Norwich Devils v Essex Spartans
Sunday 24th June 2018
Report by Alan Baxter-Smith
Photographs – John Mallet Photography
Five time National Championship Winning Ohio State Head Coach, and College Football Hall of Fame inductee Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes once said ‘Nothing that comes easy is worth a dime’ Well if thats the case, the Devils earned themselves a fair few dollars in their most recent league matchup. It was certainly a Battle Royale which would prove to the doubters that the Devils needed to be taken seriously within the Division.
As the Devils’ players arrived for their game against the Essex Spartans there was a little apprehension in the air, actually apprehension and a million thunder bugs swarming around the field, naturally attracted to the Devils’ gold kit. Despite the early start it was already 28 degrees by 10am and the humidity was a cause for discomfort for the Devils’ sideline staff setting up the field. But it wasn’t the heat that had the Devils concerned. They were fully aware that the Spartans’ record of 2-2 for the season did not give a fair representation of the quality in their team. They would be looking to improve on their record and push for a playoff spot and would have no doubt targeted the Devils as a possible win at the start of the season. Having held the Blitz to just 22 points and lost by only a point in their other loss it was clear that they would be an extremely tough test for the Devils’ rookie league side.
The Devils won the toss and elected to receive, after a short return they would begin their first drive from their own 37 yard line. The Spartans’ seemed to have concerns regards Devils’ playmaker Wide Receiver Adam Jones and set up in what appeared to be triple coverage on the Devils’ leading scorer. So the Devils were forced to go elsewhere. This was not a problem for the Devils’ Offence. Immediately they began to get traction with their run game, Running Back Ben Rayner moving his way downfield and a catch and run from Tight End Charlie Keohane moving the chains. Following some good lead blocking from Matt Bowers, the ball was placed back into Rayner’s hands and he powered his way down to the Spartans’ 27 yard line. A False Start penalty brought the Devils back 5 yards but it had been made clear to the Spartans that the Devils’ have plenty of offensive weapons other than Jones so he was left in only double coverage for the next play. This was all Jones needed, Quarterback Andre Belles-Flores quickly found him and using a block from fellow Wide Receiver Harris Todd he took himself into the Endzone for the first score of the day. It was a devastating first drive by the Devils’ Offence which left the Spartans in no doubt that it was going to be a tough day for them as well. Jones added the extra point and the Devils sideline were jubilant as the two teams lined up for the kickoff.
Score Devils: 7 – Essex Spartans 0
At first it looked like the Spartans would strike back immediately when their Kick Returner collected the ball on his own 1 yard and waited for his blockers. Once they set up he began a mazy run back towards the Devils’ Endzone taking advantage of some missed tackles by the chasing Devils. Finally getting to the outside the Spartans’ player made his way up to the Endzone and began to celebrate with his team mates. However, two flags on the field indicated that all was not as it seemed. An illegal block in the back, way back on their own 21 yard line, resulted in an 11 yard penalty from the spot of the foul and the dejected Spartans would begin their first drive from their own 1 yard line.
As the relieved Devils Defence took to the field the Spartans took a time out to gather their composure before beginning with their power run game. Despite good tackling from Linebackers Piers Harrison-Reid and Ace Faatuai the Spartans were able to get a first down. Taking to their passing game next the Spartans had less joy when Defensive End Liam Lane was able to power past his man and take down the Spartans QB for a sack with a monstrous hit. However, a flag after the play for Taunting by the Devils Defence, when congratulating their player on a great play, took away any advantage gained and the Spartans moved the chains once more to the 32 yard line. Returning to their power run game the Spartans began to move the ball again before a False Start penalty took them backwards. This didn’t seem to hold them back however, and going to their outside run game the Spartans were able to gain some significant yardage and move the ball down to the Devils 42 yard line. Some good tackling, from Linebacker Ed Bowling and Cornerback Wayne Diggines, prevented any big gains with the outside run, so the Spartans opted to go for the pass but Bowling was equal to that as well, preventing the catch with some good coverage. At 3rd and 6 the Devils supporters got loud in support of their team but another cleverly worked run play enabled the Running Back to sprint through the middle and only a tackle by Bowling on the Devils’ 19 yard line prevented the Touchdown. It was clear the Devils Defence were struggling with the number of different plays the Spartans were throwing at them from pretty much the same formation. Some powerful tackling from Ace Faatuai and Chris Waterhouse just about prevented the Spartans from making a first down and at 3rd and inches Linebacker Bowling again made a play, bursting through the line of Scrimmage to take down the Spartans’ running back for a 5 yard loss. Electing to go for it on 4th Down, rather than take the easy field goal, the Spartans obviously felt they had the beating of the Devils’ Defence. They opted for a pass play but Defensive End Liam Lane was wise to it, gliding untouched past his man at pace to take down the Spartans’ QB for his second sack of the game. The Defensive Captain showed his class by simply walking off the field as if it was nothing but truth be told he had stopped the Spartans in their tracks after an 80 yard drive downfield, and a personal foul after the play had finished, by a Spartans’ player, was evidence of their frustration at the stop by the Devils’ Defence. It wasn’t nothing, it was a momentum changing play from the big man.
