TORONTO - Ricky Ray outduelled Henry Burris and earned the Toronto Argonauts a wild season-opening victory.
Ray threw four TD passes to rally Toronto to a 39-34 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday night. Ray's 10-yard touchdown toss to Dontrelle Inman at 9:49 of the fourth quarter gave the Argos their winning margin in a track meet that featured 51 first downs and 1,000 total offensive yards but still came down to the final play.
Burris drove Hamilton from its 44-yard to the Toronto 13 in the final 30 seconds on completions to Greg Ellingson and Onrea Jones. But rookie running back C.J. Gable dropped a screen pass that had he held on to had a clear path to the end zone. Still, the Ticats had one final gasp with three seconds left at the Argos' eight-yard line following a penalty, but Andy Fantuz couldn't hold on to Burris's throw in the end zone.
"I don't know how many times in my career I've been on the sidelines watching Henry Burris lead a last-minute drive," Ray said. "But sacking him twice and then the big breakup in the end zone at the end, those were huge.''
A new-look Argos defence with seven new starters struggled in the first half against Hamilton, which led 31-25 at halftime. Burris was a big reason for that, passing for 207 yards and three TDs but he said the Ticats should've put the defending Grey Cup champions away much earlier.
"It should not have come down to that play at the end, we left a lot of plays on the field," Burris said. "We were right there but we sputtered when we had the opportunities.
"We let it slip away when we had the chance to steal it.''
Toronto's defence still allowed 199 second-half yards but only three-second half points. And the unit sacked Burris on consecutive plays, forcing Hamilton to punt with three minutes remaining and trailing by five points.
"We talked at halftime about staying together and how football games aren't won by players but by teams that play together with one heartbeat," Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said. "Our guys stayed together and that was an encouraging thing because we have many new guys.
"The fact they didn't start pointing fingers and trying to cover their own butts was a positive. We just knuckled down and did enough to win. It was by no means a glorious effort for us but that's a good football team and I think that will prove out throughout the year.''
Toronto also lost Swayze Waters to an unspecified injury kicking off to start the second half. Waters returned to boot a convert on Inman's TD after receiver Spencer Watt was forced to convert his own second-half TD. Watt and fullback Alexander Robinson kicked off in Waters' absence while Inman handled punting duties.
"You've got to give credit to guys like Spencer Watt and Dontrelle Inman that came in and kicked the ball and didn't do anything to hurt us," Milanovich said. "That's not easy to do when you're kind of a fish out of water doing something you're not used to doing.
"I thought those guys did a tremendous job.''
"I don't think I've been around to see something like that and I've been around for a long time," the 11-year veteran said. "It was pretty cool to see those guys step in and do that.''
Burris finished with 361 yards passing and three TDs while rookie Lindsey Lamar had a 104-yard kickoff return touchdown as Hamilton nearly spoiled the party for the Rogers Centre gathering of 29,852. Prior to the game, the Grey Cup was brought out on to the field and players Brandon Isaac, Chad Owens and Chad Kackert along with Milanovich and GM Jim Barker were presented their championship rings before the '12 Grey Cup banner was unfurled.
Spectators were then treated to an offensive, wide-open track meet as Burris and Ray took turns dissecting porous defensive units starting the season with no shortage of question marks. Lamar also joined Marcus Thigpen as only players in CFL history to return kickoff for a touchdown on their first career touch.
Hamilton's offence sports many of the regulars who were part of the CFL's top-scoring unit last year and Isaac gave the Ticats' unit credit but added the Argos' defensive players weren't happy with their performance.
"I don't like the way we played because we played too many snaps," Isaac said. "We were shell-shocked in the beginning however from the second quarter on we were able to make adjustments and make plays when it counted.
"That is a real solid offence but at the end of the day we were able to make one just one more play than they did.''
Hamilton's defence returned eight starters but new defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer has the daunting task of improving a unit that allowed 32 points and 306 yards passing per game, both league highs. The Ticats' defensive woes were highlighted early in the third when on third and five, Ray hit Watt on a 20-yard TD pass to pull the Argos to within 34-32 after Waters was injured.
But Kent Austin, in his Ticats coaching debut, said there was plenty of blame to go around for the loss.
"We had opportunities to make plays in all three phases of the game," he said. "We have to make sure when the opportunity comes that we come through.
"They just made more plays than we did.''
Jason Barnes had two TDs for Toronto while Kackert had the other and ran for 112 yards on 10 carries. Waters finished with four converts, a field goal and a single.
Gable with two, and Fantuz scored Hamilton's other touchdowns. Luca Congi booted the converts and two field goals.
NOTES — In October 2006, Delvin Breaux suffered a near-fatal neck injury covering a kickoff during a high school football game in his native New Orleans. On Friday night, the 23-year-old rookie started at cornerback for the Ticats . . . The Argos' decision to sign veteran kicker-punter Noel Prefontaine to the practice roster last week gives the club kicking insurance . . . Running back Chevon Walker, Hamilton's leading rusher last year, was among the Ticats' scratches while starting left tackle Tony Washington didn't dress for the Argos . . . Burris begins the season as the CFL's active leading rusher among quarterbacks with 4,735 yards . . . Hamilton begins the season with 37 players in either their first or second year in the CFL, most in the league. Toronto will defend its Grey Cup title with 16 first-year players on its roster . . . Toronto won three-of-four meetings last year with Hamilton.