Norwich Devils v Welwyn Hatfield Mosquitos
Sunday 7th May
Report by Alan Baxter-Smith
Photographs – John Mallett Photography
There is a famous quote often incorrectly attributed to Charles Darwin that goes, ‘It is not the strongest or the most intelligent that survive but the ones that are most adaptable to change’. During the offseason the Devils had ushered in a new head coach, made changes to its committee and adapted its development plan by taking the big step of withholding its own application for entry into the National league in 2017 in order to complete a further associate season. Change had certainly been the most dominant aspect at the Club since the start of the year. Following a large recruitment drive of both players and coaches, new playbook implementation, new practice structures and a couple of scrimmages it was evident that changes off the field had been positive but now the Devils found themselves about to face a familiar foe. Despite two wins against the Welwyn Hatfield Mosquitos the previous year, they had not been the most convincing of victories. One was a late fightback and one a messy affair. The game would provide a good indication if the changes had worked come game time. As the players warmed up on the superbly prepared field, their were some nervous faces from both the sizeable number of rookies, the more experienced players, the coaches and the committee. Had the Devils winning team adapted to the change? The resulting game would tell all.
The Mosquitos won the coin toss but strangely chose not to defer, instead electing to kick off. After a huge kick which resulted with the ball rolling out of the end zone for a touchback the Devils offence took to the field to begin their first drive from the 20 yard line. Things started well, with the Devils’ first two run plays taking them just shy of a first down. However, an Offside penalty pegged them back and after failing to convert on 3rd down, they were forced to punt. But, in what proved to be a prelude to a day of excellent special teams play, the kick returner fumbled the ball under pressure from the fast kick chase and only just managed to regather the ball having made only a 1 yard return.
The Devils’ defence immediately made an impact on the Mosquitos first offensive play of the game. Linebacker and Defensive Captain Richard Gray powerfully bursting through the line to chase down their Quarterback for a sack and a loss of 10 yards. It was a sign of things to come. The very next play Lineman, Russ Groves broke through to slow the Mosquitos’ Running Back before Linebacker Daniel Ponndorf and Defensive End Justin Geyser finished him off for a further loss of 3 yards. Facing a 3rd and 23, and after another excellent pass rush, the Mosquitos’ Quarterback was forced to quickly go long meaning Rookie Cornerback Dan Walker was able to slide to make his first career interception to deafening cheers from the large group of home supporters.
Having seen the defence dominate the Devils’ offence reentered the game hoping to take advantage of the excellent field position. Immediately they gained a first down as some strong line blocking enabled Running Back Matt Ward through for a big gain. They continued to move downfield with their running game and despite a holding penalty and some good defensive tackling from the Mosquitos they quickly found themselves within the 20 yard line threatening the Mosquitos’ end zone. Things looked to have derailed as the Mosquitos’ Defensive End broke through to sack Devils Quarterback Harris Todd for a 12 yard loss, however a resulting taunting penalty on the Mosquitos meant the loss was nullified and on the very next play Todd launched an 18 yard looping pass into the back corner of the end zone where Wide Receiver Adam Jones was able to leap backwards and gather the ball after it bounced off his helmet following pass interference from the Mosquitos’ Cornerback. It was just the start the Devils were looking for and sparked wild cerebrations on their sideline. The following extra point went wide left but the Devils had taken a deserved early lead and were looking to maintain the intensity as they lined up for the restart.
After the Mosquitos took a knee in their end zone as the Devils’ special teams quickly chased down the kick off, the confident Devils’ defence took to the field again. It was deja vu for the Mosquitos offence as once again the Devils defence continued to brake through to stop their Running Back, this time Lineman Liam lane and Linebacker Nick Barker making the tackles behind the line of scrimmage. After an incomplete pass the Mosquitos were again forced to hand the ball back to the Devils offence via a punt. However things did not go well. A high snap forced the punter to avoid the strong rush and he lost grip on the ball. He managed to recover the fumble but the damage had been done and the Devils’ Offence took over on the Mosquitos’ 8 yard line. After a well defended run and a dropped end zone pass Devils Quarterback Todd quickly broke the goal line following some commanding lead blocking and the Devils found themselves 12 points to the good. A penalty on the following 2 point conversion attempt meant the score was not added to, but the Mosquitos left the field shocked at the efficiency of the Devils Offensive Unit.
The Devils’ offence were barely able to catch their breath following the restart and resulting touchback. The Mosquitos’ day went from bad to worse as Defensive End Geyser was able to force a fumble from their Running Back and the games Defensive MVP, Safety Steve Bunyan, quickly pounced on the ball to get the ball back on the Mosquitos 15 Yard line. The Offence immediately took full advantage, showing their efficiency once again, on the very next play when Rookie Running Back Matt Ward followed some terrific blocking to within 5 yards of the goal line, before powerfully shaking a tackle to dive into the corner for his first career Touchdown. The whole Devils’ sideline were delighted for him and, following the resulting successful two point conversion, when Tight End Charlie Keohane caught an easy pass from Todd they found themselves 20 points up and still in the first quarter.