Following the Penalty the Devils Offence would start their next drive from their own 40 yard line with Running Back Matt Ward taking to the field. Following some good blocking from Slot Receiver Matt Bowers he quickly took the ball down the the Spartans’ 44 yard line for a first down. The Offensive Line of Luca Ferrera, Chris Handley, Josh Allgood, Dan Thomas and Morgan Page continued to make holes for Ward as he made his way down to the Spartans’ 16 yard line before the Devils went to their passing game. Eventually the drive stalled and they found themselves at 3rd and 1. A false start penalty took them back 5 yards and the task became harder. Quarterback Andre Belles-Flores scrambled on the next play however, and just about moved the chains before the 1st Quarter came to a close.
End of 1st Quarter Score: Devils 7 – Essex Spartans 0
On the first play of the 2nd Quarter the Spartans again lined up in double coverage on Jones but again the Devils proved they have several weapons on Offence and Quarterback Belles-Flores found Wide Receiver Harris Todd in the corner of the end zone with a beautifully accurate throw for the Devils’s second TD of the game. Jones again added the extra point and the Devils took a two score lead.
Score: Devils 14 – Essex Spartans 0
Following a good return the Spartans would begin their next drive on their own 29 yard line. Beginning with their power game again the Spartans fullback began to make yardage down the middle. Going to the outside they were unable to move the ball however, and at 3rd and long they went to the pass. Or so it seemed, it looked like Linebacker Steve Lee was going to collect his first sack of the day when suddenly the Quarterback tossed the ball to the side into the waiting arms of his Running Back who managed to weave his way down to the halfway line for a first down before Linebacker El Foley took him down. It was another example of the Spartans’ extensive running playbook and again the frustrated Devils’ Defence returned to their huddle having given up another long 3rd down conversion. A good run by the Spartans’ Quarterback took the Spartans near to a first down and another powerful frun from the Spartans’ Fullback took them over the line to again move the chains. Yet another different running play took the Spartans down to the Devils 25 yard line before Cornerback Tyler Alfred made the tackle. An Ed Bowling tackle on the Spartans’ running back took them back to the 30 yard line. Another powerful run up the middle by the Spartans fullback took them to 3rd and 7, and when a superb tackle by Cornerback Alfred stopped any gain on the play, yet again the Spartans elected to go for it instead of taking the easy field goal. Again the gamble didn’t pay off when a strong run through the middle by Linebacker Faatuai forced the Spartans’ QB out of the pocket and Cornerback Wayne Diggines made the tackle to prevent the 4th down conversion. Once again the Devils Defence had stopped the good drive from the Spartans and only time would tell if not going for either of the conversions would cost the Spartans at the end of the game.
