East Essex Sabres v Norwich Devils
Sunday 3rd June 2018
Report by Alan Baxter-Smith
Photographs – John Mallet Photography
A quote often attributed to NFL Hall of Fame Head Coach Marv Levy, who lead the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive SuperBowl Appearances in the Early 90’s, goes ‘Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character’. This is certainly the case when talking about the Devils’ game on Sunday.
(Photo Credit Mark Rhodes)
Firstly, prior to kickoff, the Devils showed the character of the club by honouring the life of fellow Britballer and East Anglian Charles Mack who, two weeks prior, had tragically passed away following a heart attack during training. In a show of respect, also seen around the entire league, a minutes silence was held while both organisations, and others involved in the British Game including the Iceni Spears , took a knee in the middle of the field. The Devils also showed support for the Cats by adding a Decal to their helmets showing the Cambridgeshire Cats Logo and C-Macks number 54.
Secondly, earlier that morning, the Devils starting QB Andre Belles-Flores had taken an unexpected trip to Hospital when his wife went into early labour and gave birth a few hours before kick off. As happy for their team mate as they were, the Devils would have to do without their Offensive leader who had been having a very strong start to the season. The character of the Devils Offence would be tested with back-up Chris Wilkinson taking the starting spot and centre stage for the first time this season. Combined with this the Devils Offensive Co-Ordinator Craig Thompson was on his Honeymoon having got married just the day before. Finally, the visiting team, the East Essex Sabres, were going to be a test of character for all the Devils players. Despite having lost their two previous games in the league, one was by only a single point land one a game in which they scored 47. Add this to their 60 point victory against the Maidstone Pumas and it was clear their high scoring Offence was going to be a true challenge for the Devils D. As it turned out, the game would provide so many more tests that afternoon that the Devils true character as a team couldn’t fail to shine through.
Speaking of shining, the overcast conditions forecast didn’t materialise and following the coin toss the Sabres kicked off in extremely hot and sunny conditions, which would prove to be a challenge for both players, spectators, coaches and officials alike throughout the afternoon. Returner Harris Todd, following some efficient blocking was only denied a touchdown by a great tackle by the Sabres’ Kicker, and the Devils would begin their first drive on the Sabres’ 43 yard line.
At first it looked like a Running Back Joe Jacobs would pick up a first down on the first play but an unnecessary roughness penalty would bring the ball back 15 yards. On the next play the Sabres were ready for the run and stopped it at the line of scrimmage. At 3rd and 25 the Devils had to go for the pass and some excellent coverage by the Sabres’ Secondary resulted in the ball being picked and, despite an instant tackle by intended receiver Matt Bowers, the Sabres would take over on their own 49 yard line.
It was a disastrous start for the Devils’ Offence and instantly showed what a challenge their missing QB would be. The confident Devils’ Defence took to the field hoping to cover for their shorthanded Offensive Unit . Things started well with Defensive Lineman Jordan Knights and Defensive End Chris Waterhouse shutting down the run. Then Waterhouse again showing his uncanny ability to get into the opponents backfield by taking down the Sabres’ Running Back for an 8 yard loss. At 3rd and 17 the Sabres took to the pass and an unfortunate slip by Linebacker Ed Bowling allowed the Sabres’ Tight End to make the catch and just make enough yardage to move the chain before Cornerback Wayne Diggines took him out of bounds. The Sabres returned to their run game but again Waterhouse, and this time Linebacker Piers Harrison-Reid, put paid to that. Once again however, the Sabres’ strong Offensive Line showed their class by providing a solid wall for their QB to throw behind and Ed Bowling was again beaten to the ball, this time by the Slot Receiver. Only a tackle by Safety Ricky Darrell prevented the touchdown but the Sabres found themselves on the Devils’ 11 yard line. Linebacker Steve Lee was easily up to the task of stopping the attempted run down the middle. Darrell then covered the outside run on the next play. Returning to their passing game, Linebacker Harrison-Reid read the play perfectly and took the Receiver down before he could gain any yardage. At 4th and 8 the Sabres opted for a field goal which they successfully converted putting the first points on the scoreboard.
Score: East Essex Sabres 3 – Devils 0
Another good return by Harris Todd meant the Devils’ Offence would begin their next drive on their own 40 yard line. It looked like Running Back Matt Ward had gained 8 yards on a strong carry but a holding penalty would take them backwards once again. Quarterback Chris Wilkinson however, showed his calmness in the pocket and threw his way put of trouble with passes to Wide Receiver Adam Jones and then Tight End Charlie Keohane to make the required 20 yards to move the chains. Both contributing with strong running after the catch. Going back to the running game the Devils looked like they were going to make another first down but Running Back Matt Ward fumbled the ball and the Sabres recovered to take over on their own 40 yard line. It was another turnover by the Devils’ Offence and it was a very frustrated group of players who left the field.
