JP Casey gives us the rundown on how UCL eliminated the top seeded team in the BUCS Division 2 playoffs.
The lowest-seeded UCL Emperors rode an efficient ground attack and dominant defence to overcome the undefeated Canterbury Christ Church College Chargers 10-6, and advance to the semi-finals of the BUCS Division 2 playoffs. The team is the last rookie team left in the competition, following the elimination of fellow league debutants the Queen Mary Vipers over the weekend, and will look to make history by defeating the second-ranked Brunel Burners, and reach the final.
The game started ominously for the Emperors, as a surprise hailstorm ruined my plans to not wear sleeves under my pads, and a surprise onside kick by the Chargers’ special teams unit threatening to shock the UCL sideline. However, both my exposed arms and alert Emperors kick returners were able to weather their respective storms, as I resisted the cold and linebacker Jibran Raja recovered the kick to set up the Emperors offence around the halfway line.
The offence would go on to grind the Chargers’ defence into the ground using a newly-installed power-running playbook; with a string of injuries to the receiving corps depriving the team of the five receivers needed to consistently run a spread offence, the team instead took advantage of their large stable of running backs to use a three-back formation. Receiver Thilo Deller played most of the game in the backfield, and punished the Chargers defensive front with hard running between the tackles, and a range of reverses from wideouts Sam Byrne and Alex Blakesley stretched the defence horizontally. The Emperors were ultimately able to punch in a touchdown, courtesy of an end around from Byrne, a sixth-year medical student who had selflessly jeopardised his medical future to play for the Emperors 48 hours before a string of exams; however, the score was taken off the board due to a dubious flag for a block in the back, and the penalty pushed the Emperors out of field goal range, and so their promising opening drive yielded no points.
However, the Emperors’ defence remained unshaken. The Chargers used a spread running attack, relying on their tough offensive line and stocky running back to grind down the stretched UCL defensive front; while the approach worked in the early phases of the game – the Chargers’ back consistently rumbled for several yards after contact – the Emperors’ solid tackling wore down the Chargers’ offence. Canterbury’s small squad – with a single running back and an offensive line that also played on the defensive line – was stretched paper-thin, as they failed to score until the fourth quarter, and one particularly notable drive ended with the Canterbury running back leaving the field while vomiting from exhaustion. Credit must go to safety Leo Gambetta and linebacker Jack Shields, whose excellent gang-tackling knocked the wind out of the Chargers’ sails, and kept the score to a minimum.
The Emperors’ pass rush was similarly brutal, knocking the Canterbury quarterback out of the game, and forcing the Chargers’ offence off the field in key situations. Alex Kane spent much of the first half camped in the Chargers’ backfield, pressuring their quarterback, and securing a vital sack on fourth down to give the UCL offence possession deep in Canterbury territory. Deller ran in for six points on the following play, and kicker Oskar Wojtczak added the extra point, all with such rapidity that I missed both plays, still being in the defenders’ post-drive huddle. Reports from Deller and Wojtczak that their run and kick were the greatest in British football history are thus sadly unconfirmed.
At halftime, the Emperors led 7-0, but were urged to remain vigilant by the coaches, who pointed out that the Chargers were not the number one seed for no reason and, sure enough, the Canterbury team emerged for the second half energised. Their defence forced a fumble around midfield, exploiting the inherent weakness in UCL’s system of using players other than running backs to carry the football, and their power running attack began to gain a foothold as the third quarter progressed. However, the UCL defence held, forcing another turnover on downs around their own 40 yard line, and Wojtczak proved himself a special teams dual threat by pinning the Chargers’ offence inside their own 5-yard line with a spectacular coffin corner punt from midfield. It was plays like these, combined with the sacks and negative running plays forced by the UCL linebackers, that consistently gave the Chargers long fields to work with, and exposed their thin squad that lacked the numbers to substitute players, and string together 80-yard drives.
UCL continued to dominate the field position battle in the fourth quarter; safety Theo Merten-Mancer, wearing both my favourite #3 jersey and my helmet as his was damaged in the first half, picked off the Chargers’ quarterback in the red zone. On the following drive, cryptically-named linebacker and captain of trash talk, “T”, pounced on a Charger’s fake punt after a net gain of only four yards, setting up the UCL offence inside the Chargers’ red zone, leading to a Wotjczak field goal and a two-possession Emperor lead with four minutes to go.
However, the Chargers refused to roll over, and the undefeated Division 2A South champions proved their mettle by driving into UCL territory and punching in a touchdown on a long run that exploited the fatigue of the UCL front seven, as the Emperors’ defence missed several key tackles. The UCL defence also had no answer to the shifty running of the Chargers’ backup quarterback, who channelled Mick Vick from the 2004 edition of the Madden video game to explode through holes in the UCL defence on both designed and improvised quarterback runs. Yet the Chargers failed to convert the two-point attempt, and were faced with a kickoff, down four with eight seconds to play and no timeouts. The game started with a failed Canterbury onside kick, and closed with one too, as the Emperors’ hands team secured the kick, and quarterback Umar Ahmed, making his first career start in place of the injured Hugo Wigginton, knelt to end the game, and give the Emperors a victory in their first ever playoff game.
Next week, the team travels across London to face the second-seeded Brunel Burners; the Burners topped the Emperors at UCL 34-5 in the regular season, and so UCL will look to capitalise on the momentum generated from eliminating the number one seed to get revenge on a tough Brunel side, and advance to the Division 2 final in a fortnight’s time.
Image credit: Ken Matcham