25 August 2013
The regular season had ended and we were 7 and 3 winning the Bronze Medal for the Maple League. We had earned a home playoff game for the semi-finals against the tough Wolverines. The game was Sunday and the weather was going to be perfect. Our previous two meetings with the Wolverines had resulted in a split with a defeat in the Velodrome on a last-second 47-yard field goal and a win at home with a game-ending goal line stand by our defense. We knew that this playoff game would be a fight.
Practice had gone well during the entire week. I sensed a more urgent attitude from the players and the tempo was markedly higher. We had had some great mid-week trainings.
The Wolverines were already in town on Saturday night opting to not have to travel the five hour bus ride on the day of the game. A smart move by the organization. I would have expected us to do the same if at all possible.
I was fairly pent up over this game with the pressure mounting throughout the week. I was extremely worried about being able to stop the Wolverine offense. They were explosive with three weapons: Stokes at tailback, Cedric Johnson at quarterback and Brescacin at receiver. The defensive scheme we employed throughout the season had been a 3-5-3, which was well-suited for our personnel. We did not have the strong linebacking crew or deep defensive line needed for a more traditional 4-3 type set. The 3-5-3 works well for undersized but aggressive players. We had done well with it throughout the year. At this point in the season, however, we were suffering from injuries to some key defensive players and it had left us pretty thin at the backer and dog spots. We would have to play flawless football and get some breaks to win this game.
The hype across the town in the small football circles was palpable. We could expect a bigger crowd on Sunday as it was one of two semi-final games and it would be broadcast live on Finnish television. Signs advertising the game were strewn across the small town and sponsors were visiting and planning to set up at the game.
Finally, the time arrived to get to the field house – 4PM. We got through the tapings and all the pre-game hype that included a unique entrance by one of our dogs Juhani. Upon being introduced, he assumed a power-lunge position and tilted his head back and spewed forth a cascade of water worthy of a true leviathan. I think the only thing that could have topped it was if he had lit his hair on fire, which I would not have put past him.
The captains met near our set of numbers rather than mid-field. I could only assume this had been because of some extension cord limitations for the local camera crews. We ended up with the ball so we would be receiving.
Stacey Thomas took the kick and returned it 35 yards to their 45 yard line for great field position. We put together a good opening drive that saw Adams connect on five of five throws. The score came on a five yard plunge by Crawford. We hit the PAT and were up 7 to 0.
We kicked and the Wolverines started on their own 37 yard line. Johnson opened with a quad look to the right but took the ball up the middle on a quarterback draw. Two missed tackles later he had rushed for 27 yards. On the third play of the drive we didn’t cover the quarterback on an option down the line and Johnson flipped the ball to an uncovered pitch man for 13 yards. After a run and then a sack, we had them in a third down situation. They lined up Stokes in the slot position to the right. We allowed a free release and didn’t have any deep help. Johnson lofted the ball over the top for a score. The PAT was good and it was tied. It had not been a good start for the defense.
We started with the ball on the Wolverine 45 again. Again, Adams hit some key passes and again Crawford capped the drive with a run. This time he had broke one for 31 yards on a toss play to the right. We went for two points from our “gate” look and failed. Crocs led 13 to 7.
The second drive for the Wolverines started on their own 37 yard line. On the third play with three to go for the first down, Johnson took the ball himself around the left edge. We lost contain by attempting to go under a block and he managed 23 yards down to our 33 yard line. The quarter ended and the first play of the second period found the Canadian in the right slot. We failed to pick him up and he was free in the middle for a 26 yard touchdown pass. The PAT was good and the Wolverines led 14 to 13.
Another squib kick and we start with the ball on our own 40 yard line. The offense turned the ball over on the third play of the drive with a pass on the back foot of Adams that floated weak and to the middle. It had been easily gathered in and the Wolverines took over on our 36 yard line.
Stokes knocked out a run for 19 through the left ISO hole behind some big blockers and then Johnson hit Brescacin for a 17 yard score. This time it wasn’t so much poor pass coverage but a well thrown corner route and a good catch. The PAT was good and the Wolverines had broken serve by taking the lead at 21 to 13.