The Devils’ Defence however, was raring to go when the Sabres took to their passing game which had proved so successful up until that point. Good coverage in the secondary by Ed Bowling and a powerful blitz by Linebacker Ace Faatuai prevented the Sabres from making yardage with the short pass. When the Sabres went for the long ball Cornerback Wayne Diggines stuck like glue to his man , knocking the ball out of the Receivers hands as he looked to take it in for a 30 yard gain, and the Sabres were forced to punt. The Devils’ Defence had got their first 3 and out of the game and noisily left the field after a short punt meant the Devils would take over on their own 30 yard line.
Injuries to Centre Phil Ward and Right Guard Dan Thomas forced Head Coach and Acting Offensive Co-Ordinator Chris Mills to make drastic changes to his Offensive line, bringing on Josh Allgood at Centre and moving Defensive Lineman John May to Offensive Guard. Perhaps knowing the loss of the two powerhouse Offensive Linemen would provide less protection for his QB he also opted to bring Harris Todd in at Quarterback. At first it looked like a foolish decision when an all out blitz by the Sabres meant Todd found himself sacked for a 7 yard loss. Running Back Ward got the yards back and then some though, when Right Tackle Morgan Page and Tight End Keohane made a hole for him to power his way up to the half way line. Some more elusive running from Ward took the Devils further upfield and they eventually found themselves at 3rd and 2. What should have been a challenging play became easier when the Sabres’ Defence failed to get out of their huddle quickly and the Devils’ Offence spotted it, got set and snapped the ball. Running back Joe Jacobs with the 8 yard carry and the first down. It was an impressive bit of teamwork by the Devils and drew applause from the the large crowd in attendance on the Devils sideline as the 1st Quarter came to a close.
End of 1st Quarter Score: East Essex Sabres 3 – Devils 0
The Devils failed to make the yardage for another first down and were forced to punt and try and trap the Sabres deep into their own half. A poor punt and a very favourable bounce for the Sabres however, took the ball back past the line of scrimmage and they would begin their next drive on their 45 yard line. Some quick short passing by the Sabres began to take them upfield and then a long run from the Sabres’ Running Back, who for the first time found some space, took them down to the Devils’ 28 Yard Line before Safety Ricky Darrall made the tackle. Failing with the pass the Sabres took to the run again but it looked like Defensive Lineman Liam Lane had it covered with a brilliant read and react surge through the line. The Sabres Running Back however, slipped away from his grasp and was able to run it down to the Devils 2 yard line before he was shoved out of bounds. On the very next play, they ran it again and, he was just about able to force his way over the line under a crowd of Devil tacklers. It was a cruel blow for the Devils’ Defence who were visibly angry as they left the field. The Sabres kicked the extra point and extended the lead.
Score: East Essex Sabres 10 – Devils 0
The Devils really had to show what they were made off if they wanted to win the game. The Offence were struggling and several men down, although Offensive Guard Dan Thomas had been able to return to the field, and the Sabres’ Offence had just taken the ball 55 yards in a few plays for a score. They had to strike back as quickly as they could. Acting Defensive Coordinator Richard Gray could be heard motivating his troops from space, one would imagine, as the Devils’ Offence took to the field on their 20 yard line, following the kickoff into the Endzone. Perhaps it did the trick for the players on the field as well. A pass by Harris Todd found Wide Receiver Adam Jones, and blocks by Slot Receiver Alan Baxter-Smith and Tight End Keohane released the Athletic receiver into the Sabres’ Secondary where he’s at his most dangerous. Gliding past tacklers with ease he got to the outside and scorched away from the pursuing Sabres into the Endzone. Finally the mass of Devils supporters had something to cheer and one would imagine you could hear that from space as well. After a long injury delay for a fallen Sabres’ player, Adam Jones converted on a two point conversion attempt and the Devils were back in the game.
