27 August 2014
Last Saturday the Crocs concluded the last game of a three-game home stretch by playing the Helsinki 69ers. This was the second time we faced off against that team having beat them 31 to zero on July 20th in the Velodrome. That game for the 69ers I believe was a low-point for their season as they really struggled. Their net offense against us was minus 19 yards. Since that game, however, the organization made some changes and had done a great job of turning things more to the positive side. The biggest change they made was adding Charles McCrea. I usually put up a link to top players that just sort of cover their bio but Charles is a special running back. He actually played for the Crocodiles in 2009. Here is a link to an interview with him that talks about his first European American football experience. Anyway, from the skills standpoint, Charles is fast and versatile. He can run the football and he can pass the football. Adding him alone made the 69ers a much better football team. Consequently, Head Coach Charlie was pretty clear about this 69er team being a totally different team now than the one we dominated back in July.
The game turned out to be a defensive battle and a struggle for us. It was not decided until the last 69er series in the fourth quarter. We did get the win though and that was the critical part for our push towards getting into the Maple Bowl on September 13th. As I wrote last week, the loss to the Butchers a couple games ago took control away from us regarding our shot at a number one seed in the playoffs. We now needed to win out and have some help from the Turku Trojans who face off against the Helsinki Roosters as their final home game. If the Trojans can defend their home field and beat the Roosters, then we will secure a number two seed and have a home semi-final playoff game. If the Roosters win or we somehow lose our final game next week against the Kouvola Indians we will be seeded third and have to play a semi-final game on the road. Below are the Maple League standings with all teams playing nine of the 10 regular season games.
The state of our roster was, as usual, shaken up a bit. This game we would be missing our big nose tackle Thomas Malagodi who was back in the UK to complete some school testing that he was not able to do remotely. In addition to that, we lost JP Hyvönen (another defensive linemen) to a rolled ankle. Finally, top that off with our Swedish defensive end Oskar Karlsson would be playing but was also nursing a rolled ankle from the week’s prior game against the Wolverines. The good news was we were seeing the return of Tobias Mäki one of our linebackers we lost early in the season to a broken bone in his hand. Tobi had been out for around six or seven weeks. Of course, we still did not have our two running backs that started the season with us. Both Mika Nissinen and VP Jaakonsaari were out due to a broken fibula and collar bone, respectively.
Kickoff was set for 4PM as usual and the weather was cloudy and a bit rainy. It had been raining quite a bit over the past couple of weeks with many days having lightning storms. We had even seen some good hail storms. The summer days were definitely gone and the temperatures and weather had moved firmly into what I guess would be called Fall here. I am not sure if they look at the year having four seasons. They could just have two seasons — cold and not-so-cold.
The introductions took place about 20 minutes before the coin toss. As usual, both teams line up facing the home stands. Because it is a home game, our players come through the giant inflatable crocodile in the corner of the playing field. Today, Juhani Koivumäki gave the photographers and team a little extra showmanship as he flipped through the teeth of the beast. We won the coin toss and elected to receive.
We lined up and the kick was away to our 18-yard line. Tachu Orue couldn’t field it and the ball rebounded off his leg and went out of bounds at the 20-yard line. Not the best special teams play. The offense managed nothing and were punting after three plays as the result of two incomplete passes and a short six-yard rush by Spencer Cutlan.
The defense took the field for the first time at the 69er 39-yard line. Jason Thomas, player coach at 43 years old, lined up in the shotgun to start the drive. The 69ers orchestrated a long 13-play drive down to our 39-yard line where they were faced with a third down and 14-yard situation due in part to a holding penalty. Their drive consisted of solid plays of which none were remarkable – simple, methodical plays that kept the ball moving forward. From third down, Johnson took the snap and dropped to pass. He couldn’t find any open receivers and was flushed out of the pocket to the left. We had some good pressure on him as he scrambled. The play ended with a that came from the backside from a hustling Karlsson who had been cut on the rush but had gotten up and chased down Thomas from the backside. Karlsson got a swipe on the ball and knocked it loose. Mika Mäkelä, our middle linebacker, recovered the fumble.
Webster and the offense took over on the Croc 36-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, Doug dropped to pass and the 69er defensive secondary had our receivers well covered. Doug pushed a pass over the middle and a sitting middle linebacker picked the ball. The 69ers had the ball back at the 50-yard line and the defense had to immediately take the field with just a short break.
