticats victory to open the season.

The Ticats move to 1-0 on the season despite managing just 13 first downs on offence, converting just eight of 21 second-down tries. The Riders held a significant edge in both total yards (352-230) and time of possession (36:05 to 23:55), but the Ticats won the turnover battle 4-0.

Riders SAM linebacker Derrick Moncrief had a game-high eight tackles to go with a sack.

The Riders’ early road swing continues with a trip to the nation’s capital to take on the REDBLACKS on June 20.