Score: East Essex Sabres 10 – Devils 8
The Devils kickoff went for a touchback and the Sabres would begin their next drive from their own 20 yard line. Immediately the Sabres went to their run game seemingly having finally figured out a weakness in the Devils’ run defence in the last successful drive. Quickly they made it to the Devils 47 yard line. Ed Bowling and Coach Gray however, seemed to have done some figuring out of their own, first of all stopping the pass for a loss with a perfect read of the screen play, then stopping the run, for no gain, with a charge through the line. At 3rd and long a perfect pass from the Sabres’ QB, and a great catch and run by the Receiver, showed just how dangerous their offence could be as they advanced up to the Devils’ 25 yard line. Again Safety Ricky Darrell making the TD saving tackle. The Sabres returned to their run game but it was their turn to turnover the ball, with Linebacker Ed Bowling chasing down his man and punching the ball out before diving on it. The noise on the Devils’ sideline was electrifying as they mobbed the Linebacker as he left the field. The large crowd behind the Devils could sense the momentum swing and when an immediate catch and run by Tight End Charlie Keohane took the ball up to the 35 yard line, and then Running Back Ward moved it further downfield, their volume increased. An obvious roughing the passer penalty moved the Ball into the Sabres’ half where a clever QB run play and more efficient running from Ward moved the drive steadily downfield. After a targeting penalty for leading with the helmet moved the Devils down to the Sabres’ 15 yard line the drive stalled and the Devils found themselves at 4th and 3. After a timeout to compose his thoughts, Coach Mills elected to put faith in his Offence rather than go for the simple field goal. At first it looked like his faith had been rewarded when Quarterback Todd found Wide Receiver Joshua Segolo at the back of the Endzone, but it was harshly judged that he did not keep his feet in bounds for the entire catch and the Sabres took over on downs.
With the Sabres’ Quarterback set back into his own Endzone they attempted to run the ball out of trouble, but the Devils’ Defence were having none of it. A powerful blitz meaning 5 Devils’ players stopped the Sabres’ Running Back for a loss. The Sabres then went to the pass but good coverage by Cornerback Wayne Diggines prevented that escape route. Again they went to the run but Defensive Linemen Ben Hart stopped them in their tracks. It was a 3 and out by the Devils’ Defence that certainly made a statement to the Sabres. A short punt gave the Devils excellent field position on the Sabres’ 28 yard line but with very little time left on the clock. At the very least from there they could move the ball closer for an easier field goal so the Devils could take a small lead into the second half. Confusion between Quarterback Todd and his receivers on a short pass, resulting in an illegal formation penalty, drew some chastising from the QB and pulled them back out of field goal range. The Devils shook it off and, with time running out, composed themselves for the next play. And what a play it was. Running Back Joe Jacobs picking up a huge block on the blitzing Sabres’ Defensive Lineman giving enough time for Todd to fire towards Wide Receiver Adam Jones, who had blasted past his cover into the Endzone. It was a simple catch for Jones for his second score of the day and coming just before the half would send the dejected Sabres back to their sideline facing an uphill battle of their own in the second half. The fist pumping from Todd and wild celebrations from the Devils’ sideline showed they knew just how much it meant, in what was proving to be a very tight game. Jones kicked the extra point and the Devils had taken the lead for the first time as the half time whistle blew.
End of First Half Score: East Essex Sabres 10 – Devils 15
The Devils kicked off the second half and the Sabres looked to strike back early with a good kick return to start. Any hope of this was wiped out when Ace Faatuai brushed aside two blockers and laid a hit on the Returner, at the 27 yard line, which may have been heard back in Essex. To his credit the Returner got to his feet quickly where many others may have taken a moment. The Sabres tried to move the ball but more good tackling from Linebacker Ed Bowling and good coverage by the Devils’ Secondary meant the Sabres went 3 and out to start the half and were forced to punt.
After a short punt, the Devils took over on the Sabres’ 42 yard line looking to add to their lead early but a powerful blitz by the Sabres’ Defence meant Running Back Joe Jacobs had no chance and was taken down in the backfield for a 7 yard loss. However, Running Back Matt Ward entered the field and proceeded to take the ball 18 yards for a first down to move the chains. The play showed the Devils’ Offence were really beginning to click and had come out of the break with a purpose. There was a definite sense that a Touchdown was maybe in the offering. When the drive stalled at 3rd and 1 Running Back Alan Baxter-Smith was brought on to try and make the yardage. A deft cut to avoid the rush and determined drive with his legs took him across the line of scrimmage and moved the chains to the 17 yard line. Another apparent run by Baxter-Smith seemed to have been stopped at the line of scrimmage on the next play but it wasn’t to be as he didn’t actually have the ball and Todd was busy making his way to the corner of the the Endzone. By the time the majority of the Sabres figured it out the Referee was already signalling a touchdown. It was a great piece of trickery perfectly executed and a superb start to the half. The Devils 2 point conversion fell just short but this didn’t dent the Devils’ jubilance as the kick off team took to the field.
