C.J. Gable and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats took a huge step towards securing a home playoff game Monday.
The rookie rushed for 118 yards and a TD as the Ticats held on to beat the Toronto Argonauts 24-18 and sweep an important home-and-home series with their arch rivals.
Hamilton reached the 8-7 mark through 15 games for just the second time since '01 and pulled to within two points of first-place Toronto (9-6) in the East Division. The Ticats moved four points ahead of third-place Montreal (6-9), which lost 34-27 to Winnipeg (3-12) on Monday, heading into a crucial home-and-home series the Alouettes.
'Great teams string football games together. They don't have one good game, then are off for a week then another good game, then off a week. All we focus on now is stringing the next one together.'- Ticats coach Kent Austin
"It means a lot to us, we need this as motivation for the next game," Gable said "We know we have a good team here . . . some games we show it, some games we don't but now we're putting it all together."
But Toronto, which struggled with consistency and penalties all game, made it interesting. Ricky Ray's 13-yard TD to Jason Barnes cut Hamilton's lead to six points at 6:43 of the fourth before an enthusiastic season-high Alumni Stadium gathering of 13,362.
"These fans were loud as heck," Ticats quarterback Henry Burris said. "The fact we didn't have Labour Day, Thanksgiving made up for it in proper fashion, especially with what was on the line with us two being in the top two slots in the East.
"The fans definitely rose to the occasion and we're very thankful for that."
Ray then took over at Toronto's four-yard line with 4:02 remaining and drove the Argos to Hamilton 37 before being picked off by Hamilton's Arthur Hobbs in the end zone. That was Ray's first interception this season.
"Just really proud the defence got a turnover at the end of the game," Ticats coach Kent Austin said. "A couple times this year we've not been able to close teams out on that side of the ball but they were able to do that tonight against a really good football team.
"Great teams string football games together. They don't have one good game, then are off for a week then another good game, then off a week. All we focus on now is stringing the next one together."
Hamilton also beat Toronto 33-19 at Rogers Centre on Oct. 4 to clinch the season series 2-1. That earned the Ticats the Ballard Trophy but, more importantly, the tiebreaker should the two finish tied in the standings.
Burris was 27-of-36 passing for 350 yards and an interception. Rookie Luke Tasker had seven catches for a game-high 113 yards while Gable added five catches for 46 yards.
"We knew at some point they were going to make a run and they definitely did there in the fourth quarter," Burris said. "But to see our defence go out there and put the game away and make a huge stop when the pressure was on, that gives our team a lot of confidence.
"Right now, we're going after that home playoff game and we're going to continue moving forward and do what we can to make sure we get a home playoff game at least, then go for first after that."
Ray finished 26-of-34 passing for 303 yards with two TDs and the pick in his first start after missing six games with a shoulder injury. Toronto was 4-2 over that span under sophomore Zach Collaros.
But Toronto was lucky to still be within striking distance following a sloppy first half. The Argos mustered just five first downs and 137 net yards and were flagged 10 times yet only trailed 16-8, thanks to Ray's 32-yard TD strike to Spencer Watt at 13:41 of the second.
"We're a good football team but we're not good enough to beat ourselves and get away with it," said Argos head coach Scott Milanovich. "We need to play better football . . . you need to play your best football when you enter November and right now I guess it would be safe to say we are not doing that.
"He (Ray) felt like he had made good decisions. It was a weird game, hard to get a feel with how he was playing."
Toronto also fielded a defence that featured five players in new positions. That included Neiko Thorpe making his first CFL start in place of all-star cornerback Pat Watkins (personal issues) while offensively the defending Grey Cup champions were without receiver John Chiles (hamstring) and tailback Chad Kackert (shoulder).
Toronto still remains in the driver's seat for top spot in the East. It plays a home-and-home series with Winnipeg before finishing against Montreal.
Hamilton opened the second half impressively with a seven-play, 69-yard scoring march capped by Gable's two-yard TD run at 4:01 of the third. The Ticats then went 69 yards on 10 plays but Brett Lauther missed a 28-yard field goal that went for a single and a 24-8 advantage.
Toronto drove to the Hamilton 11-yard line late in the third, resulting in Swayze Waters' 18-yard field goal at 14:47 to cut the Argos' deficit to 13 points.
Waters also had two converts and a single.
Dan LeFevour ran for Hamilton's other two TDs. Lauther added the converts and a single with the other points coming on a safety.