On the restart it seemed that the Mosquitos’ luck had finally changed as some excellent evasive running from their Kick Returner took him to their 40 yard line where finally Linebacker Jon Mills was able to make the decisive tackle. However, an illegal block in the back during the play took them back to their own 22 yard line and they again faced a long drive to reach the Devils’ end zone. The job was made easier however, following two penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct on the Devils’ defence, giving an easy 30 yards to the Mosquitos, and despite some more powerful tackling from Linebacker Gray, the Mosquitos finally made it into the Devils’ half of the field. The drive stalled however, and the Mosquitos found themselves with a 4th and 6. Obviously reluctant to give the ball back to the Devils’ Offence they went for it but Cornerback Wayne Diggines was able to read the pass, intercept the ball and even run it back into Mosquitos territory. The Devils offence’s next drive however was littered by offside and holding penalties as the line failed to go on the snap of the ball but they still held onto the ball as the frenetic first quarter came to a close.
End of 1st Quarter Score 20-0
Following an incomplete pass to start the 2nd quarter the Devils were forced to punt and despite the efforts of the chasers the ball inched over the goal line following a huge 52 yard punt from Punter Adam Jones, so the Mosquitos began their drive from their 20 yard line hoping to turn the tide of the game. Despite getting some success in the passing game their running game was again stifled by the Devils’ defence and again they failed to make a first down. After the Mosquitos punted the Devils’ offence began their second quarter action on the 50 yard line.
Immediately their run game began to click, with speedster Running Back Ben Rayner patiently reading the gaps and making yardage time and time again. Within 4 plays the Devils found themselves at 1st and goal and despite a fumble from Rayner were able to find the end zone as Quarterback and the games offensive MVP Todd picked up the loose ball and raced into the corner for his 2nd of the game. Kicker Adam Jones made the extra point and the Devils found themselves 4 scores ahead.
A short return from the kickoff meant the Mosquitos began their next drive on their 26 yard line. With the score what it was, the Mosquitos could have been forgiven for letting their heads drop but they didn’t. Showing great character they began to get their passing game going advancing into the Devils’ half of the field. For the first time the Devils defence looked vulnerable and the frustration resulted in several offside penalties as the Linebackers attempted to beat the snap and close down the Quarterback. At last the Mosquitos had something to cheer as their Quarterback unleashed deep from the 40 yard line and Devils Safety Ricky Darrell only managed to tip the ball into the Mosquitos’ Tight End’s waiting hands and he ran gratefully into the end zone. The resulting two point attempt was successful, at the second attempt, and the Devils defence left the field shocked at the breach of their line.
Having witnessed the comeback of the Patriots, in the recent Super Bowl, talk on the sideline turned to not getting complacent despite the scoreline. The Special Teams Unit took to the field hoping to make an immediate impact to stifle any thoughts of a comeback from the Mosquitos. What an impact they made. A well rehearsed unit, providing superb blocking, as well as intelligent running from Returner Adam Jones had Special Teams Coach Keith Jacobs roaring his approval as Jones crossed the line, with four blockers still in tow, for his 2nd Touchdown of the game. It was a dagger to the hearts of the Mosquitos and when Tight End Keohane again caught an easy pass for his second two pointer of the game the Devils added to their misery.
Following the restart the Mosquitos again started to make ground with their passing game and quickly found themselves entering the Devils’ half. However Devils’ Safety Steve Bunyan then began a one man mission to stop the aerial assault. Appearing to have the entire field covered he showed great athleticism batting down 3 passes, stopping the Mosquitos in their tracks and forcing them to punt.
Due to the scoreline the Devils delved into their depth chart and several rookies took to the field on offence. The inexperience showed as the Mosquitos managed their first 3 and out since the opening drive and the Devils were forced to punt. The Special Teams Unit however were still buzzing from their kick return success and when Punter Adam Jones smashed a 65 yard punt downfield, Chaser Daniel Ponndorf was able to ground the ball within the Mosquitos’ 5 yard line. The Mosquitos were unable to move the ball at all and the resulting punt brought the first half to a close.
Half Time Score 35-8
As the second half kicked off and the Devils received the ball there was a confident atmosphere on the Devils’ sideline. This was enhanced by another good Special Teams play in which Kick Returner Adam Jones managed to return the ball 45 yards. However, the confidence was misplaced as the Devils only managed five yards on a run play and failed to connect on several passes. Following a penalty for targeting on the Mosquitos’ Cornerback, which resulted in his ejection from the game, the Devils’ tiring offensive line then failed to protect Devils’ Running Back Ward from the fast paced Mosquitos’ linebackers. He was hit behind the line of scrimmage as he juggled the handoff and the Mosquitos recovered the ball. It was a great defensive start to the second half for the Mosquitos who were refusing to lay down despite the large score against them.