Returning to the field on their own 25 yard line the Devils Offence began their next drive with their run game with Matt Ward making a short gain. The drive however, ended abruptly when a mix up with the handoff resulted in a fumble and the Spartans recovered the ball on the Devils’ 25 yard line. It was a surprising error from the Devils’ Offence who had executed so well in the game up until that point and left the Spartans in excellent field position. Uncharacteristically going for the passing play on 1st down, the Spartans attempted to catch the Devils Defence off guard but Cornerback Wayne Diggines was seemingly equal to the challenge. A contentious Pass Interference penalty flag however, undid his good work and the ball was spotted on the Devils’ 10 yard line. Two plays later the Spartans Fullback powered the ball into the Endzone. The extra point was good and the Spartans had pulled to within a score. It was a bit of a blow for the Devils’ Defence but a massive one for the Devils’ Offence who had given them such good field position and the Devils’ coaches could be heard on the sideline rallying the troops as the Spartans kicked off.
Score: Devils 14 – Essex Spartans 7
A good return meant the Devils would begin their next drive from their own 34 yard line hoping to make amends for their previous error. Things started well, good blocking from Fullback Alan Baxter-Smith allowing Ben Rayner to make his way down to the half way line with a couple of good runs. Eventually however the Devils found themselves at 4th and 1 and it was their turn to go for it. However, a False Start penalty scuppered that option and they were forced to punt. A bad snap meant Punter Adam Jones was only just able to get the ball away after good pressure from the Spartans and the resulting short punt meant the Spartans took over on their own 36 yard line.
Again the Spartans went to their power running game but Linebacker Harrison Reid was equal to the task. Trying their outside run, Defensive End Chris Waterhouse was able to keep contain and take down the Running Back for a loss and the Spartans quickly found themselves at 3rd and 9. They returned to their power run game again but the Devils were wise to the play and Linebacker Steve Bunyan was able to stop the Fullback for only a yard and the Spartans were forced to punt.
A very good punt and favourable bounce took the ball all the way down to the Devils’ 5 yard line as the 2 minute warning was blown. The Devils were unable to gain any significant yardage on the drive and following a long injury break they were forced to punt. After a good punt and good return by the Spartans Returner an incident on the Spartans’ sideline, where a Devils’ player reacted to what appeared to be a shove by a Spartans’ player not even on the field, resulted in an Unsportsmanlike Penalty against the Devils and no action being taken against the Spartans’ player. This resulted in the Spartans starting their drive on the Devils’ 11 yard line.
It only took 1 play for the Spartans’ Offence to make the field position count. Yet another different run play sprung the Spartans’ QB to the outside and he was able to run into the corner for a score and deal a massive blow to the Devils who had seen their lead evaporate in a disastrous 2nd quarter. The Extra point was good and things were all tied up
Score: Devils 14 – Essex Spartans 14
A short return meant that the Devils would begin their next drive on their own 26 yard line and utilising their 2 minute drill. Some more powerful blocking from Fullback Baxter-Smith allowed Running Back Ward to advance up the field before an injury to a Spartans’ player stopped the clock. More good running by Ward, this time behind Offensive Tackle Luca Ferrera, took the Devils to near the halfway line and a catch and determined run by Baxter-Smith, at Slot receiver, took them into Spartans’ territory. The Devils Offence had their backs up and were on the march. Two dropped catches and a short run however, left them at 4th and 2 with only seconds on the clock. Despite the Devils’s Offensive Line holding the pocket, for what seemed like an eternity, good coverage by the Spartans’ Secondary meant Belles-Flores could not get the pass away safely and the halftime whistle blew with the Devils Offence having at least gained a little of their swagger back. Something they would need in the second half if they were to overcome the Spartans and take the win.
Half Time Score Devils 14 – Essex Spartans 14
After the halftime refreshments were taken, the Devils’ coaches got down to business and reminded their players of the start to the game they had had. They also also warned them of the dangers of switching off. They wanted a fast paced start to the second half and were looking for someone to maker a play early on. It seemed that the Devils’ players had been listening when, after a very long kick, the Spartans Returner attempted to bring the ball out from within his own 5 yard line. The Devils’ Kick Chasers were advancing on him when for no reason at all he dropped the ball. James Grey dived on the ball at the Spartans’ 9 yard line and the Devils’ sideline erupted in excitement. It was short lived however when a flag back on the Devils 35 Yard line indicated that someone had been ahead of the kick. Sure enough the Offside penalty was called and the Devils kicked off again from their 30 yard line. This time the Returner hung on to the ball but failed to make much yardage when Piers Harrison-Reid took him down on the Spartans’ 25 Yard Line.
