CFL Pass

Having Something To Prove Inspires Defensive Performances

It was Alex Bazzie’s first start of the CFL season, and everything was going haywire as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats scored a long pass-and-run touchdown on three consecutive plays in the first quarter.

“It was very frustrating,” said Bazzie, who started all 18 games at defensive end last year, but didn’t earn the starting job during training camp. “In your mind, you’re like, ‘OK, everything I planned is not going as planned. Things are about to change.’

“You’ve just got to settle your mind down and adjust to the game,” he continued. “We have to stop saying, ‘If we had one more (touchdown, field goal, reception, first down, defensive stop, turnover, quarterback sack, etc.) … .’ Let’s not get it to that point. On critical downs, let’s do what we need to do.”

Bazzie, 29, did his part by making four defensive tackles during the first 30 minutes of Friday’s game at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium to help slow down the Tiger-Cats attack. He continued to pressure Hamilton quarterback Dane Evans and even picked up an erratically bouncing football before Ti-Cats punter Lirim Hajrullahu could recover it and had a rare (seven-yard) punt return late in the game.

“Due to my experience, I was comfortable,” Bazzie said, explaining how he dealt with the surprisingly lopsided deficit early in the game. “I understood the situation. I understood what my team needed out of me. I just kept my fuel going. I just kept playing as if it was 0-0 on the clock.

“As we headed toward the end of the first half, we started to rally the guys,” he said. “In the second half, we came out on fire, and we started to make some things happen.

“That was all just believing in myself, believing in my teammates and rallying the guys up and saying, ‘Hey, it’s not over!’ ”

Rookie linebacker Vontae Diggs compared football to basketball after the game in which the Eskimos rallied from trailing 24-0 late in the first half to tying the score 24-24 in the fourth quarter.

“Football is a lot of waves,” Diggs said. “It’s all about momentum. It’s like basketball. You’re going to get momentum. It’s all about who has it, who’s carrying it. They got out and started fast, but they couldn’t hold that momentum. That’s where we came up, and we saw what we needed to do on defence, and we locked it down, and we just got better and better as the game went on.

“We pride ourselves on being able to rebound,” he added. “Obviously, adversity is going to hit in every game, on virtually every team, on all sides – offence, defence and special teams. It’s how you respond to that adversity.

“I think we did a good job responding. We just couldn’t come up (with a big play) at the end of the game.”

Bazzie, a five-year CFL veteran with 77 appearances to his credit, was excited to be playing once again last week.

“It feels great to be back out there, flying around with the guys,” he said. “Still a little bit of rust that I’ve got to get off, but first full game back in full action as far as playing defence and getting in the groove of things. It can only get better from here.”

Bazzie had previously been a backup for the defensive linemen or linebackers in two games this season or a healthy scratch.

Meanwhile, Mathieu Betts, the Eskimos’ first-round draft pick this year, made a couple of very important plays in his CFL debut.

Betts, who was in the Chicago Bears’ NFL training camp this summer, had a strip-sack of Evans, causing a fumble the Eskimos recovered and turned into Greg Ellingson’s 32-yard touchdown catch.

“I was happy about it,” Betts said about his first game with the Eskimos. “We had really good coverage (in the secondary). The quarterback held the ball a little longer, and it got me (the chance) to go on him. The guys got the ball back, and our offence converted off of it. They scored, so that was a big push for us.”

Betts also overpowered Hamilton running back Jackson Bennett to hold him for no gain late in the game, leaving the Tiger-Cats in third-and-two at their own 45-yard line with 2:21 left to play. Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer felt that was too risky of a gamble with a three-point lead and opted to punt the ball back to the Esks.

While Betts was pumped to be playing his first game as a professional football player, Diggs also had some extra incentive, as well. He turned that motivation into a career-high nine defensive tackles and his first CFL interception at the Edmonton 13-yard line. After a 19-yard return, he was pushed out of bounds and continued to run up the stairs into the stands for a brief celebration with the fans.

“After that second Calgary game, I put a lot of B.S. on the (video) tape,” said the 23-year-old Diggs, who plays linebacker on the weak side (short side) of the field. “Pretty much (the coaches) challenged me just to go out and exhaust myself. From that game on, it’s more about being that guy that they know I can be and what they want me to be.”