Norwich Devils v Burnley Tornados
Sunday 8th October
Report by Alan Baxter-Smith
Photographs – John Mallett Photography
Sometimes games can be important because victory wins a trophy or because you gain bragging rights over your opponent. Sometimes they are important because it stops you from being relegated or suffering the humiliation of a winless season. The Devils played their final game of the year last Sunday with a chance to complete an unbeaten associate season. Not a rare occurrence particularly but the outsider could be forgiven for thinking it was the most important thing for the Devils going into the game. But they would have been wrong. For 6 and a half years the Devils have been absent from the British National League. At one point during that time the club was on the brink of collapse and it looked like the Navy and Gold would never grace the National stage again. But this game represented all the hard work the members of the club had put in to turn things around, it represented the final hurdle, it meant the Devils, subject to league approval, would be on the brink of returning to the league once more having completed their required number of fixtures. This was the most important thing for all the Devils’ players who took to the field. Win or lose they had all come together to give themselves a chance at becoming National League players. The actual Game had been in the balance all week, first the opponents were unsure if they would come and then the referee crew had suffered a late change. In the end, while the Tornados had turned up with a weakened team, the game was still going to go ahead, which was the most important thing for both teams. But…… importance is all relative once the game begins. One of the most famous quotes from football guru Vince Lombardi goes “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” Once the Devils stepped across that white line they were still going to go for the win.
The Devils won the coin toss and for the first time this year elected to receive, instead of deferring, in a hope they could put some early points on the board. They certainly did that as the Devils special teams unit showed their quality with an excellently executed kick return. With some powerful lead blocking, in particular from Matt Ward and Matt Bowers, Returner Adam Jones was able to patiently wait for his opening and with a burst of acceleration he made his way upfield. As his team mates provided a wall of protection from any oncoming Tornados’ players he found himself with one man to beat and a simple sharp change of direction enabled him to do just that and he was able to jog into the end zone. It was just the start the Devils were looking for and would set the tone of the game. The Tornados showed their quality of Special teams play by breaking through the Devils line to block the extra point but the Devils were able to give their supporters on the sidelines, who had turned out in the cold and wet weather, something to cheer right from the outset.
The Tornados were not allowed to attempt a similar kick return of their own as the kickoff went for a touchback and the Tornados began their first drive from their own 20 yard line. The drive didn’t start well with a false start start penalty putting them back 5 yards. Things then went from bad to worse as a bad snap left the Tornados Quarterback scrambling back towards his own end zone where he had no choice but to dive on the ball and give up the safety as the swarm of Devils defensive players descended upon him.
Following the Safety the Tornados kicked off from their own 20 yard line with a squib kick down the middle, probably attempting to avoid another good return. However, Joe Jacobs was wise to the play and collected the ball perfectly before running back upfield taking the ball to the Tornados 42 yard line and giving the offence excellent field position. The Devils started their first drive with their running game and, even with many of their starting offensive linemen out through injury, they quickly showed how tough the day was going to be for the Tornados defensive line. An aggressive lead block from Fullback Alan Baxter-Smith made the hole for Running Back Matt Ward and once through the line he showed his pace, outstripping the Tornados defence, until being forced out of bounds at the Tornados 10 yard line. Going straight to the line with no huddle the Devils attempted a pass play which would have resulted in the touchdown, had it not been for a dropped catch. Again with no huddle the Devils then went to their run game, faking a hand off to Ward, which the Tornados bit on wholeheartedly, Quarterback Andre Belles-Flores was able to jog into the end zone untouched for a simple score. The Devils had moved 42 yards in 3 plays in less than 30 seconds for the score. If the Tornados had not known about the Devils fast paced offence before, they had certainly been introduced to it early. This time the Devils line held good for the extra point from Kicker Adam Jones and the Devils found themselves with a good lead having only played a few minutes of the first quarter.
