"We never lost the faith."
That was quarterback Zach Collaros in the moments after the Hamilton Ticats' 29-15 win over Montreal on a cold and rainy Saturday evening. He wasn't talking about this particular game, the one that gave Hamilton their first Canadian Football League East Division title since 1998, but of the season as a whole.
This is, after all, a team that started the 2014 campaign with a 1-6 record and clawed their way back from the edge of the abyss. They dealt with a series of agonizing close losses, a slew of injuries to their big-name players and another half-season of stadium drama.
Ticats coach Kent Austin, who felt the wrath of the black and gold faithful during his squad's lowest points, did his postgame news conference with a celebratory Diet Coke in his hand — though he likely deserved something stronger.
"It feels great. I told the guys after the game, I'm so proud of the group of men that we have, that locker-room, how resilient they've been all year," Austin said. "To finish out the way that we did is a real testament to the men in that room."
Saturday's victory at a jampacked Tim Hortons Field followed the usual script featuring stout defence and solid special-teams play, while adding a rare component: more than enough offence to the win. After taking a narrow 11-6 lead into halftime, Collaros orchestrated two fourth-quarter touchdowns — capped by a 15-yard pass to Brandon Banks and a six-yard run from Nic Grigsby — to stake the home side to a commanding 28-9 lead.
Other issues that have plagued this team — namely penalties, sacks and the lack of a running game — were also conspicuously absent. Hamilton was flagged just four times, saw Collaros taken down only twice and racked up 131 yards on the ground, led by Grigsby's 93.
"You want to have a complete game in games that mean the most," Austin said. "We needed to be able to kill the clock against the wind."
With the 14-point win, the Ticats finished with a 9-9 record — as did the Alouettes — but Hamilton took first place in the East Division on point differential between the two clubs. The Ticats will host the East final Nov. 23, while Montreal will take on the crossover B.C. Lions next Sunday in the semifinal.
Alouettes linebacker Bear Woods appears to be looking past the Lions to another rematch with Hamilton in two weeks time.
"They can enjoy this, but in two weeks they are going to be wishing they hadn't," Woods said after the game. "They won tonight. They won't win next time."
Meanwhile, the Toronto Argonauts, who finished the season at 8-10, were eliminated by the Ticat victory and their season is over. The Tiger-Cats engaged in a nifty piece of social media trolling using their official @Ticats Twitter account to send a message to @Argos. It read simply: "'sup."
That knife twist was the capper on a banner day for a fan base that has endured a great deal over the past few seasons: a missed playoff opportunity in 2012, the season away from home in Guelph, stadium hijinks, a devastating Grey Cup loss. But the new stadium and the spate of winning that's followed — the team is now a perfect 6-0 at Tim Hortons Field — has invigorated both the team and its faithful, says defensive back Brandon Stewart.
"They've got their football team back and they're showing it," said Stewart, who scored his second touchdown in as many games. "What a way to thank them, by winning and getting a home playoff game."
The Ticats will now enjoy a full week off — no practices, no team activities, no nothing — which will enable them to get some much-needed rest. They will return to practice next week, with the East final opponent determined, and begin their normal preparation routine: Football players are, after all, creatures of habit.
One guesses that Collaros, workaholic that he is, will likely hit the film room long before that. Even while relishing what's certainly the most important win of his young career, Collaros was already shifting focus to the challenges ahead — this Ticat team is now just a single win away from their second straight Grey Cup appearance.
"We've been counted out since Week 1. It's definitely satisfying," he said. "The guys in the locker-room believe in each other. We knew we were a good football team.
"We're a game away from our ultimate goal."
NOTES: Collaros took a hit to the back of the head on the final play of the third quarter but stayed in the game despite acknowledging that "he got his bell rung." Austin said the Ticat quarterback was cleared to continue by the team's training staff. "If there was any issues, they would have pulled him out," he said. ... Veteran Canadian Marc Beswick registered two special-teams tackles and is now tied with Rob Hitchcock for the Ticats' all-time lead with 122. ... Stewart's teammates made him do pushups in the locker-room following the game after a fourth-quarter pass deflected off his hands and into the arms of a Montreal receiver for the visitors' only touchdown on the day. That wasn't the only thing he had to answer for: "The boys were getting on me, 'You have to have a dance next time you score a touchdown,' " he said. "I'll definitely have something the next time I get in there."