The second drive for the 69er offense was eight plays. On the first set of downs, Thomas converted on a quarterback sneak play to move the chains to the Croc 40-yard line. After a short one-yard rush by McCrea, we got hit with back-to-back penalties that gave the 69ers a first and goal from our six-yard line. The first penalty was on Tachu who the referee deemed a bit late on a big hit on a crossing receiver. The hit was clean and hard but perhaps a bit late. That cost us 15 yards. On the very next play Doc, our left corner, was flagged for a pass interference on a fade route down the right side of the field.
With a fresh set of downs the 69ers went to work. Thomas missed on first and second downs and lined up for the third down. The snap was bad and Thomas had to retreat to gather it in. That bad snap disrupted the entire play and caused Thomas to have to scramble to the right. He ended up throwing the ball away and was flagged for intentional grounding. The 69ers lined up to attempt a 41-yard field goal. The kick was well short and the defense bent but did not break for the second long series in a row. Croc ball on their 30-yard line.
The offense again was three-and-out. The play that killed the drive was a second down and 10-yard situation where Doug was sacked for 10 yards. That put us in a hole from which we could not recover. With a fourth down and 16 yard situation, Spencer took the field to punt again. Spencer got off a good high punt and our gunners did a great job at dropping the return man immediately after the catch on the 69er 30-yard line.
Thomas and the 69ers went to McCrea on first down but he managed only a two-yard gain. Thomas then completed a couple passes but the net yardage was zero. They lined up to punt. It was nice to see the defense have a shorter time on the field during this series as they were on the field most of the first quarter.
Bell was set deep to punt and got the ball off. The kick actually slammed into the back of one of the 69er protectors in front of him. To us, it looked like we had blocked the punt but they had actually kicked it off of one of their own players. The ball bounced out of bounds at the 69er 26-yard line.
With excellent field position, we still could not get going offensively. This play was punctuated by a fumble from Spencer Cutlan that resulted from a bad exchange between him and Doug in the backfield. This play set up a fourth and 10-yard situation from the original 26-yard line. After calling a timeout, we brought out the field goal unit to attempt the 43-yard kick. Spencer had the leg but the timing for the snap was off and the net result was a kick that sailed wide.
The defense took over and shut down the 69er offense again in three plays. Bell lined up to punt again. This time he got the punt off. Roman Runner fielded the kick in the air and picked up a nice 15-yard return to the Croc 49-yard line.
The offense took the field and popped out two nice rushing plays. Cutlan took the first around the left side and made a nice mid-run cut to the sideline followed up by a good stiff arm to knock out 27 yards. Teemu Ivalo, our fullback, then pounded out an eight-yard gain up the middle. This set up the final play of the drive, which was a great play-action pass from Webster to Runner in the left corner of the endzone. Cutlan hit the extra point and we were finally on the board with 7:45 remaining in the half.
We kicked short and nearly recovered our own kick in the hole. Doc could not quite manage it though as he attempted to bat the ball back into play. The ball went out of bounds giving the 69er offense position on their own 39-yard line. McCrea rushed for seven yards but that was nearly erased with a false-start penalty on the next play. The 69ers rushed for a three-yard gain and then missed on a third-down passing play. Bell lined up to punt again. The punt was a good one down to the Croc 16-yard line. Roman did a great job of retreating and fielding the ball in the air to save some field position. Crocs had the ball on their own 16-yard line.
The offense struggled from here. The first play stuck them five yards deeper as a result of false-start penalty. Three successive rushing plays pushed us even further back to our own six-yard line. We lined up to punt from our own endzone. Cutlan got the punt away and it was fielded at mid-field. McCrea returned it 15 yards to the Croc 35-yard line. Two minutes and 40 seconds remained in the half.
The 69er offense did themselves no favors by getting hit with two holding penalties during their drive. They ended up having to punt the ball away. Bell kicked away and Roman fielded the punt and got 13 yards out of the return to place the ball at the Croc 33-yard line.
On the first play of the drive, Webster hit Vili Rajamäki on a quick slant route to the left. Unfortunately, Vili bobbled the catch and took a shot in the process. The ball popped up and forward. McCrea, from the safety position seemed to gather it in before it hit the ground. Confusion reined afterwards as our sideline judge clearly indicated that the pass was incomplete. However, in the end it was ruled an interception.