Again the Devils kick off went for a touchback and the Tornados began again at their own 20 yard line. Following a dropped catch and some short runs they found themselves at 4th and 8 and punting. Another bad snap meant the ball flew over the punters head and after scrambling back to collect the ball the Tornados punter sliced his kick and Richard Gray collected the ball before running into the end zone. His celebrations were cut short however as a flag came in for a late hit on the punter and the resulting 15 yard penalty took the Tornados up to their 37 yard line. Taking to the air the Tornados were quickly shut down by the combined Safety pairing of Ed Bowling and Ricky Darrell and a fumbled snap, probably due to the increasing rain making the ball more and more slippery, took the Tornados back to their 27 yard line. Attempting to run the ball they found themselves confronted with blitzing Linebacker Nick Barker and Defensive Lineman Liam Lane and fell a further 5 yards back and were again forced to punt. A powerful rush from the Devils punt return team meant the punt was poor and the offence took over again in perfect field position on the Tornados 31 yard line.
The Devils immediately took full advantage of the opportunity. Running Back Ben Rayner was handed the ball and showed just what an elusive runner he has become over the course of the season. Running out to the left he showed his blistering pace before cutting back on the whole chasing pack and, utilising his blockers, running back to the left hand side of the end zone. It was another swift score for the Devils and a soul crushing one for the Tornados. Again the extra point was blocked but the game was quickly turning into a blowout as the Devils were showing just what had made them unbeaten throughout the season.
The kickoff, this time, didn’t reach the end zone but the Tornados returner was unable to make much yardage as James Harrod evaded his blocker and made a tackle at the Tornados 16 yard line. In the increasingly bad weather, the Tornados opted to run the ball and after a good tackle by Cornerback Wayne Diggines on one play he was subsequently called for an unsportsman like penalty on the next, as he made contact with the runner after he went out of bounds, and the Mosquitos moved to their 33 yard line. Opting for a Max Protect Formation to try and keep the powerful Devils defensive line away from their Quarterback the Tornados attempted to run the ball down the middle. Here, through a combination of good tackling by Harrod and the slippery conditions underfoot resulting in the Tornados running back falling down, the Devils held yet again and the Tornados were forced to punt. Despite another good return from Jones the Devils began their next drive on their own 35 yard line after a holding penalty.
The Devils went to their powerful running game again with Rayner making his way to the Tornados 43 yard line behind a wall of Devils, advancing downfield like a herd of wildebeest, taking down anything in its path. Once again going with no huddle they quickly launched into a passing play when Quarterback Belles-Flores stepped back and fired a perfectly thrown long ball towards Wide Receiver and Offensive MVP Adam Jones who had outpaced his coverage. Taking the ball flawlessly in stride he glided into the end zone for yet another quick score. Again the kick was blocked by the excellent Tornados’ Special Teams Unit and the 1st Quarter came to a close.
End of 1st Quarter Score 27-0
On the kickoff the Devils Special Teams Unit were inches away from downing the ball at the 1 yard line but ultimately the ball went for a touchback and the Tornados began the 2nd Quarter from their own 20 yard line. The Tornados attempted to run the ball again but again Lineman Lane was there to snuff this out. After a false start penalty took them back further Safety Bowling also showed his powerful tackling yet again, racing down to take the Tornados Running Back down hard before he could cross the line of Scrimmage. At 3rd and 12 the Tornados completed their first pass of the game out wide to their Wide Receiver. When he expertly shook off his coverage it looked like they may get their first open field first down of the game, but Linebacker Nick Barker quickly sped across and took down the receiver 2 yards short of the 1st down and the Tornados were forced to punt yet again.
