TORONTO - Ricky Ray and Chad Owens delivered a most improbable comeback win for the Toronto Argonauts.
Ray's 69-yard TD strike to Owens with 1:14 remaining in regulation time earned the Argos a stunning 34-33 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday night. Ray found a wide-open Owens, who then managed to evade defender Erik Harris for the game-winning touchdown.
However, the big play almost never was. Owens said he stumbled shortly after making the catch, which allowed Harris to make up ground on the Argos slotback.
"I got excited as soon as I caught it, I went to turn and almost lost my footing . . . so I gave him a chance to kind of recover," Owens said. "Hats off to Harris for finishing that play, I'm just glad I had enough juice left to take it all the way.
"It's the biggest win of the season. Every game from here on out is the biggest game of the season. We have to have that mentality to the Grey Cup, it's a must-win game the rest of the way."
Toronto (6-8) outscored Hamilton 21-3 in the fourth to erase a 30-13 third-quarter deficit and claim its third straight win. The Argos also moved into a first-place tie with the Ticats (6-8) in the East Division, two points ahead of the idle Montreal Alouettes (5-8).
Toronto also evened the season series with Hamilton, with the two teams meeting again at Rogers Centre on Oct. 2. But what Friday's victory means is the Argos will again have the chance to play for first in the East next weekend when they host the Alouettes.
The contest wasn't a gem by any means as both teams combined for 30 penalties for 331 yards and five turnovers.
"Such a frustrating night for most of the night but there's some character underneath the mistakes," said Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich. "We've got a ton to clean up but we survived for another week and have a chance to play Montreal for first place again.
"The guys in the locker-room are happy with that win but understand that wasn't our best effort tonight, hopefully."
Ray was outstanding for Toronto, completing 34-of-46 passes for 431 yards and three TDs. He also scored on a one-yard run with 2:07 remaining that pulled the Argos to within 33-27.
"We obviously didn't play our best game but we had to fight through that," Ray said. "We just hung in there and made the plays when we needed to."
John Chiles had eight catches for 123 yards, both game highs. Owens finished with six receptions for 109 yards.
Following Owens' TD, Hamilton took over on its own 51 following Terrell Sinkfield's 45-yard kickoff. The Ticats needed roughly 14 yards to give Justin Medlock a solid shot at the game-winning field goal but turned the ball over on downs with 38 seconds remaining when the third-down snap sailed past quarterback Zach Collaros.
"We were up 17 in the game, they have a Hall of Fame quarterback and great players," Collaros said. "We had to stay on the field longer . . . they did a good job of keeping us off it."
Sinkfield had a bitter-sweet contest against his former team. He accumulated 216 all-purpose yards but lost two fumbles and earned a stern reprimand from Austin for showboating towards the Toronto bench on a punt return.
"The coach gave me a good talking to," Sinkfield said.
The loss tarnished a solid showing by Collaros, who finished 23-of-32 passing for 302 yards and two TDs. He also added 55 yards rushing and a touchdown on seven carries.
Moissis Madu was Hamilton's receiving leader with six catches for 87 yards before sustaining an undisclosed injury that left the Ticats without a running back late in the contest. Andy Fantuz had seven receptions for 77 yards and a TD.
Collaros's pinpoint 22-yard touchdown strike to Luke Tasker at 11:34 of the third staked Hamilton to a commanding 30-13 lead. It came a play after Toronto's Branden Smith dropped a sure pick-six when he couldn't corral Collaros's pass in the flats.
The contest involving arch rivals battling for top spot in the East Division drew a sparse but energetic gathering of 17,811 at Rogers Centre with the roof closed. By comparison, 16,279 fans watched the Toronto Raptors play the Boston Celtics in their first home pre-season game at the Air Canada Centre.
But Hamilton let Toronto hang around by trying to be too cute. Delano Johnson recovered Sinkfield's fumble on an attempted end around at the Ticats' 35-yard line. Ray converted with a six-yard TD pass to Steve Slaton just 54 seconds later to cut the visitors' lead to 30-20.
"I just lost it," Sinkfield said of his fumble.
The turnover was big for Toronto, though.
"It just allowed us to creep closer," Milanovich said. "I think it was a little easier for everyone to keep believing when we cut it to 10.
"That, for sure kind of kept us in the game and kept our guys believing."
Hamilton suffered its first loss in five games and just its second in seven since Collaros's return. He missed five starts earlier this year due to concussion-like symptoms.
Collaros guided Hamilton to a 13-12 win over Toronto in his first game back Sept. 1, which was also the inaugural contest at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats are 4-0 at the new facility.
Medlock finished with three converts and four field goals.
Spencer Watt scored the other Toronto TD. Waters booted the convert and two field goals.
NOTES — Ray's TD strike to Slaton was his 68th as an Argo, moving him into fourth on the club's all-time list . . . Receiver LaVon Brazill and offensive lineman Jarriel King didn't dress for Toronto. Defensive back Emanuel Davis and offensive lineman Jeremy Lewis were Hamilton's scratches . . . With Brazill out, Chiles made his first start since July for Toronto . . . Hamilton came into the weekend having had 82 different players on its roster, most on the CFL. Toronto is second with 76.