With 54 seconds remaining in the first half, the 69ers took over on the Croc 47-yard line. Thomas opened up by hitting RJ Long for a nine-yard completion. Unfortunately, we were hit with a face-masking penalty on the tackle. That catch and the added penalty yardage put the 69er offense on our own 17 yard line. Thomas took the ball himself and picked up three yards on the carry. After a 69er timeout, we were hit with an encroachment penalty. There was nothing obvious about the infraction so we must have lined up in the neutral zone. With five seconds on the clock and the 69ers pushing at us from our own nine-yard line, Thomas took the snap and dropped to pass. They had lined up with three wide receivers (trips) to the right and a lone receiver to their left where Tachu was tasked with man coverage. The receiver ran a quick slant to the inside and Tachu managed to get some part of the ball to cause it to hit the ground in the process of being caught. The referees ruled it incomplete and the call was heavily argued by the 69ers. The half ended with the Crocs leading seven to zero.
During half we gathered the defense and encouraged them to keep doing what they were doing. We had played a good solid half of defensive football. We showed a lot of patience and composure to hang in there for several long drives while not allowing a score. It was the “bend-but-don’t-break” mentality and that is how we played that half.
We took the field after half and lined up to kick the ball to the 69ers. Cutlan kicked another “hole” kick and a big defensive lineman signalled a fair catch and gathered it in. The 69er offense took over on their own 38-yard line.
The drive was nine plays long and got the 69ers to about mid-field. The highlight of the drive for us was a 12-yard sack by our defensive end Gerald Gooden. Gooden just out-played the offensive tackle resulting in great penetration. His quickness overwhelmed Thomas and Gooden dropped him at the 69er 48-yard line. This put the punt team on the field. Runner fielded the punt and found some space on the sideline to run. He took a really hard shot from Bell to knock him out of bounds at the Croc 49-yard line.
The offense immediately went South with a holding call followed by a false-start penalty. We were looking at first down and 24-yards from our own 35-yard line. By fourth down we were within seven. We brought in Cutlan to punt the ball away. Cutlan got off a great punt that rolled down to the 69er two-yard line where we downed the ball.
The 69er offense went to work from deep in their own territory. Despite putting pressure on them, they managed to move the chains and get a first down to give themselves some breathing room. On second down, Thomas connected with Winston for 12 more yards. On the next set of downs from shotgun and split backs, Thomas handed the ball off to Bell for an ISO play off our right side. Unfortunately, we had a Mike Backer blitz called and our play-side backer was cut well by the leading blocking back. This popped Bell into our second-tier of the defense. Roman finally brought him down after Bell had picked up 18 yards. A short pass later was followed by McCrea popping off an 11-yard carry to the Croc 41-yard line. The 69ers had a decent drive going not seen since the first quarter. Two rushing plays later put the 69er offense at third and seven yards to go from our own 37-yard line. Thomas dropped to pass and threw quick to the seam route. Roman Runner read the pass and jumped it for the interception. He quickly split the few remaining 69er offensive players and was headed untouched for the endzone.
During the return, Ashley Dewing one of our interior lineman, cut back and literally “nudged” a big offensive lineman that was about five yards behind Roman. The man went down and decided not to get up. All eyes had been on Roman and the return so for all practical purposes it appeared that Ashley had blocked back and “cheap-shotted” a 69er during the return. That was what was being screamed out after the play had ended. Drama was added to the chaos as the lineman laid there on the ground unable to rise up for a long while. The referees conferred and decided that it was an illegal block worthy of tossing Ashley out of the game. He was told to immediately leave the game and sideline. The touchdown return was cancelled giving us the ball on our 40-yard line. We all had “advise” for Ashley (me included) for making a bad block that wasn’t needed. Later, however, after examining the play on film, we determined exactly what had happened. The “block” was really basically a small collision, which was in fact entirely legal as it was in the face of the lineman. Additionally, the play was well within “concerned” distance of the runner Roman being only about five yards ahead of the play. I suspect that nobody really saw the play and judgements were made on reactions from the 69er bench and on-field players. We sent the play on to the league moguls and learned later that Ashley would not be prohibited from playing in our next upcoming game.
