The Baltimore Stallions put the finishing touches on one of the better regular seasons in Canadian Football League history yesterday at Memorial Stadium.
The Stallions did it against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, in what has become typical fashion lately, a 24-17 victory before 29,310 that wasn't flashy or impressive, merely efficient.
After a first half in which their offense sputtered most of the time, the Stallions took control by scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions of the third quarter to take a 20-3 lead. Later, they allowed backup quarterback Mike Kerrigan to throw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Earl Winfield, as Hamilton cut Baltimore's lead to 24-17.
The contest was not decided until Winfield failed to handle Kerrigan's Hail Mary pass in the crowded Baltimore end zone as time expired.
The bottom line is, in its second year of existence, Baltimore wound up the regular season with a 10-game winning streak and a 15-3 record -- second-best in CFL history -- and now will take its second shot at a Grey Cup title.
The Stallions, who clinched the South Division title three weeks ago, open their quest for a CFL championship at home on Saturday at 1 p.m. against Winnipeg (7-11).
"We had our preseason, we had our regular season. Now, the third season starts," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "I'm very proud of this team for having a 15-3 record. A great accomplishment by our players. But the 10-game winning streak doesn't help us next week. We've got to put everything we've done up to now behind us."
Yesterday, the Stallions basically looked like a team anxious to get on with postseason business.
Two months ago in Ontario, they handed Hamilton a 27-point defeat behind a 201-yard rushing effort from Mike Pringle. Then again, Pringle wasn't around long yesterday. Matthews pulled him after Baltimore's first two possessions, turning the backfield duty over to rookie Louis Fite, who finished with 85 yards rushing and his first touchdown as a pro.
Seventy of those yards came in the second half, when Fite and the rest of the Stallions' offense awakened after an uninspired start. Baltimore took a 3-0 lead when kicker Carlos Huerta hit a 34-yard field goal to finish the Stallions' first possession. Baltimore's attack then went into a shell, as the Stallions produced only one first down on their next six possessions, while starting in terrible field position on most of them.
But the Baltimore defense kept things in order, holding Hamilton (8-10) to a field goal while the Stallions' offense regrouped. Their final drive of the half, a 10-play, 78-yard march that ended with a 37-yard Huerta field goal on the last play, sent the Stallions into the break with a 6-3 advantage.
"It's a long season, and it's hard to get motivated every week, especially when you get what you need [divisional crown and home-field advantage through the playoffs] so early," offensive tackle Neal Fort said.
Yesterday, Baltimore asserted itself immediately after receiving the second half's opening kickoff by marching 87 yards in 12 plays. Quarterback Tracy Ham (13-for-19, 180 yards) and slotback Gerald Alphin started the drive by combining on a 23-yard completion. Fullback Robert Drummond also turned a short pass into a 27-yard gain. Fite rushed for 30 yards, including the 1-yard score that gave Baltimore a 13-3 lead with 8:53 left in the third quarter.
Fite opened the Stallions' next drive with two nifty runs for 23 yards. Alphin finished it with a 13-yard touchdown reception with 3:50 left, giving Baltimore a 20-3 lead. Huerta extended the lead to 23-3 five minutes into the fourth period with a 43-yard goal.
Then came the letdown, as Kerrigan, the third Hamilton quarterback to play, ignited the team.
"I'm not happy with the way we're closing out games," rush end Elfrid Payton said. "We've got to stop giving up fourth-quarter points. We need to put teams away and keep them down. It's a concern, and we need to address it."
Ham, who suffered a bruise on his non-throwing hand and gave way to Shawn Jones early in the fourth quarter, is not alarmed.
"We've handled all of the situations this year. We've come back to win, we've held on to win," said Ham, who will start Saturday.
"You're known not by what you do during the regular season, but by what you do in the playoffs. Tournament play is what separates athletes. I've got a feeling about how this team is going to rise to the occasion. I think we're ready."
Next for Stallions
Opponent: Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Site: Memorial Stadium
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)
Yesterday: The Blue Bombers beat the Ottawa Rough Riders, 36-33, to clinch a playoff spot.