I've been searching through the bag of stats and research all week, looking for something that would justify picking Hamilton to win the 101st Grey Cup
, also known as The Most Important Football Game in the History of Saskatchewan.
Eventually, there was nothing left outside but a pair of feet, I was in so deep. Nope. Not enough there. So:The host Saskatchewan Roughriders (11-7, 2-0) will defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (10-8, 2-0) in the 101st Grey Cup game on Sunday evening at Regina.
Late in the West final
against Calgary last week, Riders running back Kory Sheets made it clear he was willing to do what's necessary to take his club to a Grey Cup victory.
Taking a handoff, he went magnetic north (from a football perspective) into the line and destroyed DB Keon Raymond before cutting northwest on a dime and rumbling all the way to the Stamps' one-yard line. That image has been stuck in my mind since, playing on an endless loop.
Sheets rolled for 177 yards on 28 carries in the McMahon Stadium ice box, part of a startling 40 plays on the ground by the team overall. You don't see that many carries in the NFL.
The planets have been aligning ever since for the former Purdue Boilermaker.
First, Hamilton qualified for the Grey Cup, and that needs a little explanation.
Each time the Cats have played an elite running back this year, they have tended to allow one big outing and one where they learned their lesson and tightened up. Not against Sheets.
In Week 4, it was 130 on the ground for the Rider runner, and Week 5 he went 140 for a total of 270 over the pair. Yes, that was quite a long time ago, and Ticats fans would argue the defence was still rebuilding), but it gives you an idea there's something in the Cats defence that Sheets likes.
Second, the weather has turned against Hamilton by refusing to snow. With Sheets being a sleek, quick-cutting runner, having a slick field might have taken him out of the game somewhat (we learned last week the cold doesn't impress him much).
But Sunday's forecast is calling for a bit below zero, no snow and about 15-20 km/h winds. That means firm footing, and lots of running.
And here's a stat: In games when Sheets carries at least 15 times, the Riders are 10-0.
He's not the only reason, of course, that the Green Men are the pick:
- Between starter Darian Durant in Week 4, and backup Drew Willy (who had the Week 5 assignment due to an injury to the former), they threw for 616 yards and seven touchdowns against Hamilton's defence as the offence totaled an alarming 909 yards overall. Durant can also run, so if the Cats key on Sheets this week, the QB can pick up the mail and deliver it.
- The Riders are ball hawks, causing seven turnovers against Calgary, a team that actually tied them in takeaway-giveaway differential during the regular season at plus-19. Hamilton was minus-13. For the mathematically challenged, that's a difference of 32. Hamilton throws too many interceptions, Saskatchewan leads the league in pickoffs.
- Geroy Simon. Instincts say the old pro, who may be playing his last game after 15 record-breaking seasons, is going to wind it up one more time for Robbie Burns's sake and give us something special. After coming over from B.C. in the off-season, he caught only 40 balls in the regular schedule and has three in the playoffs. This is the big one, however, and he's a big-game guy.
- Hamilton's offensive line has done a good job in its excellent 7-1 run to the final in protecting Henry Burris. Overall, they were the worst in the league, however, at 65 trips to the turf for their quarterbacks. The Riders had 57 sacks, including 40 from the front four. Henry's going to be under fire back there. Strangely, neither team had a sack last week in the division finals.
- There is a lot to like about both receiving corps, and watching Andy Fantuz come alive with 17 catches in the playoffs has been so much fun. However, Saskatchewan is much deeper, and their top three of Chris Getzlaf, Weston Dressler and Taj Smith (with Geroy and Rob Bagg lurking) are better than Fantuz, Bakari Grant and rookie Greg Ellingson.
- Regina/Saskatoon/Moose Jaw's Chris Milo (88.5 per cent) is a better field-goal kicker than Luca Congi (75 per cent), the latter struggling so much at one point this year he was replaced for a couple of games.
- Hamilton was able to take advantage last week in the East final when it realized Toronto couldn't run at all without the injured Chad Kackert. So the Cats could drop off a linebacker and cover the flats to take away Ricky Ray's only real short weapon. This is not the case this week. Saskatchewan's approach to offence of run, run, big-play pass is not something the Kitties can handle.
- And a stat that hasn't been talked about as much by anyone -- the Riders have the best defence by points allowed in the league. This is the only defensive stat that matters.
- Finally, the pressure is off in Saskatchewan. This year was all about giving coach Corey Chamblin the tools needed to make the Grey Cup game in Regina. Anything less would have been a terrible disappointment. Goal's reached, so everyone can go out and play some football
What can go wrong
This is the Grey Cup. Everything can go wrong (cough "13" cough
). Upsets happen. Turnovers happen. Injuries happen. The only sure pick we've seen this century was Saskatchewan over Winnipeg in 2007, and that turned out to be far closer than advertised.
However, the biggest thing that can go wrong is Richard Kent Austin
, Hamilton's head coach.
There's something a touch supernatural about this guy when it comes to Grey Cups, as in, he wins them, doing it as a quarterback with Saskatchewan in 1989 and B.C. (injured at halftime) in 1994.
He's won a Cup as a Toronto assistant, and then as the head guy in Regina. Coming back to the CFL after a not-so-successful stint in the NCAA, Austin took over a Cats club that couldn't scratch itself, let alone anyone else, and brought it straight to the big game.
Watching his club is a mystery (and Austin has been seen on an episode of Columbo
). They never use the same offensive attack twice, so on Sunday they could run with C.J. Gable, or with Burris, or with backup QB Dan LeFevour. Or the other backup, Jeremiah Masoli. Or all four. Or someone else.
They could come out throwing with Burris. Or LeFevour. Or Masoli. Or maybe with receiver Dave Stala.
Point is, there is simply no real way to set up a defensive game plan against Austin's club. And that's worrisome.
That's what could go wrong.
Don't bet on the Grey Cup. It's dumb. But if you're thinking of a friendly little wager for bragging rights with the person on the couch next to you, pick Saskatchewan.
Says here it could be by as much as (deep breath ... hold it ... hold it) two touchdowns. 2013 post-season prediction record: 1-3.
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