OTTAWA — Veteran Henry Burris never doubted his ability, despite age not being on his side at this point in his career.
Burris threw for six touchdowns and set a single-season record for completions and the Ottawa Redblacks clinched first place in the East Division with a 44-28 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday.
Burris finished the day with 28 pass completions to give him 481 on the season. It broke the old record of 479 set by Ricky Ray with the Edmonton Eskimos back in 2005.
“I’ve always felt in my heart that I still have it,” said the 40-year old pivot.
“I’m not doing anything different than I did last year, I think the thing for me is I never stopped believing in what I could do. I knew I still had the physical ability and the mental toughness to get the job done, and I’ve been put in the right situation to get the job done.”
Ottawa’s Greg Ellingson caught three touchdown passes from his quarterback.
Burris set the record with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Brad Sinopoli early in the fourth quarter to give the Redblacks a 37-26 lead. He then added to the record on his first pass of the next Ottawa series, connecting with Ellingson for a 43-yard gain.
Seconds later Burris threw his sixth touchdown pass of the afternoon as Chris Williams converted a 24-yard catch and run score. The conversion by Chris Milo gave the Redblacks a 44-28 lead.
A win or a loss by less than six points would have given Ottawa the East Division regular-season crown.
The victory means the Redblacks, who were 2-16 in their inaugural season a year ago, will host the East Final in two weeks. They will play the winner of next weekend’s East semifinal between Hamilton and Toronto.
“Everybody’s excited. It’s big for the city, it’s big for this team to get first place overall,” said Ellingson, who had 152 yards receiving to become the fourth Redblacks receiver this season to go over 1,000 yards — along with Sinopoli, Williams and Ernest Jackson.
“We’re proud of this accomplishment but not satisfied,” said Redblacks coach Rick Campbell, before adding: “We’re always proud of individual accomplishments but the one we like the most is we had the most wins in the East. We’re going to play good teams from here on out and we’re just going to keep trying to get better.”
Ellingson agreed with his coach about individual accomplishments.
“It’s not as important as the success we’ve had as a team,” he said. “Getting 12 wins is huge and first place in the East is way bigger than any milestone I may have myself, but it does feel good to get there.”
Burris also threw touchdown passes of six and 14 yards to Patrick Lavoie and Ellingson in the second half.
The eight second-half points by Hamilton came off Ottawa mistakes.
After lining up on-side, Rico Murray recovered a Redblacks’ punt and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
Then, after the Sinopoli touchdown, Milo missed the convert and Brandon Banks returned the ball 127 yards to the Redbacks’ end zone for two points.
A 17-0 lead after the first quarter had Ottawa fans dancing in the aisles in anticipation of the potential East Division Final they would host, but 20 unanswered points by the Tiger-Cats made it 20-17 Hamilton at halftime.
The Redblacks scored on their first three drives of the game, starting with a 28-yard field goal from Milo. The ensuing kick-off was fumbled and recovered by Ottawa and led to a 31-yard touchdown pass from Burris to Ellingson.
Ellingson added a second touchdown, this one for three-yards from Burris, with just 10 seconds to play in the first quarter.
The Ticats started clawing their way back early in the second quarter when Justin Medlock kicked a 25-yard field goal. That was followed up by a one-yard touchdown run by Jeremiah Masoli on the first play after Burris threw an interception.
Another field goal by Medlock, this one from 40 yards, cut the Redblacks’ lead to 17-13 in the final minute of the half.
After the Redblacks failed to score on the following series, Terrell Sinkfield returned Milo’s punt 62-yards to the Ottawa three-yard line. On the next play, Andy Fantuz caught a touchdown pass from Masoli for a 20-17 lead with two seconds to play before the break.
“We got in a big hole early. Then we got back in the game but they did a great job converting off our turnovers,” said Tiger-Cats coach Kent Austin, who sees his team limp into the East semifinal having lost three straight. “That third quarter was a killer. We get a turnover and then give it right back to them on the very next snap.
“The only thing that matters in the past is what you’ve learned from it. Success can be a distraction as well, but it’s how you approach the game and how you approach each situation you’re in.”