The offense took the field and put together a great drive that spanned 10 plays culminating in a Webster to Rajamäki 17-yard scoring pass over the middle. Doug dropped in a nice pass over the defender who was caught too far up when Vili had run a delayed hitch route before getting into the endzone.
During the first half, we had lost Juhani to a pulled hamstring. Juhani is our snapper for both field goals and punts. Compounding that was the fact that Ashley, who had been ejected, was our back-up snapper. Because of this, we opted to go for the 2-pt. conversion after the touchdown. During the attempt, Doug had been quickly flushed out of the pocket to the right and ended up having to throw the ball out of bounds. Crocs 13 and 69ers zero with 8:19 to go in the game.
Cutlan and the kickoff team lined up to kickoff. Spencer kicked a squib that was downed on the 69er 45-yard line giving them good field position. They had removed Thomas from the quarterback position and McCrea was now taking the snaps. From the shotgun, McCrea took the snap and hesitated slightly before taking off on a quarterback draw. This is where he is the most dangerous. He slipped the line and caused our Mike Backer to miss in space. He was finally brought down after picking up 14 yards. The next set of downs was hampered by two 69er false-start penalties that put them back to mid-field with a third down and 18-yard situation. McCrea took the snap and dropped to pass. Gooden got ridden out deep on the right side and that opened up a running lane through which McCrea decided to scramble. He took off hard for the left sideline. We miscalculated some inside pursuit angles and then had a couple of guys out of position from the deep backside as the play developed. All this combined for a Charles McCrea 49-yard touchdown scramble. This type of play had been my primary concern during the week while practicing for this team.
During the week prior to the game, previous game film on them revealed a “gate” 2-pt. conversion set. The “gate” is play used where you offset the bulk of your offensive line well toward a sideline. Behind that line you place a single runner/receiver. On the other side of the offense, you isolate the center, who is eligible to receive a pass in this case, the quarterback, a tailback, and a wideout receiver. The idea is to see how the defense aligns to the play and then the offense either runs one of many options from the “gate” formation or they quickly pull together into a traditional extra point formation and kick the point after. Although we were correctly aligned against the “gate” formation, the 69ers opted to direct-snap the ball to the back just inside the wall of blockers to the left. They attempted to run the left side but our edge players, Kimmo Pasanen in particular, immediately shut down the play. Crocs 13 and 69ers 6 with 6:03 remaining in the game.
We lined up to take the kick expecting an onside. The 69ers executed a perfectly kicked onside ball that banged hard and high off the surface. We did a poor job of protecting and gathering the ball and the 69ers came up with it. Unfortunately, for them, their number two edge player was literally three yards offsides at the time of the kick. They lined up for a second try and abandoned the idea with a kick deep. Antti Kurenniemi fielded it deep and took a knee to down it. Crocs ball on their own 18-yard line.
Webster and offense struck quick with a couple nice plays. Cutlan took an inside handoff and made two nice cuts to the edge to pick up 15 yards on the ground. The very next play saw Ivalo, our fullback, pick up a 28-yard gain on a dive play. Ivalo literally gained 15 yards after contact and drug five 69ers during the final eight yards of the run. The drive stalled out at that point and Cutlan was brought in to punt from the 69er 41-yard line. The kick was placed to go out of bounds and it gave the 69ers the ball on their own 21-yard line with 2:53 remaining in the game.
McCrea move back into shotgun to start the drive. He took the snap and connected on a short three-yard completion to Thomas on first down. From second down, McCrea dropped again and targeted Long down the right sideline deep. Both Doc and Roman had him blanketed in a classic “over-under” position and Roman elevated for the ball. The interception sealed the win.
The Croc offense took the field for the final two minutes and 18 seconds. Four rushes later and the burning of the final 69er timeout, the offense kneeled the ball down to end the game.
We knew going into the game that it was going to be vastly different than our first meeting with the 69ers. The 69ers proved to be a greatly improved team that fought hard and were in the game to the very end. From our point of view we got the win, which was the critical component at this point in our schedule. We now were faced with a final road game with the Indians next Sunday to hopefully do our part in the combination of events needed to get that home semi-final game.
Here are some links for the game:
Pre-game article from 69er website.
Pre-game article from Croc website.
Post-game article from Croc website.
Photos by Marko Tuominiemi.
Post-game interview with Head Coach Charlie.
Pictures from O-M Matihalti.