Chad Owens and the Toronto Argonauts are heading into the CFL playoffs on the craziest of rolls.
Owens broke the CFL's single-season all-purpose yards record and Swayze Waters booted a 51-yard field goal with no time remaining as the short-handed Argos, minus 11 regulars, rallied for a wild 43-40 win over Hamilton on Thursday night that eliminated the arch-rival Tiger-Cats from playoff contention.
Toronto (9-9) rested 10 starters — including quarterback Ricky Ray — and linebacker Brandon Isaac served a one-game suspension for an illegal hit last weekend against Saskatchewan's Darian Durant. But that didn't deter the Argo subs, who surged to a stunning 20-3 first-quarter advantage before Waters' game-winning boot brought the season-best Rogers Centre gathering of 27,283 to its feet on Fan Appreciation Night.
"When they scored to tie it up at the end I knew we were going to have a chance so I went on the sidelines, hit a few into the net and tried to prepare myself," Waters said. "You have to prepare for that situation all the time because that's why they have you here, to make kicks and win games.
"But it doesn't happen very often so I was excited to be able to put it through the pipes . . . it gives us momentum heading into the playoffs."
'We're playing better, there's no doubt about that. I know offensively we've picked up the pace the last three weeks. I think we've got our confidence back. If you have a great quarterback and some confidence you've got a chance to win.'—Argos head coach Scott Milanovich
Toronto will host either Edmonton or Saskatchewan in the East Division semifinal Nov. 11. Hamilton's loss clinched a playoff berth for the Eskimos, who can finish third in the West by downing Calgary on Friday and having the B.C. Lions beat the Riders on Saturday.
Should Edmonton lose or Saskatchewan win, the Riders will take third and the Eskimos will travel to Toronto and face their former starter in Ray. The Esks were 2-0 this season against the Argos, who obtained Ray from Alberta last December.
"That was a clutch kick," Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said of Waters' winning boot. "I mean you have [Chris] Williams back there . . . with the game on the line.
"We're playing better, there's no doubt about that. I know offensively we've picked up the pace the last three weeks. I think we've got our confidence back. If you have a great quarterback and some confidence you've got a chance to win."
Own worst enemy
The Ticats (6-12) played all of their regulars, and with good reason: they desperately needed the win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. But Hamilton continually shot itself in the foot against the Argos' B-team, which played veteran Jarious Jackson and rookies Trevor Harris and Zach Collaros at quarterback in the contest, with Collaros's 13-yard TD pass to Sammy Tranks putting the home team ahead 37-26 at 3:38 of the fourth.
Starter Henry Burris, 37-of-55 passing for a career-high 497 yards and four TDs, pulled Hamilton to within 40-33 with 2:47 remaining with a three-yard TD strike to Avon Cobourne. After two incompletions that took just 26 seconds by Collaros, the Ticats got the ball at the Toronto 39-yard following a 35-yard punt return by Williams with 2:15 to play.
Burris and Williams then hooked up on five-yard touchdown pass — giving him a career-high 43 this season — that tied the score 40-40 with 1:10 remaining. Burris finished the season with 5,367 yards passing — another career high — while Williams had four catches for 104 yards and two TDs, boosting his club-record total to 17.
But Collaros took over at the Toronto 42 with a minute remaining and marched the Argos to the Hamilton 44 to set up Waters' winning boot.
Toronto's offence got a huge boost from receiver Dontrelle Inman and running back Gerald Riggs Jr. Inman, back after missing four games with a hamstring injury, opened the game with a 46-yard reception and finished with seven catches for 128 yards and a TD. Riggs, replacing incumbent Chad Kackert, had 15 carries for 112 yards and added two receptions for 35 yards.
"That kind of set the tone for the game, the first catch of the game," Milanovich said. "Dontrelle had a number of big catches and Riggs was as physical as I've seen in a long time.
"You're always happy with someone gets their opportunity and it hasn't gone smoothly for them all year and they do the job. There's something to be said for that."
Hamilton ends the season the CFL's worst road team with a 1-8 record and after a 3-2 start to the season went a dismal 3-10 the rest of the way. Tempers flared with 4:49 remaining with a melee that resulted in five penalties being called.
Owens had a front-row seat for the fireworks as he was on the sidelines for the second half after delivering a record-breaking performance in the first. He accumulated 95 combined first-half yards to give him 3,863 on the season, breaking Mike (Pinball) Clemons' mark of 3,840 yards. He also had 49-yard completion to Spencer Watt.
"It wasn't about beating Pinball's record, it was just about just showing what hard work, dedication, sacrifice and passion can do for you if you're fortunate enough to get the opportunity," Owens said. "That's why I'm so thankful, man.
"Four years ago I was out of football. I got the chance to come up here and continue my dream and as soon as I got here in Toronto [three seasons ago] things started falling into place."
Gaudy passing numbers
Despite his gaudy passing numbers, Burris also threw two interceptions — with one being returned for a TD — and lost a fumble that led to another Argos touchdown. Slotback Andy Fantuz had 10 catches for 109 yards but also lost a fumble at the Toronto 10-yard line with Hamilton trailing 30-26 late in the third.
"I was fighting for a yard and I was going down when I lost it," said Fantuz, one of Hamilton's top free-agent acquisitions last off-season. "It was a huge momentum swing."
Added Burris: "Pretty much our season in a nutshell. Great flashes, then mistakes.
"Make too many mistakes like that and the game won't go in your favour."
Ticats' coach George Cortez agreed.
"Obviously we had two turnovers that put us in a hole," he said. "Basically we gave them two touchdowns."
Toronto beat Hamilton in three-of-four meetings this season and Burris believes the Argos can make a lot of noise in the CFL playoffs.
"They're a very good team and they're going to make a run in the East," he said. "They did exactly what they were supposed to do to get the win today."
Jordan Younger, on a 36-yard interception return, had Toronto's other touchdown. Waters finished with five field goals and four converts.
Aaron Kelly also scored for Hamilton. Luca Congi kicked four field goals and four converts.