LIVESTREAM PPV: CFL Eastern Semifinal – BC Lions @Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Nov. 11, 1p EST (7p CEST)

HAMILTON — They may not see eye to eye, but the BC Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats do share some of the same vernacular.

The word ‘physical’ has come up often this week, with both sides set to kick off the 106th Grey Cup Playoffs with the Eastern Semi-Final on Sunday at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

It may sound cliché, but with the mercury dropping and the possibility of snow flurries, it may be a sign of what’s to come when these cross-division rivals collide head on in a win-or-go-home affair.

“We have to be physical from the jump,” said Ticats defensive back Delvin Breaux. “We have to let these guys know we’re coming here to play.”

“For me, I’ve played in a couple of games where it’s extremely cold, and the most physical team wins those games,” added Lions defensive end Odell Willis. “The teams who let the cold get into their psyche, you’re going to see them fall in the second or third quarter defending on how the flow of the game is going.”

Despite stumbling into the playoffs with a combined 0-5 run, the Lions and Ticats are energized, returning to the post-season after missing out in 2017. Head Coach June Jones and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli have engineered an impressive turnaround in Hamilton, while the Lions responded favourably to a quick re-tool in Wally Buono’s last season as head coach.

For the Leos, such a physical brand of football has been part of GM Ed Hervey’s blueprint from the beginning. Despite struggling to a 3-6 record in the first half of the season, dropping to the bottom of the West Division standings, the plan never changed.

“The physicality wasn’t there and there were too many mistakes,” said Bryan Burnham, the team’s leading receiver with 1,029 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018. “Wally knows in his mind that his recipe for success works. He’s going to stick to his guns.

“When we were 3-6 the message was the same — go out there, be physical and we’re going to turn this ship around. Look where we are now.”

The Lions responded with a run of six wins in eight games. They tinkered along the way, bolstering their pass rush with Shawn Lemon, adding a vertical receiving threat in DeVier Posey and trading for a star veteran running back from Montreal in Tyrell Sutton.

In the process, they became one of the CFL’s most well-rounded teams. While the defence led the league in sacks and takeaways on the shoulders of a defensive secondary that exceeded everyone’s expectations, Sutton brought balance to an offence that could suddenly control the ball.

Sutton, a six-year CFL veteran, will be a vital cog for the Lions in Sunday’s game. The six-year veteran is familiar with what the Ticats bring to the table, speaking to the physicality of their defence.

“They’re the guys in the East who want to out-physical you, outmatch you,” he said. “They’ve got the guys for it, the guys that fly around. Simoni Lawrence is the figurehead, Larry Dean‘s a sure-handed tackler, Don Unamba doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

“They’ve got a very strong defence that can cause you a lot of problems. We’ve got to make sere we’re safe and sound as an offence, detail-oriented and just handle our business.”

Sutton has rushed for 268 yards and two touchdowns in four games with the Lions, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. On the season the Lions rank second-last in the league with 94.4 rushing yards per game.

While the Ticats are trying to become just the third CFL team to win a Grey Cup with an 8-10 record of late, history is not on the Lions’ side going into the post-season either. No team has ever made it to the Grey Cup via the crossover, while BC heads into the playoffs with a 2-7 road record this season.

We’re quickly reminded, though, that this team has responded in adverse situations before, such as in must-win games vs. Calgary and Edmonton that put them in the playoffs last month.

“The thing that I like about [this team] is when they had to win, they won,” said Buono. “When their backs were against the wall and they had to win a big game, they did.”

The Lions will make minimal lineup changes this week, but will welcome the return of middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian. The former Most Outstanding Player has been sidelined since Week 5 when he suffered a wrist injury.

Quarterback Travis Lulay will start his first playoff game since the 2013 Western Semi-Final.

“It’s an exciting opportunity,” said Lulay. “I’ve played in a number of big games over the years — this feels like another one of those. Playoffs are the real must win.”

“We understand that the physical team is always going to win, and that’s been our motto,” added Elimimian. “We have a recipe for success. It’s being fast, being physical and being smart, and in the playoffs it matters that much more.”

The Ticats are making some changes to a lineup that lost three straight games to close out the regular season, including a home-and-home sweep to the REDBLACKS that cost them an East Division title

Breaux returns to play corner after missing two games with an apparent knee injury, while 2017 breakout rookie Richard Leonard has been bumped out of his starting role for Josh Johnson.

On the offensive side of the ball, in a receiving corps that’s been decimated by injuries to Brandon BanksJalen Saunders and Terrence Toliver, the Ticats have opted to go with rookie receiver Bralon Addison instead of late season acquisition Terrell Sinkfield. The Ticats have yet to decide whether Sinkfield will even dress.

Addison had 103 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in his first start of 2018, a loss to the Montreal Alouettes in the season finale.

“Since Bralon’s gotten here he’s done a good job absorbing the playbook,” said Ticats starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. “He got here late in the season, but ever since we got him he was catching up pretty fast. It was good to see him last week get out there and have a lot of success. He’s a player.”

The Ticats have struggled in the absence of Banks, who’s missed the last two games after suffering a season-ending injury. Despite an injury-shortened season of 14 games, Banks ranked second in the CFL with 1,423 yards and 11 touchdowns, the latter tying teammate Luke Tasker for the most in the league.

“The way our offence works, we just expect guys to come in and snap into place,” said Tasker. “Bralon Addison, he’s coachable and asks the right questions, so he’s one of those guys who’s able to gain confidence from Masoli, myself, the coaches a little bit faster because it’s just the way he thinks.”

Marquay McDaniel and Justin Buren have also inserted themselves as starters on a makeshift receiving corps, while third-year receiver Mike Jones has had a breakout campaign with 841 receiving yards and a trio of touchdowns, averaging an impressive 17.2 yards per reception.

The most pressure will be on Masoli, who has rewarded his team’s faith since taking over as the starter last Labour Day. Masoli was named a finalist for Most Outstanding Player after throwing for 5,209 yards with a league-best 9.1 yards per attempt. But while he threw 28 touchdown passes, he also threw 18 interceptions, tied for the most in the CFL.

Against a defence that tied for first in the league with 45 sacks and 21 interceptions, Masoli will need to protect the football.

“I think the difference is going to be in the takeaway area,” said Jones. “They’re number one in takeaways and number one in big plays on defence and sacks. We have to improve that part of the game through these next three if we’re lucky to play these next three, and this one in particular.

“If we win the turnover battle and play with more discipline with penalties, that will give us a chance to win this game.”

By the Numbers: 

9.1 – Yards per attempt for Ticats’ QB Jeremiah Masoli, the best in the CFL.

12 – 300-plus yard passing games for Masoli, the fourth highest single-season total in league history.

13 – Touchdowns in 14 career games for Ticats running back Alex Green.

21 – League-leading interceptions by the BC Lions this season.

247.5 – Average passing yards per game between the Lions and Ticats, ranked second and third respectively.

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LIVE STREAM PPV: CFL – BC Lions @Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Nov. 11, 1p EST (7p CEST)

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