We took the kick deep this time and Crawford had a good seam on our “return left” play. He split it and then reversed field to pick up a great 40 yard return giving us the ball on the Wolverine 37 yard line. We immediately picked up a holding penalty on first down and were knocked back to the 47 with a second and 20 situation. On the next play, Adams tossed to Crawford on the right and he found some room back inside all the way to the Wolverine one yard line. Two plays later Crawford found the endzone and the PAT was good. Wolverines 21 and Crocs 20.
We kicked deep again and the Wolverines got the ball out to their 37 yard line after muffing the kickoff reception. A couple short running plays picked up a first down and then Stokes broke a run for 19 helped by our poor tackling. Then from a third and eight situation from our 31 yard line, Johnson found the Canadian once again. This time it was a comeback route to the left. We blew the coverage and completely dropped Brescanin who caught the pass in open field. He made some deft moves and danced into the endzone. Again, the kick was good and the Wolverines now led 28 to 20. We had no answers for the passing game. Thus far in the season, pass defense had been our strong suite. Today, however, we were making mistakes in the secondary and bleeding points.
A squib kick fielded by Brown netted nothing and we had the ball on our 33 yard line. The offense mustered nothing. We punted after three failed plays. The ball sailed out of bounds on the kick and the Wolverines took over at the 50 yard line.
After stopping Stokes on the first down, we jumped offsides on then next play. This allowed a “free” play and Johnson took advantage by hurling a long pass to Sagna who reeled it in for a 46 yard reception. Johnson himself took the ball on the next two plays and again the Wolverines scored. The PAT was good and they led 35 to 20 with 1:20 remaining in the half.
Brown took the short kickoff and split through the Wolverine front line and found daylight on the return. He was dragged down from behind giving us the ball on their 35 yard line. Adams connected on a short pass and then the Wolverines got hit with a couple penalties that gave us a new set of downs on their 24 yard line. We had a first and five situation. After a failed pass attempt, Crawford broke a run for 13 yards down to the 11 yard line. Then, a nice out route to the corner of the endzone by Vili Rajamaki concluded the drive with a score. Vili missed the kick and the score was Wolverines 35 and Crocs 26.
We kicked with only 12 seconds remaining in the half and the Wolverines miraculously could not penetrate our prevent defense as the time ran out.
We retired to our bank in the shade behind the home bleachers. I noted to the defense that the half’s performance was one of the poorest I had witnessed against the pass. It was amazing that we were still in the game, which was a credit to the offense providing us with a steady flow of points. The remainder of my time and Coach Eero’s time was spent trying to build some fire into the defense as a whole. Several players who had assumed leadership roles throughout the season gave fiery speeches in Finnish.
We kicked off to begin the second half of play. The kick presented a great opportunity for us but we failed to cash in on it. It was a “hole” kick to the right and took a beautiful backwards bounce. The ball was live as we ran by it. Consequently, the Wolverines started with the ball on their own 38 yard line. This drive was nothing different than what we had experienced the entire first half. The Wolverines systematically shredded our defense and were on the board in eight plays. We blew coverage on a quad right set and then missed tackles up the middle. We also helped them out with a defensive holding penalty this time. The Wolverines decided to go for two and completed an easy corner pass to Brescanin over the top of our corner. The score was Wolverines 43 and Crocs 26.
We took the kick and started at our own 35 yard line. After a couple failed plays, Adams hit Brown over the middle for a short reception that he turned into 33 yards. This set up a five yard scramble by Adams to the left followed by a quick snap sneak through the right A gap for the score. Vili hit the PAT and it was Wolverines 43 and Crocs 33.
We attempted another “hole” kick but it was taken in the air by an second-tier player and returned to the 46 yard line. On the first play from scrimmage the ball was loose on a bad handoff but the Wolverines recovered. Johnson took the play on second down for little yardage and Brescacin actually dropped a short drag pass over the middle. The Wolverines were forced to punt.
