Before everybody writes off
the Hamilton Tiger-Cats
in their 101st Grey Cup matchup
against the Saskatchewan Roughriders
, I want people to recall how a young Calgary Stampeders team with a roster of unrecognizable names upset the heavily favored Winnipeg Blue Bombers to win the Cup in 2001.
Remembered as one of the most unlikely champions in CFL history, those Stamps beat the Bombers 27-19 in the 89th Grey Cup in front of 65,000 fans at Montreal's Olympic Stadium -- and I have the championship ring to prove it.
In 2001 my Calgary team finished the regular season with an unimpressive 8-10 record, but we still secured home-field advantage in the West semifinal against B.C., who we beat 28-19.
Still, nobody expected much from our team, even after we upset Edmonton 34-16 in the West final, where our defense forced Ricky Ray and the Eskimo offence to commit 11 turnovers.
Although many argued that Ray simply had an off day, our young team knew that we were good, and getting overlooked is exactly what we needed to ignite some motivation and position ourselves for an upset in the Grey Cup.
Grey Cup week was full of doubters. I was constantly asked the same question by reporters: "How are you going to stop the Bombers' receivers?"
Winnipeg's starting receiving corps was made up of Milt Stegall, Arland Bruce, Rob Gordon and Markus Howell, and we came into the game starting three raw rookies in our secondary. Our young team had to endure the CFL awards ceremony and watch Bombers QB Khari Jones win the Most Outstanding Player award and Doug Brown win the Most Outstanding Canadian award while our team sat in the shadows with no recognition at all.
Stepping onto the field in Montreal, no one gave us a chance, and yet when the final whistle blew, we hoisted the Cup.
I can't help but see a lot of similarities between that Grey Cup game and the one to be played this Sunday in Regina between Saskatchewan and Hamilton.Ticats come on strong
Although the Tiger-Cats started the season slowly with a 1-4 record, coach Kent Austin has done a nice job
of developing his young team through the season and finishing strong by winning nine of their last 13 games.
On defence, the Ticats head into Sunday's game with six new faces from the team that came out of training camp and three raw rookies in the secondary. While the Riders have a stacked roster with nine CFL All-Stars, the Ticats take the field with a lot of unrecognized faces.
Young players often come into the CFL with the assumption that "football is football" and choose to play the game with only their athletic ability rather than with their minds.
In 2001 I remember our youngsters having a snowball fight in practice between players on the sideline and those on the field. Game preparation was the farthest thing from their minds. Our young players were crazy athletic, but only became valuable once they understood that game preparation was important.
Austin was quoted throughout this year as saying his players needed to "learn their craft." What he meant is they needed to recognize that film study is important and that anticipating what your opponent will do is much more effective than relying on your athleticism alone.
Austin's hiring of defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer was one of his first and best moves when hired as the Ticats' head coach. Steinauer is a smart, creative defensive mind, but he has been schooled in a defensive philosophy that requires players to be mentally prepared, which often requires game experience. A winning scheme
If Hamilton is going to have success against the Riders on Sunday, I believe that Steinauer needs to play to his players' strengths and allow them to play aggressive, fast and without hesitation. Young players may not be able to comprehend complex rotating zone coverages, but they can sure play tough, physical man-to-man coverage and get after the quarterback quickly.
One of the defensive schemes that we had a lot of success with in 2001 was playing tight, aggressive man coverage as our young guns were taught to get their hands on the receivers while knowing that they had safeties to help them over the top. This coverage disrupted the opposing offence's timing enough to allow our pass rush to get to the quarterback and kept our young guys from over-thinking, allowing them to capitalize on their athleticism.
The Ticats can't afford to sit back and give Riders quarterback Darian Durant time or running back Kory Sheets space. If Hamilton wants to be successful on first down, it needs to leverage the speed and athleticism of its front seven and get someone into the backfield quickly to stop the play before it has a chance to get started.
The more aggressive Steinauer can allow his young players to be, the more successful they will be.
There will be no lack of motivation for Hamilton's young players as they will be compelled to prove wrong those that didn't give them a chance. As Austin has returned to the CFL we have been reminded that he is unpredictable and knows how to win football games.
Although envisioning the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as Grey Cup champions this year may seem like a stretch, I have seen stranger things happen.
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