If the Winnipeg Blue Bombers want a shot at ending the CFL'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).
The West Division final will be the experience of veteran Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray going up against the youthful exuberance of Lions' starter Travis Lulay.
Ray, in his ninth CFL season, is a two-time Grey Cup champion who is regarded as one of the league's top quarterbacks. He finished third overall in passing this season with 4,594 yards and finished with 24 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
Ray was 19-of-27 passing for 245 yards and a TD versus Calgary, leading Edmonton to its first West Division final berth since 2005. That year, the Eskimos beat B.C. 28-23 in the conference final before earning a 38-35 double-overtime win over Montreal in the Grey Cup at B.C. Place.
The 28-year-old Lulay enjoyed a stellar first full season as B.C.'s starter. The third-year CFL veteran finished second in CFL passing with 4,815 yards and was tied with Calvillo for most TD strikes (32), with the two named finalists for the CFL's outstanding player award.
B.C. rallied from its slow start to win 11 of its final 13 games to end up tied for tops in the West Division with Calgary and Edmonton. But the Lions garnered first based on winning the season series with the Stampeders and Eskimos.
Lulay passed for 1,266 yards and 12 touchdowns this season versus the Eskimos, including three apiece to veteran slotbacks Arland Bruce III and Geroy Simon.
Ray had 966 passing yards with five TDs and three interceptions against B.C. Slotback Fred Stamps was a favourite target with 16 catches for 201 yards and a TD.
Tailback Jerome Messam ran for 1,057 yards this season to become the first Canadian-born 1,000-yard rusher since 2000. But the Toronto native who grew up in Brampton, Ont., was held in check by B.C., running for 138 yards combined.
Messam, a finalist as the CFL's outstanding Canadian, had 32 yards rushing and a TD in nine carries against Calgary before being injured in the second half. If Messam, a former Lion, can't go in the West final, the Eskimos do have dependable veteran Calvin McCarty and late-season acquisition Hugh Charles available.
But both offences will face stiff challenges because B.C. and Edmonton have solid defensive units.
B.C. finished first in fewest points allowed (21.4 per game) and second in yards allowed (318 per game) and sacks (54). The Lions also surrendered the fewest TDs (32) and passing touchdowns (20).
Edmonton was second in fewest points allowed (22.3) and touchdowns (39) but gave up a league-low 10 rushing TDs. And against Calgary on Sunday, the Eskimos forced three turnovers — including Damaso Munoz's 76-yard fumble return for a TD — and registered four second-half sacks.