The Devils began their next drive on their own 38 yard line where Running Back Matt Ward started by moving it down the field through the middle with some powerful running. Quarterback Belles-Flores opted to keep the ball and run himself on the next play on a well executed fake, then Ward showed his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as he caught a pass out wide and took the ball down to the Tornados 44 yard line. A false start penalty and then a sack on Belles -Flores gave the Tornados hope that they could finally get a foothold in the game. An equipment malfunction following the tackle forced Belles-Flores off and back- up Quarterback Chris Wilkinson took to the field to keep the drive alive. A good handoff enabled Running Back Rayner to take the ball close to a first down and then not to be outdone by Ward he also showed his ability to catch it out of the back field and following some more elusive running he made his way to the Tornados 19 yard line. With the Devils in the red zone again they opted for no huddle once more. This time however it didn’t pay off as finally the Tornados had something to cheer about when Wilkinsons’ pass was picked off and only a strong tackle from Rayner prevented a possible 6 points for the Tornados.
It was a spirited Tornados Offence who took to the field with the ball on their own 28 yard line following the pick. However, Devils Linebacker and Defensive MVP Richard Gray showed just how powerful he can be as, despite being blocked by two defensive linemen, he managed to drive through and take down the Tornados Running back for a 5 yard loss, much to his own delight. Despite a good Quarterback scramble taking the Tornados to 3rd and 6 they were unable to find the first down as yet again Gray broke through the line, despite being double teamed, and took down the Tornados Running Back for another big loss. Defensive Captain Gray was showing just what all his hard work in the gym during the season had been for and it seemed the Tornados offence had no answer to his raw power. At 4th and 13 the Tornados punter took to the field once more.
Returner Jones collected the ball on his own 30 yard line and after a swift 25 yard return a face cage penalty on the tackle took the ball down to the Tornados 30 yard line. Returner to the field Quarterback Belles-Flores quickly showed his ability to pass the ball. With a perfect pocket formed by the Devils Offensive line he had time to float the ball into the corner of the end zone where Receiver Jones was there to out jump the Tornados Cornerback and collect his 3rd Touchdown of the game. Jones added the extra point and the Devils moved to a 34 point lead.
A good kick chase on the kick off by Wayne Diggines and a crunching tackle by Ed Bowling meant the Tornados would begin their next drive from their own 30 yard line. Having had very little luck with their running game the Tornados took to the air but were unable to connect with a pass and despite another good quarterback scramble which was stopped by a tackle from Line Backer James Harrod they still found themselves at 4th and inches at the 2 minute warning. Opting to go for it on 4th down the Tornados fumbled the ball and it looked like the Devils recovered the ball. After much discussion however, the referees called that the runner had just made the first down by an inch, with forward momentum, and had also been down by contact before the fumble and the Tornados offence quickly ran back out onto the field. They were unable to make any further yardage as the Devils defence seemed to utilise every player to gang tackle the Tornados Running Back on three straight plays and the whistle blew for half time.
Half Time Score 34-0
The second half kicked off after a shorter than usual break and another good kick chase and tackle by Ed Bowling, assisted by Rookie Brandon Nelson, meant the Tornados would again start their drive from their own 30 yard line. Opting for a max protect formation with two protectors in the back field the Tornados Quarterback was able to get some passes away and connect with his receivers. However, again some gang tackling stopped them advancing to far downfield and again they were forced to punt on 4th down. Things did not go well, as another high snap meant the punter had to run backwards to collect the ball, the Devils took him down on his own 20 yard line and the ball was handed over on downs with the Devils already in the Redzone.
The Devils opted for some changes of personnel as their back ups took to the field and despite a false start penalty the Devils found themselves at 3rd and 1. A strong defensive stand from the Tornados defensive line stopped the Running Back Ward from making the 1st down and instead of going for the field goal the Devils went for it. Unfortunately the Tornados secondary showed their class as Quarterback Wilkinson was picked off in the end zone and only a strong tackle from Ward prevented the return for a touchdown.
The Tornados returned to their running game but Linebacker Mark Stewart, playing in his last game for the club before a move away from the area, couldn’t be beaten on the outside by the run. Then, at 3rd and 13, he topped off his Devils career with a pick when Defensive End Chris Waterhouse picked up the QB scramble and under pressure the Quarterback attempted a shovel pass to his Running Back. Stewart nipped in to take the ball out of his hands and to roars from the Devils sideline he attempted to run the ball in for the score, only to be stopped at the 15 yard line. It was a great moment for the popular player and showed just what a loss he will be to the Devils going into next season.
