If the Winnipeg Blue Bombers want a shot at ending the Canadian Football League's longest Grey Cup drought, they had better figure out how to stop the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' run game.
Hamilton earned an East Division showdown with Winnipeg next weekend after a thrilling 52-44 overtime win over the defending-champion Montreal Alouettes. The division semifinal was the highest-scoring affair in CFL playoff history as Hamilton earned its first post-season win since 2001.
But most impressive was how Hamilton won. The Ticats came into the game as the CFL's worst rushing team (92.4 yards per game) but ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns against an Alouettes defence that was the league's stingiest against the run (90 yards per game).
Two of Hamilton's biggest plays came on the ground with Marcus Thigpen's 50-yard TD run in the first quarter and Avon Cobourne's 46-yard scoring run that put the Ticats ahead 44-37 in the fourth.
Cobourne finished with a game-high 97 yards rushing on 14 carries and the TD.
And quarterback Quinton Porter's one-yard run -- his second TD of the game -- in overtime earned Hamilton its decisive touchdown.
Also on Sunday, the Edmonton Eskimos beat the Calgary Stampeders 33-19 in the West Division semifinal. They will travel to Vancouver to face the B.C. Lions in the conference final next weekend.
Edmonton began the regular season with five straight wins while B.C. opened the campaign losing its first five contests. But the Lions beat the Eskimos in three of their for meetings this year.
The two division champions will meet in the Grey Cup game at B.C. Place on Nov. 27. B.C. is attempting to become the first team to win the Grey Cup at home since doing so in '94 while Winnipeg hasn't won the CFL's championship game in 21 seasons.
The victory was a monumental one for a Hamilton team that finished the regular season third in the East with a less-than-stellar 8-10 record. What's more, the Ticats were tied with Saskatchewan for the league's worst road record (2-7).
Hamilton will head into the East Division final a decided underdog to Winnipeg, which swept the season series 3-0. The Bombers held Cobourne to 178 yards rushing over the three contests.
Winnipeg ran for 359 yards against Hamilton this year, including Chris Garrett rushing for 131 yards in a 33-17 win in Steeltown on Oct. 7. The Ticats' ground game countered with 237 yards against the Bombers.
Winnipeg finished tied with Montreal for top spot in the East Division this season with 10-8 records, but got top spot after winning the season series. A rugged, staunch defence helped anchor an amazing turnaround for a Winnipeg squad that posted a league-worst 4-14 record in 2010.
The Bombers posted a CFL-high 55 sacks and allowed a league-low 301.1 yards against per game. Winnipeg was third in points allowed (24 per game) as well as rushing yards allowed (101.2 per game).
The run game will be of paramount importance for Hamilton because Winnipeg's defence was the CFL's best against the pass (223.1 yards per game). The Blue Bombers also boast the league's top pass thief in Jovon Johnson (eight interceptions, two returned for TDs).