HAMILTON — Dane Evans has the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on quite a roll.
The second-year quarterback is 6-2 since replacing starter Jeremiah Masoli (season-ending knee injury). Hamilton (11-3) hosts the Edmonton Eskimos (7-7) on Friday night with a chance to cement top spot in the East Division.
Hamilton can clinch first — and home-field advantage for the East final — with a win over Edmonton and loss or tie by second-place Montreal (7-6) on Saturday against the Calgary Stampeders (8-4). The Eskimos can also cement a playoff berth with a victory.
Hamilton’s situation is indeed impressive given Evans was its short-yardage quarterback and hadn’t started a CFL game prior to Masoli’s injury.
“Yeah, I’m feeling more comfortable,” Evans said following Hamilton’s walkthrough Thursday. “I like our game-plan, I like what we do during the week, I like how open everything is.
“Each week (I’m) just trying to get a little better at one thing, just trying to keep my footwork consistent and leaning on the guys up front to give me the protection and allow our receivers to get downfield and make the plays because we have a lot of weapons. I think everyone realizes that and (I) just have to keep feeding them the ball.”
Evans has thrown for 300 or more yards in four straight starts and five overall this season. That includes a career-best 442-yard performance with two TDs in a 38-27 win over Toronto on Sept. 2 — Hamilton’s last game at Tim Hortons Field — and 336 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Ticats past Edmonton 30-27 at Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 20.
Evans has completed 213-of-304 passes (70.1 per cent) for 2,646 yards with 14 TDs and 11 interceptions. The 25-year-old former Tulsa star has added 139 yards rushing and three TDs on 32 carries.
When asked what boxes Evans has checked off this season, Hamilton coach Orlondo Steinauer said there’s been only one.
“We’re winning, that’s the box,” Steinauer said. “He’s maturing as a quarterback … he’s going through his reads, he’s checking the ball down a little bit.
“He’s made more strides in practice, the things that people don’t see, which is why we were so optimistic with Dane.”
Steinauer said that optimism came last season when Evans led Hamilton’s scout team against the Ticats defence in practice.
“You saw the physical throws he made and you knew there was something possibly special there,” he said. “Obviously you have to do it with the lights on and he’ll be the first to tell you he’s nowhere near where he wants or needs to be.
“There is no goal of where he needs to be, the goal is the win. If he hands the ball off 30 times and they want to talk about him throwing for 130 yards and we win, write about it. If he has to throw for 500 (yards) and throw 50 times, then he has to be able to do that also.”
Veteran cornerback Delvin Breaux returns for Hamilton. Quarterback Logan Kilgore starts again for Edmonton with incumbent Trevor Harris (upper-body injury) on the six-game injured list.
Kilgore was 19-of-28 passing for 223 yards and a TD in last week’s 21-16 win over Ottawa while rushing for 17 yards and a touchdown.
Steinauer said Evans’ demeanour and persona haven’t changed since becoming the starter.
“The one thing is he’s been authentic, he hasn’t wavered one bit,” Steinauer said. “He’s the same supportive teammate, easy-to-follow guy that he was as a backup.”
“I think I act the same way, I’m just being me,” he said. “When I was the backup, I never got to say anything before drives on the field.
“I guess that’s a new aspect, just trying to get the guys going a little bit in the huddle. But, really, other than that, it’s the same stuff.”
But Evans said he’s had to sometimes curb his desire for the big play.
“Sometimes it’s OK to check it down because we have playmakers everywhere,” he said. “Those guys are lethal with the ball in their hands and sometimes you have to take the short one and let them run with it.”
Hamilton leads the CFL in offensive points (27.1 per game) and TD passes (23), stands tied for second in offensive TDs (37) and is second overall in completions (339) and net offence (379.8). The Ticats’ receiving corps includes speedy Brandon Banks (86 catches, 1,152 yards, eight TDs) and Bralon Addison (82 catches, 1,070 yards, seven TDs).
Edmonton’s defence has recorded 43 sacks and is allowing 284.9 offensive yards and 213.2 passing yards per game, all league-leading numbers.
“They’re good, they have a great front seven and their back end is really good too,” Evans said. “We definitely have to respect them, they have players all over the field.
“We’ve got to come out and do our job, just keep going forward and worry about we can execute and everything else will take care of itself.”
Hamilton will celebrate its ‘99 Grey Cup-winning team — which Steinauer played for — Friday night. It’s the Ticats’ last championship and players from that squad addressed this year’s contingent Thursday.
“It’s always good to be around greatness,” Evans said. “They’re forever enshrined on the Grey Cup and all over this stadium and one day we want to be there too.”
EDMONTON ESKIMOS (7-7) AT HAMILTON TIGER-CATS (11-3)
Friday night, Tim Hortons Field
HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE: Hamilton is 6-0 at Tim Hortons Field this season and the only team in the CFL with an unblemished home record.
RECORD-TYING MARK: A win would be Hamilton’s 12th this season and tie the franchise’s single-season franchise record.
SELECT COMPANY: Edmonton running back C.J. Gable needs 50 yards to reach the 1,000-yard rushing plateau for a second straight year. No Eskimo has achieved that milestone since Mike Pringle in 2003-2004.