Score: East Essex Sabres 10 – Devils 21
The kick off went for a touchback and the Sabres would begin their next drive on their 20 yard line. Immediately the Sabres went to their passing game and had success with a 15 yard catch and run. When they tried their run game Defensive End Liam Lane was able to snuff it out pretty quick. Returning to the pass the Sabres’ Offensive line provided a wall for their Quarterback to launch a long pass across the field to his Wide Receiver. A blown coverage by Cornerback Tyler Alfred meant he was wide open to make the catch and make his way up the sideline. Speedy Linebacker Piers Harrison-Reid was able to make the ground up on the Receiver and take him down but by then the Sabres had reached the Devils’ 30 yard line. It was a blow for the Devils’ Defence and could have seen a momentum swing back toward the Sabres had it not been for what happened on the next play. The Sabres’ Offensive Line again gave their Quarterback a wall and again he targeted the Receiver covered by Tyler Alfred. This time however there was no blown coverage and the Rookie Cornerback leapt in front of the Receiver to collect the ball and make his way back downfield. With Linebacker Ace Faatuai out in front clearing a path only a last ditch tackle by the Sabres’ Safety prevented the pick six. It was however an instant piece of redemption for the Cornerback and meant the Devils would begin their next drive from their 42 yard line.
The Devils looked to be struggling to move the ball for the first time in a while when, after a take down of Running Back Ward and then a hurried pass which didn’t find his target, they found themselves at 3rd and 12. The Sabres failed to cover Wide Receiver Adam Jones however, and after a short catch and mazy run he made his way down to the Sabres 40 yard line for the first down and then some. Noticing that the Sabres’ Defence seemed to be weighted towards the playmaker Jones on the very next play, Quarterback Todd went the other way to Slot Receiver Matt Bowers who had eluded his single coverage. Making the catch in open space it looked like a certain TD but the Sabres’ Cornerback made a terrific last ditch tackle to take Bowers down on the half yard line much to the disappointment of the Devils’ sideline. Some staunch defending from the Sabres kept the Devils out for the first two run plays and an Offensive Pass Interference penalty, when it looked like Wide Receiver Jones had collected the ball in the Endzone, took the Devils backwards. Attempting another pass Quarterback Todd was forced out of the pocket by a blitz from the Sabres’ Defensive line and his pass on the run only succeeded in finding a Sabres’ player. A tackle by Tight End Charlie Keohane prevented much run back but the damage had been done and the stop by the Sabres Defence seemed to swing the momentum back towards their sideline.
Beginning on their own 10 yard line the Sabres attempted to run it down the middle but Linebacker Faatuai provided no way through there. Thus they went to the outside and found a little room to pick up the first down. A good passing play enabled them to pick up another 1st down before the 3rd quarter came to a close with the Sabres on their own 39 yard line.
End of 3rd Quarter Score: East Essex Sabres 10 – Devils 21
The Sabres began where they left off, moving the chains, with a burst down the middle stopped by Linebacker Connor Tooke. The Sabres were moving the ball fast and efficiently downfield and the tiring Devils Defence, who had worked so hard all day, looked to be struggling to stop them. Another pass found its target and a good run after the catch, for 30 yards, moved the Sabres down to the Devils 20 yard line. It was a reminder of the Sabres’ Offensive power and just to drive home the point, two plays later a pass into the Endzone found its target and the Sabres were quickly back in the game. They had taken the ball 90 yards in 8 plays and knocked the wind out of the Devils sails. Linebacker Steve Lee drove through the middle and blocked the extra point attempt but it was a dejected looking Defence who left the field.
Score East Essex Sabres 16 – Devils 21
The Devils returned the Ball to their 25 yard line following the restart and began their next drive with Quarterback Chris Wilkinson returning to the field. Opting to utilise the experience of the veteran QB and veteran Running Back Alan Baxter-Smith they began to run the clock down as much as possible, giving the Devils’ Defence a chance to get their breath back and keep the refiring Sabres’ Offence off the field. The two began to move the ball downfield straight down the middle with slick handoffs and powerful lead blocking from Fullback Tayler Lawson. A blatant horse collar penalty moved them further downfield and another cracking lead block from Lawson, followed by a cut and bust through some tackles by Baxter-Smith, took the Devils to the Sabres’ 36 yard line. Changing it up and looking for some speed at Running back, Harris Todd took to the field and subsequently moved the ball down to the Sabres’ 25 yard line before a bad snap combined with a fumble by Todd took the ball back to the 40 yard line. A penalty for piling on took the Devils back to the 25 yard line however, where Harris Todd stepped back in at Quarterback. After a scramble in which Todd fell inches short of the required yardage the Devils found themselves at 4th and inches. Opting to trust his Offence again Coach Mills went for it but this time the Sabres were up to the challenge. Quarterback Todd’s throw fell short of the intended Receiver and the Sabres’ Safety came up to make the pick with a wide open field in which to run it back for a touchdown. Fortunately Receiver Adam Jones won the foot race and made the tackle to prevent the pick six but the Sabres had, in an instant, found themselves on the Devils’ 33 yard line with a chance to win the game.
