UCL Emperors bag victory against City College with 48 seconds to spare. JP Casey gives us the lowdown on one of the closest games in the team’s history.
In a match filled with penalties and mistakes for both teams, the Emperors were able to squeeze past the City College Sentinels thanks to two touchdowns from running back Stephen Moran, including the game-winning score 48 seconds from time to cap a thrilling two-minute, 50-yard drive.
The Emperors’ offence sprinted out of the gate, compiling a touchdown and two impressive drives on their opening two possessions. Quarterback Hugo Wigginton and receiver Alex Blakesley combined several times on these drives, the latter finding pockets of space in the Sentinels’ defence. Yet it was the running game that was surprisingly critical for the Emperors’ spread offence; on the game’s first drive, Moran fumbled around midfield to shatter UCL momentum and give the ball back to City College, but strode untouched into the endzone on a 5-yard run at the start of the second quarter to give UCL a 6-0 lead.
Credit must go to the physicality of both the Emperors’ offensive line and receivers, who consistently protected Wigginton and cleared space for their running backs, both within the hashes and closer to the sidelines on outside runs. An obvious weakness of the UCL offense is their lack of muscle around the line of scrimmage; without a fullback or, much to the chagrin of Mike Foxall-Smith who has since converted to long snapper, tight end the team’s receivers are under pressure to seal edges and pressure defenders on outside runs, and they were more than up to the challenge in the first half of the game.
However, towards the end of the second quarter, and throughout the third, the offence stagnated; Wigginton ended the game with under 100 yards through the air, and the team failed to eclipse 250 yards of total offence, only racking up 233. Such inconsistencies are not unheard of for a spread, hurry-up offence, that deals largely in long touchdown drives or quick three-and-outs, but what is less excusable is the sheer volume of penalties the offence picked up. There were over a hundred yards of penalties on the offence alone, from false starts on both linemen and receivers, to flags for illegal blockers downfield on screens and short passes, bleeding all of the rhythm out of the UCL offence; the Emperors got into the endzone on their second and final drive, yet were ineffective on the drives in between.
These penalties bled into the defence, who picked up uncharacteristic flags for encroachment and unnecessary roughness, and shook the team’s confidence; the Emperors defence first conceded a field goal, their first points given up in three games, and then surrendered a touchdown as defensive backs Theo Merten-Mancer and Chris Bishop tripped on successive plays, leaving Sentinel receivers wide open.
These unusual mistakes threatened to undo the excellent work of the Emperors’ front seven, who harassed the Sentinels’ array of quarterbacks – one of whom, a Canadian, who possessed the disarming pleasantries of Andrew Luck, complimenting linebackers every time they hit him – all day. Linebacker Alex Kane picked up a sack on a key fourth down, and linemen Richard Adio, Arthur Yuan and Adam Oriola racked up five sacks between them. Schematically and physically the Emperors’ defence was dominant, and refused to let their game and their season be defined by mere errors, holding firm as time wore down in the fourth to protect the team’s slender three-point lead.
The team’s lead was reinstated thanks to the clutch passing of Wigginton and a spectacular run from Moran. The defence forced a punt, giving the offence the ball around midfield with two minutes on the clock and two timeouts, and the score 10-6 to City College. Wigginton completed four consecutive passes to receiver Sam Byrne, a vocal Falcons fan who channelled the spirit of Julio Jones, arguably one-upping the elite receiver as Byrne’s efforts actually resulted in a win on Sunday 5th February, to haul in 47 yards’ worth of catches.
With 48 seconds on the clock, and the team facing 4th-and-goal from the Sentinels 12, the Emperors looked for the endzone, but a collapsing pocket forced Wigginton to scramble to his left, and dump a shovel pass to Moran. The converted defensive tackle then bounced his run back to the right-hand sideline, picking up blocks from his offensive line and receivers who had excelled in run blocking and open-field blocking all day, and dived for the pylon, just breaking the plane before crashing out of bounds under a pile of Sentinel bodies. The officials signalled a touchdown, Oskar Wojtczak kicked the extra point, the Emperors’ sideline erupted, and UCL improved to 4-1 on the season in the closest game in their history.
While the performance wasn’t perfect – featuring offensive mistakes and special teams miscues, including poor punt coverage that resulted in a punt of a net of only four yards – the fact remains that the Emperors are a rookie team in playoff contention in the final week of the season; victory against the Brunel Burners on the 19th will push the Emperors into the postseason, while a defeat will consign them to a third-place finish in their division, and end the season. The last few months have been an overwhelming success for the program and, buoyed by their nail-biting victory over the Sentinels, they have one more challenge to look forward to.
Image credit: Frank Chalmers