An Illegal motion penalty took the Spartans back 5 yards before they began with their power running game. Defensive End Steve Bunyan was able to stop the run for only a few yards and a false start penalty took the Spartans back again. Trying their outside run game the Spartans failed to make much yardage and they found themselves at 3rd and 9. Returning to their power game they were again stopped by some good gang tackling from the Defence and were forced to punt. It was a morale boosting 3 and out by the Devils’ Defence and an excellent start to the second half.
The Punt Return Unit took to the field determined to give the Devils’ Offence good field position to start their first drive of the second half. They actually went one better. A low snap was mishandled by the Punter and under pressure from Steve Bunyan, who came charging through the Line of Scrimmage, his short punt only found the arms of, none other than, Adam Jones, only on the field due to injuries, and his searing pace easily took him round the Spartans’ players and into the end zone for his second Touchdown of the game. The extra point was blocked but the Devils had taken the lead once again and had begun the second half just as their coaches had asked.
Score: Devils 20 – Essex Spartans 14
The kick off went for a touchback and the Spartans would begin their next drive from their own 20 yard line. Going to their running game they were confronted with New Devils’ Defensive Lineman Mark Nicholls who immediately caused a fumble. The Spartans Running back was able to recover the ball but it was a great start for the Rookie who had never played a down in his life before. The Spartans went to their passing game next and although he was flushed out the pocket their QB was able to find an open Receiver, who caught the ball down low for a short gain while knelling on the ground. The referees somehow missed this however, and he was allowed to get back up and run for a further 25 yards up to the half way line to the dismay of the Devils’ sideline. A Quarterback scramble was covered by Linebacker Harrison-Reid and despite him managing to rip the ball from the QB’s hands the fumble was recovered by the Spartans and they continued their drive. Another clever Running play helped them to nearly get a first down before a fantastic blitz by the Devils Defence took the Spartans back to 4th and 2. Again the Spartans went for it and this time their power run game was successful. In fact it was so successful it took them down to the Devils’ 20 yard line. However, the Spartans Fullback was unable to control himself and chose to taunt the Devils’ Defence when the play had ended, the resulting penalty moving them back to the Devils 35 yard line. The Spartans were not to be deterred however and they went to their outside run game, getting 10 yards back on the first play. Some more afters at the end of the play resulted in the Referees bringing together the on field captains for a little chat. It was obvious the water bottles on the sideline weren’t the only things getting heated and it was a chance to calm things down. It didn’t seem to work however when, following a False Start penalty against the Spartans, the Devils Defence were flagged for taunting and they stupidly gave a first down to the Spartans on their own 13 yard line. Another clever running play was stopped by Linebacker Ed Bowling for no gain and when they again went to their power run and the Spartans’ fullback was stopped, first by Defensive Lineman Jordan Knights and then Linebacker Ace Faatuai, they found themselves at 4th and 3. They opted to go for it again and despite a good surge from the Defensive Line the Spartans Fullback just made the required yardage for the 1st down. Sticking with the Power Run the Spartans attempted to punch it in but were stopped by a fantastic group effort from the tired Defence. But the Spartans were not to be denied, and on the next play the Fullback crossed the line for the score to level the game. It was the finish to a great 80 yard drive for the Spartans and swung the momentum in their favour. The extra point was good and the Spartans took the lead for the first time in the game.
Score: Devils 20 – Essex Spartans 21
A good return meant the Devils would begin their next drive from their own 38 yard line determined to retake the lead. Things started well with Running Back Matt Ward making a first down. Following a dropped pass the Devils’ returned to Matt Ward who fell just short of the first down and the Devils found themselves at 3rd and 1. With shouts from the Spartans’s sideline warning of the run, the Devils went to the pass and Belles-Flores found Wide Receiver Dom Howes which took the Devils down to the Spartans 29 yard line. A couple of short runs by QB Belles-Flores took the Devils to 3rd and 5. Again the Spartans set up for the run and again Belles-Flores found Howes for the first down. The Devils had quickly found themselves at the Spartans 8 yard line looking to retake the lead. The Devils Offence however, following two errant passes and a easily stopped run, failed to punch it in and were forced to attempt a field goal. The attempt went wide right and the ball was disappointedly turned over on downs as the 3rd Quarter came to a close.