The Devils’ Defence returned to the field knowing that they would need to summon one last effort to prevent the Sabres from taking advantage of the turnover. Attempting to run the ball the Sabres found no joy up the middle. After which they went back to their passing game. Cornerback James Grey stopped what could have been a touchdown with some excellent coverage to bat the ball away. The Sabres’ Quarterback seemed to believe the first time was a fluke and targeted Grey again but again his coverage stopped the favoured Wide Receiver from getting the ball. Maybe it was because of his comparable height disadvantage to the Receiver that, now on 4th and 10, the Sabres’ Quarterback targeted Grey once more. But, for a small guy, he sure can leap and thats exactly what he did to smash the ball down in front of the Sabres’ Receivers waiting arms and get the ball back for the Devils. After sprinting off the field, having almost single handedly stopped the possible winning drive, the Cornerback and Game Day Captain, was mobbed by the entire Devils team and coaches and probably lost a few more inches in height from all the slaps to the top of his helmet.
With Quarterback Chris Wilkinson and Running Back Matt Ward running out the clock it was time for the Devils to celebrate a hard fought win.
Final Score: East Essex Sabres 16 – Devils 21
Defensive MVP – Ed Bowling
Offensive MVP – Harris Todd
After the the usual handshakes the Devils invited the Sabres in for a joint game photo. Continuing the sense of Britball brotherhood which had been seen during the minutes silence before the game.
It had been a true team performance with all units doing their part to get the victory. But, going back to Marv Levy’s quote, what had it revealed about the Devils character? Firstly it proved they are a team that doesn’t back down from a tough challenge. The Sabres had come for the win and played extremely well. The challenge had grown even greater when they took a two score lead but the Devils had regrouped, worked together and overcome the adversity to take the exciting victory. With key players out, both pre-game and with injuries during, the back-ups had stepped forward and proved the Devils strength in depth. However, Marv Levy said Football ‘reveals’ character and for many who don’t know the Devils that might be the case, but for those involved with the Devils organisation it was not a revelation, they knew this already. One thing is for certain, they will have to play just as hard in the return fixture just two weeks away in Essex to get another win. But, as they have shown, its in their character to not back down from a challenge.
It’s games like this that make me love coaching.
Seeing a group of individuals who generally didn’t know each other come together under my coaching staff, put their bodies on the line for each other, fight tooth and nail for every inch gained or defended is incredibly motivating.
I’m sure the players get bored of me saying it but I’ve tried to instil an ethos of ‘never give up’ on the team since I’ve been HC. To never let our heads drop when things aren’t going our way and to fight to the last rep. That grit is what won us the game. The Sabres are a tough bunch, we knew that going in having faced them 2 seasons previous but we all wanted retribution for the loss in the last fixture.
Our performance was good in all facets of the game and I’m very happy with our overall performance. Some silly mistakes cost us a lot of yards in penalties. However if we eliminate these, I believe we’re looking to have a very strong season.
As acting OC for the game, it took a little while for us to get traction and to settle into the game, especially after some injuries early on the offensive line. Once again the Defence did an amazing job keeping us in it so we could start putting points up.
Thank you to the players for grinding out a tough win and the support staff for keeping them on their feet! We’ll keep going as we always do. Fighting for the yards and the respect.
Chris Mills, Devils Head Coach.
Next up for the Devils is a trip away to the East Essex Sabres on the 17th June. The chance for immediate revenge for the Sabres will surely motivate them and it will be another tough challenge for the team. If anybody wishes to travel down and watch the game their support would be more than welcome, likewise if any supporters live locally to the area if should be a great outing for any Fathers on Fathers Day.
The Devils’ committee would like to thank their support staff, who’s assistance on the sideline is just as responsible for the win as the players on the field. John Mallet Photography for his wonderful photography once again and of cause Phil Wade for his excellent commentary.
They would especially like to thank all our fans who attended the game and supported us via our social media sites. You truly got behind the team and were like a 12th man on the field with your support.
Finally they would like to thank the East Essex Sabres for a well played and hard fought game. We wish a speedy recovery to their player who suffered a fractured leg during the game and look forward to the re-match.
The Devils will be playing more league games in 2018.
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