Argos head coach Dinwiddie optimistic Bethel-Thompson will start East Division final

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TORONTO — Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie is confident the best version of the Toronto Argonauts will be on the field Sunday in the East Division final.

Toronto hosts the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at BMO Field, with the winner advancing to the Grey Cup game Dec. 12 at Tim Hortons Field. The Argos listed quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, linebacker Dexter McCoil Sr., and defensive back Jeff Richards in their starting lineup despite all three being in quarantine.

The trio, along with rush end Charleston Hughes and receiver Llevi Noel, attended the Toronto Raptors' home game Thursday, which violated the CFL's COVID-19 protocols. All five were sent home by the club Friday.

Normally, the players would have to quarantine for four days and provide two negative tests before being able to resume team activities. But on Friday, the CFL announced the five could return if they quarantined for 48 hours and provided three negative tests, the latest scheduled to be conducted Sunday.

Dinwiddie was optimistic Saturday that Bethel-Thompson, McCoil Sr. and Richards would all be on the field against Hamilton.

"Unfortunate circumstances the way the protocol got handled, a mistake on our part," Dinwiddie said. "But we feel like those guys will be ready to go.

"We've given them all tests, the tests have come back negative so I anticipate them all playing. If something were to happen that they weren't then we'd have to adjust on the fly and find a way to get it done without those guys."

Hughes and Noel were both listed on Toronto's injured list. So was centre Peter Nicastro, the East Division's top rookie this season, but veteran receiver Eric Rogers - limited to just six regular-season games due to injury -was in the starting lineup.

If Bethel-Thompson plays, he'll make his CFL playoff debut after posting a 7-2 record as Toronto's starter this season. Since 2014, quarterbacks making their first post-season start are just 1-4.

Veteran Antonio Pipkin will go under centre if Bethel-Thompson can't play.

Dinwiddie said while the five players missed team meetings Friday, they were sent the details via Zoom. Dinwiddie added he and Bethel-Thompson spoke via FaceTime on Saturday.

"It's not ideal but we found a way to get it done virtually," Dinwiddie said. "I think we're kind of used to that this year."

Toronto comes into the East final sporting a 6-1 record at BMO Field and having won three of four meetings this season against Hamilton. But veteran linebacker Henoc Muamba said the Argos can't make Sunday's game personal.

Toronto will have history on its side. The home team has won the last six East Division finals and 10 of 12 since 2008.

"Is it a rivalry? Yes," Muamba said. "Do we not like them? We can't stand them. My daughter reminds me even at home, 'We don't like tigers.'

"It's the reality of the situation but we can't get caught up in trying to make it too personal. It's about the assignment and executing to the best of our abilities. At the end of the day, the truth of the matter is thinking about this game too much and the fact that it is a rivalry is actually going to be a distraction as well."

Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer agreed.

"There's no carryover," he said. "Your mindset is all you carry over, other than that every game takes on a life of its own.

"You're always going to be presented with adversity along the journey. Generally, our messaging hasn't changed since training camp, we have to be able to respond to adversity and we've definitely had our fair share this year."

Hamilton will have more of a veteran presence in its secondary with the return of defensive back Ciante Evans. He missed the Ticats' 23-12 East Division semifinal win over the Montreal Alouettes last weekend due to a quad injury.

Hamilton also listed three quarterbacks on its depth chart, one more than usual. Jeremiah Masoli will start, backed up by Dane Evans and David Watford.

Steinauer declined to explain the move but cautioned against making too much about it.

"Sometimes, it's just the way it trickles down behind the scenes," he said. "But I wouldn't read into it too much.

"I can say Jeremiah and Dane will suit up for us (Sunday)."

Masoli will make his sixth career CFL playoff start (3-2). His first came in 2015 against Toronto.

"Any time you're playing Toronto, that's the QEW rivalry no matter what it is," Masoli said. "And now it's on the biggest stage of the year thus far before next week, right?

"Definitely, I think it just is what it is. It has to be."

Veteran receiver Brandon Banks said facing Toronto is always special for Ticats players.

"You know what's over there," Banks said. "So obviously you have a bigger chip on your shoulder to prove a point to your rival.

"It will make you try to rise to the occasion and play better football."

Receiver Bralon Addison remains on the injured list. Hamilton activated Addison from the six-game injured list last week but he didn't play in the semifinal.

Addison has 18 catches for 231 yards in three games this season. He recorded 95 receptions for 1,236 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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