End of 3rd Quarter Score: Devils 20 – Essex Spartans 21
Beginning their drive on their own 20 yard line the Spartans did not start well when an illegal procedure penalty took them back 5 yards and then an attempted run play was stopped by Linebacker Bowling for a 3 yard loss. Then an illegal forward motion penalty took them back another 5 yards. A run play which was initially flagged for a Block in the Back penalty was ruled good when the flag was picked up and the Spartans found themselves at 3rd and 5. Going once again with their power run they were stopped by another group effort by the Defensive Line and were forced to punt.
A short return meant the Devils would begin their next drive on their own 44 yard line and looking to take the ball all the way to the end zone this time. They began with their running game and Running Back Joe Jacobs powering up the middle for a 6 yard gain. Another short gain took them to 3rd and 1 before the Offensive Line provided a solid wall for Belles-Flores to take his time and pick out Tightend, and Head Coach, Chris Mills on a deep pass upfield. To roars of delight from the Devils’ Sideline he made it to the 15 yard line before being brought down. It was then his turn to roar as he encouraged his team up to the line of scrimmage for the next play. A short pass only got a couple of yards on the play and Running Back Ward returned to the field with the Spartans making several personnel changes to try and stop the elusive Running Back. An offside penalty against the Spartans took the Devils 5 yards forward and they found themselves at 2nd and 3 but a false start penalty frustratingly took them back 5 yards. When a pass to Jones just failed to find its target it looked like the Devils Offence were going to stall right at the crucial moment again. However, the Devils learn from their mistakes and this time a pin point pass from Quarterback Andre Belles-Flores under pressure found Wide Receiver Adam Jones for his 3rd score of the game. The Devils went for the 2 point conversion and failed but had still taken the lead at a crucial time in the game.
Score: Devils 26 – Essex Spartans 21
Joe Jacobs made a terrific tackle on the kick returner and the Spartans would begin their next drive from their own 20 yard line with the Devils’ Defence looking to get a big stop and give the Ball back to the Devils’ Offence to run down the clock. The Spartans however, had other ideas and with a rare passing play they caught the Devils’ Defence off guard. Safety Ricky Darrall spotted the open Receiver but was unable to prevent him making the catch. With an open field in front of him he sprinted off towards the Devils’ Endzone looking very likely to score. Devils’ Cornerback Wayne Diggines wasn’t going to let that happen though. Tearing across from the other side of the field he caught up with the Receiver and took him out of bounds at the Devils 10 yard line. It was a huge touchdown saving effort from the longest serving Devils’ player and drew shouts of amorous admiration from Devils Head Coach Chris Mills. But Diggines wasn’t done yet, with the Spartans bringing out another clever run play it looked like their Running back would cross the line before Diggines charged into him, simultaneously taking him down and ripping the ball from his grasp before he could cross the line. After much consultation the Referees awarded the turnover and the Devils sideline erupted. As he left the field Diggines was mobbed by his team mates for a brief second before their attention returned to events on the field.
Pinned down on their own 1/2 yard line the Devils’ attempted a quick Quarterback run, to get themselves some more room to work with, but the Spartans were ready for it and Quarterback Belles-Flores was judged to have not made it out of the endzone. A safety was signalled and the Spartans edged a bit closer to the Devils’ scoreline with still 4 minutes left on the clock. It would require another stop by the Defence to win the game or prevent a tying field goal, and it was certainly going to be a tough end to the game.