With excellent field position the Devils took no time in adding to their score as Running Back Rayner dodged and weaved his way into the end zone untouched on the very first play for his second Touchdown of the game. An unusually poor kick from Jones meant he missed the extra point but the Devils had reached the 40 point mark for the first time since their first game of the season and the running clock came into affect.
It was perhaps the implementation of the the running clock which meant the Devils Special Teams Unit were a little slower on the kick chase. But that would do disservice to the Tornados as an excellent elusive running from the Tornados returner with good lead blocking meant he found himself with only Kicker Jones to beat. However, not for the first time this year, Jones came to the rescue when he slammed the runner to the floor at the Devils 25 yard line. It was the first time all game the Tornados found themselves in the Devils half and eyed a chance to score. It was not meant to be however, as on the very first play they took to the air and Devils safety Ricky Darrell showed why he is leading the interceptions stats with yet another pick to add to his tally. With glory in his eyes he spotted an opportunity to run it back for a score with a flurry of lead blockers out front. However a perfect tackle from a Tornados defender ruined his dreams and the Devils took over on their 32 yard line.
Despite a bad snap taking them back 10 yards the Devils were able to quickly advance downfield with Running Back Rayner dancing through the Tornados defence on a series of plays which took them down to the Tornados 40 yard line. The Tornados defence admirably showed that they still had heart as they then began to fight back and stopped Rayner twice behind the Line of Scrimmage. Despite a good run by Running Back Ward the Devils fell short of the first down and opted to punt. When the Devils looked like they were going to hand the ball over in their own half following a poor snap. Jones managed to weave his way through the improvised downfield blocking by the Special Teams Unit, in particular some aggressive bullying by Lineman Mark Schofield and make his way to the Tornados 14 yard line. However, following several penalties on both sides for blocks in the back, dangerous tackling, unsportsman like conduct and taunting, all a result of the considerably extended play from Jones, the Tornados finally ended up with the ball on their own 3 yard line.
Getting the ball didn’t help much, as on the Tornados first play, Linebackers Harrod and Gray took down the Tornados Running Back in their own end zone for a safety. Much to the delight of Gray who was called for a taunting penalty as he danced towards the sideline doing his best Dhalsim from street fighter impression. The score ended the 3rd Quarter and the Devils found themselves with their highest score of the season with one more quarter to go.
End of 3rd Quarter Score 42-0
Despite the 15 yard penalty, enforced on the kickoff, returner Matt Ward was able to get to the Devils 40 yard line and the Devils made a series of positional changes on the field. Captain Alan Baxter-Smith, playing in his last game before retirement was changed, by the coaching staff showing a little sentimentality, to his former position of Running Back instead of Slot Receiver, so he could finish his career doing what he loved doing best, running with the ball. Rolling back the years he elusively ran for a first down on the first play and then again on the second play only to be brought back for a block in the back penalty and after a dropped pass and a sack the Devils were forced to punt on 4th down. Kicker Jones showed the strength in his leg with a 60 yard punt which looked like it had been downed at the 1 yard line by Long Snapper Chris Miller. However it was deemed that his momentum had taken him across the goal line and was called a touchback. The Tornados therefore began their drive from their own 20 yard line.
The Tornados began with their passing game but a quick pass was dropped following good pressure from Linebacker Chris Miller and a false start penalty took them back further. Defensive End Chris Waterhouse then took down the Tornados Quarterback for a sack as he attempted to scramble out of the pocket leaving them apt 3rd and 21. The Tornados finally gained some positive yardage on the drive when their Fullback caught a pass out of the backfield and shrugged off the tackle from Miller with ease. Linebacker Gray however, was wise to the play and at full speed he powered in to make a crushing tackle on the Tornados player. So at 4th and 16 the Tornados were again forced to punt.
