Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Frankie Williams eludes the clutches of defending Saskatchewan Roughriders Denzel Radford during first half CFL football game action in Hamilton, Ont. on Thursday. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS

Williams’ TD return sparks Ticats to opening victory over Roughriders

Tiger-Cats 23, Roughriders 17

HAMILTON — Frankie Williams’ 68-yard punt return TD sparked the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to a 23-17 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL regular-season opener for both teams Thursday night.

Williams corralled Jon Ryan’s 52-yard punt and took it back for the touchdown at 8:48 of the third quarter to put Hamilton ahead 17-13. Lirim Hajrullahu’s 39-yard field goal at 13:30 put the Ticats (1-0) ahead 20-13 in the CFL’s earliest regular-season opener ever.

Saskatchewan (0-1) drove to the Hamilton five-yard line but only managed Brett Lauther’s 19-yard field goal at 4:05 to pull to within 20-16. The Ticats regained their seven-point advantage on Hajrullahu’s 33-yard field goal at 9:24.

Lauther’s single off a missed 41-yard try at 12:02 cut Hamilton’s lead to 23-17. That’s as close as the Riders got as two late interceptions ensured the Ticats’ Orlondo Steinauer was victorious in his CFL head-coaching debut before an announced Tim Hortons Field gathering of 22,287.

But the stadium wasn’t even half-full as the game was played under a threat of rain in the first half and before the Toronto Raptors faced the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., with a chance to clinch their first-ever NBA title.

Saskatchewan had its five-game win streak versus Hamilton snapped in Craig Dickenson’s CFL head-coaching debut. More importantly, the Riders played most of the game without starter Zach Collaros.

Facing the Ticats for the first time since they dealt him to the Riders in January, 2018, a scrambling Collaros left after being hit in the head by Ticats’ linebacker Simoni Lawrence. Lawrence received a 25-yard roughing-the-passer penalty — one of three flags Hamilton took for 50 yards on Saskatchewan’s opening drive.

B.C. Lions receiver Duron Carter clearly didn’t like the call.

“If anyone touches @Rikester13 like that, I will be my last day I’m allowed in Canada,” Carter tweeted, referring to Lions quarterback Mike Reilly.

Cody Fajardo replaced Collaros, who missed four regular-season games and the West Division semifinal last year with a concussion. But Fajardo came off limping late in the third after being hit on an incompletion.

Rookie Isaac Harker took over on the Riders’ next possession. He and Fajardo split snaps briefly before Harker finished under centre.

Hamilton lost receiver Luke Tasker (four catches, 30 yards) to an unspecified first-half injury.

Earlier this week, Collaros candidly stated Thursday’s game was a significant one for him. He spent four seasons in Hamilton (2014-17) before going to Saskatchewan.

Collaros, 30, a native of Steubenville, Ohio, had 40-to-45 friends and family at the game. Collaros now has a home in Aurora, Ont., after getting married this off-season.

Fajardo and William Powell had Saskatchewan’s touchdowns. Lauther booted a convert, field goal and single.

Brandon Banks scored Hamilton’s other touchdown. Hajrullahu kicked two converts and three field goals.

Powell gave Saskatchewan a 13-10 half-time lead with a one-yard run at 12:43 of the second. Powell, the CFL’s second-leading rusher last year with Ottawa, was a one-man show with 73 yards on 14 carries (5.2-yard average) in the opening half.

Masoli, the East Division’s outstanding player last year, was 11-of-17 passing for 122 yards and a TD. It was a 42-yard strike to Banks just 17 seconds into the second that put Hamilton ahead 10-7.

Hajrullahu’s 48-yard field goal at 11:03 of the first cut Saskatchewan’s lead to 7-3. Fajardo opened the scoring at 3:08 on a two-yard run, capping an 81-yard, seven-play drive that was aided by the three Hamilton penalties.

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