Hamilton Tiger-Cats edge Saskatchewan to win 2019 season opener

HAMILTON — Frankie Williams scored a 68-yard punt return touchdown and Brandon Banks added another, leading the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to a 23-17 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders Thursday night in Hamilton.

Riders quarterback Zach Collaros left the game and did not return after being injured on the opening drive, while backups Cody Fajardo and Isaac Harker fell just short of a comeback as Ticats’ defence shut the door late in the fourth quarter.

Jeremiah Masoli threw for 169 yards and a touchdown on 17-of-28 passing, including six completions to his top receiver Banks for a game-high 77 yards. Canadian running back Sean Thomas-Erlington rushed for 68 yards on 11 carries before leaving in the fourth with an injury, though he appeared to be alright afterwards.

But while the top offence of 2018 battled a top-notch Riders defence, it was a special teams play that turned the tide for the home team, as Williams’ punt return touchdown midway through the third quarter stood up to be the winner

Image Gallery: Riders at Ticats

Things started ominously for the Riders when Collaros was injured on the third offensive play of the game. The veteran pivot took off on a draw before sliding feet first, but was hit late by Ticats linebacker Simoni Lawrence. Lawrence was issued an upgraded 25-yard penalty for contacting the head, while Fajardo took the place of Collaros who headed to the Riders locker-room.

The Ticats appeared to have Fajardo under wraps after back to back incompletions, but Delvin Breaux’s second penalty of the drive — this one for unnecessary roughness — kept the offence on the field. Two plays later Fajardo was in the end zone, scoring on a two-yard keeper to give the Riders a 7-0 lead just 3:25 into the game.

While the Ticats’ offence started slow in its first game under new offensive coordinator Tommy Condell, Lirim Hajrullahu would get them on the board with a 48-yard field goal before the end of the first quarter, making it a 7-3 game through 15 minutes.

That seemed to bring life to the Hamilton offence, which opened the second quarter with a 41-yard touchdown from Masoli to Banks on second-and-12. The five-play, 51-yard drive put the home team ahead 10-7 early in the second quarter.

As Fajardo tried to find his legs, the Riders’ defence kept Hamilton’s high-octane offence at bay throughout much of the first half. Late in the second quarter it was the offence able to break through, with some hard-nosed running from the team’s star off-season signing in Powell.

The former REDBLACKS running back ran it three times for 30 yards and also caught a pass before fighting his way through the defence on his second goal line attempt. Powell’s one-yard effort capped off a 10-play, 55-yard drive and took 5:33 off the clock, though Brett Lauther’s extra point sailed wide, giving Saskatchewan a 13-10 lead at halftime.

The Riders started the second half with what looked like one of their more promising drives of the night, when Fajardo found Moore for back-to-back completions, including a 26-yard pickup into Hamilton territory. But after Powell was stopped two yards short on second down, a third down gamble failed to cash in when the running back was stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

It was a major turning point in the game because after the Riders’ offence was stopped again on a Dylan Wynn sack, Ticats returner Frankie Williams ran a punt back 68 yards to put the Ticats back in front 17-13.

The Riders’ quarterback woes continued late in the third, when Fajardo was forced from the game after taking a hit from Ticats defensive end Julian Howsare. After a 39-yard field goal from Hajrullaju extended the Ticats’ lead to 20-13, it was Isaac Harker’s turn to lead the Saskatchewan offence into the fourth quarter.

And as Fajardo returned to the Riders’ sideline, and even came in to run short yardage, Harker showed a little something as a 23-year-old rookie. The third-string pivot completed four straight passes, including a 19-yarder to Shaq Evans on second down, setting the offence up in the red zone.

The drive would eventually stall after a sack by Lawrence on second down, but Lauther’s first field goal of the night, a chip shot from 19 yards out, cut the Riders’ deficit to 20-16 with 11 minutes left in the game.

Some tough running by Thomas-Erlington set up Hajrullahu’s third field goal of the night, extending the Ticats’ lead to 23-16 with 5:36 remaining after a five-minute drive. But it came with a cost, as Thomas-Erlington had to leave the game with what appeared to be a shoulder injury.

A 37-yard catch-and-run by KD Cannon had the Riders back on the doorstep, as Harker continued to lead the Green and White. But again Hamilton’s defence wouldn’t break, and Lauther’s second field goal of the night — this one from 41 yards — sailed left, leaving the Riders with only a rouge.

The Rider defence responded when needed, forcing a two-and-out to get the offence back on the field with 2:05 remaining. With completions on five of his first seven passes, it was Harker’s game to win. But two late interceptions were all the rookie could muster, sealing Orlondo Steinauer’s first victory as a CFL head coach.

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