Another short punt meant the Devils took over on the Tornados 37 yard line and with the clock continuing to run they went into their Hurry Up Offence. A short powerful run from Running Back Joe Jacobs took them down to the 30 yard line but a subsequent sack by the Tornados who, credit to them, were still showing heart despite the scoreline and point in the game, took the Devils back to 3rd and 10. Quarterback Chris Wilkinson however was able to keep the play alive with a 20 yard pass to Wide Receiver Jones. Continuing with no huddle the Devils were unable to take the ball into the end zone for one last score as the Tornados held their line, the clock ran down and the final whistle blew on the Devils season with their biggest win since they returned to competitive action. But as far as the action on the field, the ultimate job was done. The required number of games had been completed and the Devils could continue their application to re-enter the British National Football League.
Final Score 42-0
Offensive MVP – Adam Jones
Defensive MVP – Richard Gray
When the jubilant Devils took to the field, to shake their opponents hands, give thanks to their supporters and celebrate the conclusion of their unbeaten associate season, there was plenty of things to be positive about. They had, for example, amassed 170 points in 5 games with an average of 34 points a game. Scores had come from all units, offence, defence and special teams and from a number of different players which showed a good spread of talent across the board. The Offence had successfully changed its playbook to a fast paced offence with weapons both in the passing and running game which is largely down to the Head Coach Chris Mills and his ability to implement his playing style on the offensive unit. The Special teams Unit had showed just what can be achieved with limited practice with Special Teams Coach Keith Jacobs proud to witness so many well executed plays to add to the scoreline or give the team perfect field position time and time again. Finally the defence who, having only given up 27 points all season, finally got the shut out they had been craving all year. Impressive stats such as; only 8 first downs given up in 3 straight games, 13 interceptions and only conceding 3 touchdowns all season, show the quality of their play and the ability they have to make big plays at crucial moments. All credit to Defensive Coordinator Sean Gray who has grown the Defence into a fast powerful unit, showing just what a great addition to the club he has been. All in all, a fantastic showing by the team all year and it will be with great excitement that the Devils await the decision of the League and the possible chance to get even better in 2018.
The win completed the perfect season for Head Coach Chris Mills in just his first year in charge. After the game he commented, ‘An excellent way to finish a very long season. Undefeated. When I came into this position, I wanted to change everything about the team from the playbooks to the whole team ethos. I wanted it changed. I knew if I could cultivate a ‘team first’ attitude, whilst also building a lightening fast Offence & hard hitting Defence that people wanted to be a part of, we would be successful. The team, to their credit, bought into this new way of thinking, started becoming accountable and worked their tails off both on and off the field. As a result, we have 5 convincing wins and are in good standing to enter the league next season. This particular game was a great show from all sides of the ball. Burnley came to play, no doubt about it. They were physical & aggressive. But our constant repping of fundamentals and competitive drills showed out there. A personal thank you to the Burnley Tornadoes. They travelled far with low-ish numbers and still fought for the whole game despite the score line. We now move into our offseason. A chance to rest, heal, spend time with loved ones before we [hopefully] enter the league next year to test our mettle against the rest of the team’s in the region. I cannot materialise the words to describe how proud I am of the Navy and Gold war machine this season. From the coaches, to the player base, to the SWAG’s and finally our supporters and assisting staff. We all contributed to get to where we are and I thank them all for that.’
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 despite the time of year and weather problems. They would also like to thank all those that have helped them to grow throughout 2017 and complete such a memorable season. Without the support of so many the club would not have taken such giant steps. They would finally like to thank the Burnley Tornados for travelling so far and despite a weakened team still taking to the field and balling throughout the game.
The Devils will now be completing their application to the league during the winter offseason. Check out the website or like our Facebook page for updates on the success of the application.
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. We shall be holding Try out sessions for prospective players in November please see here for more information on these sessions.