Score: Devils 26 – Essex Spartans 23
Kicking off from their own 20 yard line the Devils were looking to get the ball as far upfield as they could to give the Defence every chance of making the stop. But a good return took the Spartans to the halfway line and the tired Defence entered the field with the Devils’ Defensive Captain Liam Lane screaming for them to not let the ball go a yard. Not one yard. Making his point Lane then did just that on the first play, with help from Defensive Lineman Mark Nicholls, taking down the powerful Spartans Fullback at the Line of Scrimmage. On the second play the Spartans went to the outside run and Linebacker El Foley took the Running Back down again at the line of scrimmage. The Defence were unable to to do it again however and the Spartans’ Fullback was able to run it for the first down and bring up the two minute warning. That was enough however, for Linebacker Ace Faatuai, spotting the Spartans setting up for the same outside run play by the Quarterback, which had resulted in a score in the first half, he made his move. Shaking off his blocker he charged down onto the Quarterback and took him down with such force it dislodged the ball from his grasp and Jon Mills was able to dive on the ball directly in front of the Devils sideline. The huge Linebacker, known for his big hits, was swamped by his team mates as he left the field for what could be the winning play.
With the ball on the Devils 44 Yard line, just under 2 minutes remaining and the Spartans still with two timeouts remaining it was crucial for the Devils to move the chains at least twice, get out of field goal range for the Spartans and run out the clock. Running Back Alan Baxter-Smith began by powerfully running down the middle following the blocking by Harris Todd and all the while holding on to the ball so tightly it could have burst. However, the 9 yard gain was wiped out with an Illegal Formation Penalty when not enough people were on the line and the Devils were moved back 5 yards. When the Spartans stopped the next run from Baxter-Smith, before he could make any yardage, it looked like the Devils were going to struggle to make even one first down. But the Spartans tackler could not control his obvious frustration at the game situation and he lashed out at the Veteran Running Back after the whistle. The resulting Unnecessary Roughness Penalty gave the Devils the first of the first downs they needed. Again the Devils went to the Run and Baxter-Smith picked up another 4 yards down the middle. An injury timeout stopped the clock with 54 seconds remaining but when the clock restarted Baxter Smith was able to jink his way through the mess of players to pick up the 6 yards for a first down, the Devils were able to run out the clock and celebrate a hard fought victory.
Final Score: Devils 26 – Essex Spartans 23
Defensive MVP – Ace Faatuai
Offensive MVP – Offensive Line
As the the two teams joined together for a joint photo, a tradition at Devils field showing that we are all a football family, the Devils were left to reflect on what they had achieved. They had secured 2nd spot in the table and their route to the playoffs was still in their own hands. More than that however, they had really been tested for the first time at home for a long time and had proven themselves up to the challenge. It hadn’t been easy but they had indeed earned their victory.
Absolute meat grinder….that’s the best way to describe the game
Constant battle to stay focussed, as well as score points. The Spartans are a tough team, no doubt about it. They came to play and their trickery on Offence and powerful backfield were impressive to say the least.
However, we Devils did what we needed to do to win. We kept our heads in it and fought for every yard gained or defended. Hats off to our Defence to stop a walk in TD and then to cause 2 fumbles and recoveries in 2 drives in a row to seal the game. Thats what won this game for us. Mental dexterity and never switching off against probably one of the toughest teams we’ve faced all season.
We move forward to Maidstone now, then the tough end to the season versus Ipswich and London. It’s going to be cheeky but I’m confident that we’ll do well.
Thank you to the Spartans for a tough but relatively clean game and I wish them well for the rest of the season.
Chris Mills, Devils Head Coach
Next up for the Devils is away at the Maidstone Pumas on the 8th July. While winless in 2018 the Pumas will still be a challenge for the Devils. The Devils will look to keep their win streak going, further secure 2nd place in the league and guarantee a winning record for their first year back in the National League. If any Devils supporters find themselves near the Pumas’ ground, we would really appreciate the support.
The Devils’ committee would like to thank their support staff, who’s tireless efforts on Sunday despite the extremely hot weather were very appreciated. John Mallet Photography for the shots that make us look good and of cause Phil Wade once again for his excellent commentary which really brings the game alive for all those watching who may not quite understand whats going on.
They would especially like to thank all our fans who attended the game and supported us via our social media sites. Turning out despite the England game shows your commitment to supporting the Devils and we are always grateful.
Finally they would like to thank the the Essex Spartans for a well played and hard fought game. They are an excellent team with a great spirit who we look forward to doing battle with more in the future.
The Devils will be playing more league games in 2018.
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