TORONTO — A perfect performance from Dane Evans earned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats a Grey Cup rematch.
Evans came off the bench to complete all 16 passes he attempted while rushing for two fourth-quarter TDs to rally Hamilton to a 27-19 road win over the Toronto Argonauts in the East Division final Sunday. The Ticats will host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers next weekend at Tim Hortons Field.
The Bombers defeated Hamilton 33-12 in the '19 championship game. They return following a 21-17 West Division win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday.
Evans' one-yard run at 12:12 put Hamilton ahead 27-16. Evans gave the Ticats their first lead of the day, 18-13, on a one-yard run at 3:35 before Don Jackson added the two-point convert.
It was a remarkable comeback for Hamilton, which trailed 12-0 at halftime. Evans replaced starter Jeremiah Masoli early in the second after Masoli lost a fumble to end a promising drive with the Ticats trailing 6-0.
"I was prepared for it," Evans said. "I prepare every week to go do that.
"The 16-for-16 thing, that's everybody doing their part. I have the easiest job. They all have to get open, I just have to throw it to them... it's just a total team win."
Added Ticats coach Orlondo Steinauer: "We needed a spark... it was just a natural decision to do it there. We said in the beginning it was going to take two quarterbacks to get to where we wanted to get and today was proof of that."
Toronto drove to the Hamilton 11-yard line, setting up Boris Bede's 18-yard field goal – his sixth of the game – to make it an eight-point contest with 1:10 remaining. But Ticats receiver Jaelon Acklin recovered the onside kickoff.
Masoli completed four-of-six passes for 22 yards.
Toronto pulled to within 20-16 on Bede's 47-yard boot at 8:45 before an energetic, season-high BMO Field gathering of 21,492.
Evans' 30-yard TD strike to Acklin made it 12-12 at 9:18 of the third. Evans extended the drive with a four-yard run on a fake field goal the play before but was stopped on the two-point convert attempt.
Papi White put Hamilton on the board at 5:19 of the third with a 92-yard punt return TD but Michael Domagala missed the convert. Toronto took a 13-12 lead into the fourth after Bede missed from 41 yards out at 11:54.
Evans also delivered Hamilton's biggest first-half play. Late in the second, Evans completed a pass to Steven Dunbar Jr., whose fumble was recovered by Argos linebacker Henoc Muamba.
Muamba lateralled to Shaq Richardson, who returned the ball to the Hamilton 25-yard line before being stripped of it by Evans. That prevented Bede from trying another field goal and allowed the Ticats to hit a knee and lick their wounds.
"I really don't know how it happened," Evans said. "I could not say how it ended up in my hands but I knew I had it.
"Then I just wanted to get out of bounds, take a knee, get to the half and recoup."
Steinauer said Evans' strip was big.
"Well, I can honestly say we don't practise that," he said. "It's the old adage playmakers make plays, that was huge.
"There wasn't a speech you could give them (Ticats at halftime). It's really about what they decided to do. I think they did that and then the scoreboard started working in our favour."
Twice in the opening quarter, Toronto drove inside the Hamilton five-yard line but had to settle for Bede field goals at 10 and 11 yards at 6:31 and 12:55, respectively.
"I thought if we scored two touchdowns there it would put them in a tough spot," Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie said. "Unfortunately we didn't take advantage of the first half... but we allowed them to have that energy going into the third."
Dinwiddie thought about going for the TD on the first drive but opted for the field goal after McLeod Bethel-Thompson was stopped on a two-yard run at Hamilton's three-yard line. Bede returned on the second possession after Ticats defensive lineman Ja'Gared Davis knocked down Bethel-Thompson's pass to running back D.J. Foster.
"I went for it down there a few different times this year," Dinwiddie said. "For whatever reason we just didn't do a good job in the red zone.
"Unfortunately that was our Achilles heel this year and it came back to cost us in this game. We're devastated."
Davis was again a solid defensive performer for Hamilton, registering two sacks for a second straight contest. The veteran defensive end will make a fifth straight Grey Cup appearance, his first three coming with Calgary (2016-18).
"Well, I wouldn't be sitting here if the defence gave up touchdowns," Steinauer said. "That's the bottom line.
"The defence was outstanding."
Bethel-Thompson was 24-of-38 passing for 283 yards in his first CFL playoff start. He posted a 7-2 record as Toronto's starter this season.
Bethel-Thompson, linebacker Dexter McCoil Sr., and defensive back Jeff Richards all started for Toronto. The trio, along with rush end Charleston Hughes and receiver Llevi Noel, attended the Toronto Raptors' home game Thursday, which violated the CFL's COVID-19 protocols.
Normally, the players would've had to quarantine for four days and provide two negative tests before being able to resume team activities. But on Friday, the CFL announced they could return if they quarantined for 48 hours and provided three negative tests, the latest which was conducted Sunday.
Bethel-Thompson, McCoil Sr. and Richards all did so and played. Hughes and Noel were both on Toronto's injured list and didn't dress.
The Argos didn't make Bethel-Thompson available for comment after the game.
Toronto came in with a 6-1 record at BMO Field this season and had won the four-game, regular-season series with Hamilton 3-1.
"I think (Bethel-Thompson) played pretty darn good," Dinwiddie said. "I know we didn't score any touchdowns but guys didn't really make plays for him.
"There's a lot we have to go work at and he'll be working at it in the off-season... he's a tough personality and he'll work hard. I'm very proud of McLeod's play today."
Evans certainly did his part to secure Hamilton's starting job for the Grey Cup game. But he said he's not going to lose sleep over it.
"To me, it does not matter (who starts for Hamilton)," he said. "We just want to win this Grey Cup, we want our names on the cup forever.
"I don't care if I have to serve water to everyone on the team. I want my name on the Grey Cup and I know the team wants to. Whatever they say I'm going to be 100 per cent supportive."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press