Unfortunately the Mosquitos offence could not match their defences start and on a 3rd and 6, Devils’ Cornerback Wayne Diggines was able to get his 2nd interception of the game as he picked off an under thrown pass to hand the ball back to the Devils once more in excellent field position. The Offence however had gone off the boil and were certainly lacking the ruthlessness of their first half display. Their run game faltered as they only managed to pick up a few yards each play and the passing game was being easily covered by the improving Mosquitos’ Defensive Backs. Despite this they managed to find themselves 1st and Goal, mainly due to a 22 yard scramble from Quarterback Todd, and were knocking on the door once more. But 4 downs littered with offensive penalties took them out of field goal range and another scramble from Todd fell just short of the goal line and the ball was handed over on downs.
Penalty fever seemed to be catching as the Devils’ defence allowed the Mosquitos to move downfield once more with a combination of passes and penalties, only briefly interrupted by another athletic bat down from Safety Bunyan, before the scoreless 3rd Quarter came to an end.
End of 3rd Quarter Score 35-8
The Mosquitos failed to progress any further at the start of the 3rd quarter and were forced to punt. However, a high snap meant the ball flew over the punters head and under heavy pressure from the onrushing Devils, the punter attempted to illegally kick the ball forward from the floor. This all resulted in a penalty flag and the Devils’ offence took over in excellent field position on the Mosquitos’ 20 yard line. However, yet again the Devils failed to make any significant yardage and yet again their drive was littered with penalties. Going for it on 4th down, rather than taking the field goal, the Devils Wide Receiver Adam Jones fumbled a hand off which resulted in him being pushed back several yards. Showing his frustration by slamming the ball down he was penalised a further 15 yards and the Mosquitos took over on downs well into the Devils’ half of the field. It was sloppy series from the entire offence which drew a sharp and frank “assessment” from the Devils Head Coach on the sideline.
The Devils’ defence however, despite delving into their depth chart were not going to follow the offences downfall and following an incomplete pass and an ill advised scramble by the Mosquitos’ Quarterback up through the middle, which involved four Devils players making a four way crunching tackle, Defensive End Mark Stewart burst through the line to sack the Mosquitos’ quarterback for a 10 yard loss. It left them going for a 4th and long which they failed to complete and they handed the ball over on downs on the halfway line.
Reentering the field, following the lambasting they had received post the last series, the Devils’ offence were determined to return to their former efficiency. Two running plays gained them a first down before a well executed passing play from the 34 yard line found Rookie Tight End Louis Ayers in space and he made the most of the opportunity. Turning up field he took on and shrugged off one tackle before rampaging along the sideline with the second tackler hanging from his back, he powerfully dragged him along from 10 yards out and dived for the pylon scoring his first career touchdown. The Devils’ sideline and supporters burst into a chorus of noise, everyone appreciating the display of power they had seen from the big man. A poor snap meant the extra point failed but the touchdown had forced the Referees to enforce a running clock on the remainder of the game.
The Mosquitos failed to move the ball far on their next drive as the Devils’ defence restricted their passing game and, following a poor snap on 4th down, they handed the ball over on downs and the Devils were able to run out the clock. As the players began their journey home it was time for everyone to assess if the changes to the club had worked on the field. Certainly the score indicated as much, it was the Devils highest points total since their return to competitive action in 2016, but there had been some sloppy play and only one score in the second half. The Defence had restricted the Mosquitos to very few 1st downs all game, which was a huge leap forward from the previous year, but again sloppy penalties had resulted in some good work being chalked off the stats. All of which will need to be worked on in practice. So the question of whether the change has been a success is still open to debate, there is certainly a strong case that it has been. It is abundantly clear however that the Devils are certainly adaptable to change and that means they are good candidates to survive and indeed thrive going forward into the remainder of the season and further into the league in 2018.
Final Score 41-8
Offensive MVP – Harris Todd
Defensive MVP – Steve Bunyan
The win was the Devils first under new head coach Chris Mills. After the game he commented, “I’m completely elated at the result. These players have worked hard this offseason and preseason, the scoreline reflects that. They want to win. I’m proud of the Devils family today. From the game day assistants and volunteers, to the player base and coaching staff. We came together to create a great victory. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, however it’s great to see plays being made in all three phases of the game. Whilst we have a lot to work on, I’m excited at our potential and I can’t wait for our next fixture. I know the players are the same”
The Devils committee would like to thank all those who made the game possible on Sunday and got the field looking in such great shape. BAFA Chairman Martin Cockerill remarked that it would be good enough to be nominated for a best field award had it been a league game and thats down the the dedication and hard work of our support staff and Game Day Manager Laura Handley.
The Devils will be playing more associate games in 2017 as they look to rejoin the league for the 2018 season. Check out the website or like our Facebook page for updates on the upcoming competitive fixtures.
The Devils are always on the lookout for new players, coaches and game day staff. If you think its something you may be interested in, please check out the recruitment page on the website or simply contact us to discuss how you could help.