The punt was deep and downed on our own 17 yard line. We hit a 14 yard pass to Brown followed by an 11 yard run by Crawford to get us out of the hole. But then a completed pass for negative six yards followed by two incomplete passes forced us to punt the ball away. Brown got off a running punt to the right for 34 yards giving the Wolverines a first and 10 on their 26 yard line with just 1:06 remaining in the third quarter.
Two toss plays ended the quarter and the Wolverines had a third down and one situation. I called a blitz and they ran Johnson to the right toward the edge. We lost contain on with the dog and the safety missed coming up the alley and Johnson was off to the races. It was a 64 yard run with 15 taken away for a Wolverine unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. First and 10 at the 16. They dropped to pass and Brescacin ran a post flag route that spun our corner and put him in bad position. The pass was on spot and it was a touchdown. The PAT failed and it was Wolverines 49 and Crocs 33.
They kicked deep and Crawford miss-judged it and it bounded deep through his legs. By the time he retrieved it he was swarmed and we were starting on our 16 yard line. Amid a flurry of penalties, we ended up with a fourth down and two to go from our 24 yard line. We attempted a quick slant route from the left and the ball was not on mark. Wolverines took over on our 24.
Three rushes by Stokes found them with a first and goal from our eight yard line. We managed to hold them and were faced with a fourth down situation from our one yard line. The Wolverines took the snap and collided in the backfield. The ball popped loose and our big defensive tackle Anders Jarvinen scooped the ball and started lumbering towards our goal. Our safety Stacey Thomas was near and Anders flipped him the ball but Stacey was immediately dragged down from behind. It was our ball on our 16 yard line and there was 6:22 remaining in the game. We were down by 16.
Adams hit Blair Gordon for a 12 yard strike giving us a quick first down. After two incomplete passes, the Wolverines were hit with a face masking penalty against Adams. That bailed us out on a third and 10 situation. We had a new set of downs on our 28 yard line. After that.. disaster. Adams was dropped for a 12 yard sack followed by a false start penalty. We were second down and 27 on our own 11 yard line. On the next snap, Crawford busted one out for 18 and then Rajamaki made a reception for 11. We had clawed our way out to the 38 yard line. Another short completion to Rajamaki got us to the 46 yard line. Adams followed this with two attempts to Blair. The first missed but the second hit for 15 down the right seam. From the Wolverine 39, Adams completed three consecutive passes to get us in the endzone. The final strike was to Crawford for 17 yards. There was 2:07 remaining in the game we were down 10 at 49 to 39.
We lined up the offense for the two-point conversion. The conversion to Brown in corner was good. We were down by 8 with 2:03 remaining in the game. We lined up for the onside kick.
We took a shot from the bunch position but we ended up with only three players on one side at the time of the kick so we were flagged for an illegal kickoff set. The Wolverines had recovered it anyway and would start on our 35 yard line. Stokes took the first two plays for a net of three yards. We had burned the last of time outs. With a third and seven situation, Johnson took the ball to the right on an option. Nobody picked up the quarterback and he kept the ball up the seam. He got the first down and essentially the game was over.
The Wolverines kneed out the first down. They lined up to knee out the second down and we rushed it through the A gap. Something must have happened in the pile to push Crawford’s button. He popped out of the pile and round-housed one of the big Wolverine tackles. The tackled dropped face first into the turf like a felled tree and lay there motionless as the referees attempted to restore order. When it was all said and done, both Crawford and Stacey had been ejected from the game. Not the best way to end things but the game was over.
The finality of the season hit like it always did – sudden and abrupt. There would be no practices next week. It was over. I was disappointed in the loss and our inability to even come close to halting the Wolverine offense. However, I was amazed (as I had been all season long) at the heart and effort that our players had put out on the field. This team would never quit and would not admit defeat until that last second ticked off the clock.
In early May, I had come to Finland to coach and had no idea about the league, the level of play, or the individual talent I would find here. The integrity, grit, and unity of the Crocodiles family showed forth this day on the field. I walked away this evening with respect and love for every player.
Here are some links for the game: