Warwick Wolves @ Derby Braves – 01/03/20
The 1st of March 2020 saw the return of Wolves playoff football! Following a hiatus of a few years, the Wolves were back in the postseason after an outstanding regular season which included historic wins against Loughborough and NTU. After finishing the regular season with a 5-3 record the Wolves went in as the #7 seed which unfortunately meant they would be matched up with old foes the Derby Braves for the second week in a row. Having already lost twice to the Braves, Warwick knew they were in for a tough test but then again anything can happen in the playoffs.
The Wolves offence took to the field first, helmed by rookie receiver turned QB Luka Jojic following another injury in the QB room to AJ, taking the season total to 4 QBs for the Wolves. Yet another challenge for the Wolves offence to overcome, as well as multiple American scholars on the defensive side of the ball for Derby. The offence couldn’t get off to a hot start only going 3 and out quickly, leading to a punt from James Norris giving the ball to the potent Derby offense in their own half. Following a quick throw to start Derby followed up with a big run of 32 yards up the gut, something the Wolves could ill afford when also contending with the Braves’ explosive aerial attack. A better play followed for the defence though, with the D line applying good pressure and CB Charlie Coleman batting the ball away from their no. 1 receiver, a prelude of the battle to come. However, the next two plays went right back to #1 who managed to find the endzone for a 14-yard TD after the QB had extended the play, another issue which the Wolves had hoped to rectify after it had plagued them a week earlier. 7-0 Derby.
The offence’s next drive was much more productive with a series of consistent gains on the ground from workhorse RB Obi Ojji driving the Wolves deep into Derby territory. The drive was finally derailed by an outstanding play from Derby’s standout D lineman #88 who burst through the line for a 6-yard TFL pushing the Wolves back to 3rd and long. After QB Jojic couldn’t connect with big play WR Sean Brandt down the sideline, the Wolves elected to punt and play the field position battle with the game still close in its early stages. A good punt from P Norris pinned Derby inside their 15. Derby completed two quick passes to give themselves more room but a strong tackle from DE Cosmo Vanderkar on 2nd and 10 put the Braves in 3rd and long. The QB once again scrambled for an age eluding multiple would-be tacklers but after the ball fell incomplete there was a flag for a block in the back pushing the Braves back even further into 3rd and 20 inside their 10. On what essentially amounted to a throwing punt, SS David Carnegy came up with the interception to set up the offence in Derby territory.
The offence could not capitalise however as a screen play on 3rd down was blown up by Derby’s other defensive scholar forcing the Wolves to punt again. The Braves were able to progress into Warwick territory with a couple of accurate passes from their scholar QB but constant pressure from the D line caused 3 straight incompletions. Derby gambled and went for it on 4th and 10 with a fly sweep, trying to catch the Wolves off guard but it was sniffed out and shut down. With the first quarter nearly up the offence had another chance to try and get some points on the board but to no avail. Strong pressure from Derby necessitated a quick passing game but solid tackling from Derby prevented many yards after the catch making consistent gains hard to come by for the Wolves. The offence quickly had the ball again however, with rookie LB Ollie Scorey pouncing on a loose ball to put the offence in scoring position. An offsides on Derby on 3rd and long made it an easier conversion for the Wolves. QB Jojic found WR Michael Higham on slant for first down yardage and some slippery running after the catch saw him break free of the defence and all the way into the endzone for a 27-yard TD. Rookie K Thomas Chardin tacked on the PAT to tie the game at 7 apiece. Game on.
The Wolves were right back in the game and now had the chance to kick on and take the lead. The defence couldn’t manage this as 2 big runs put Derby in field goal range straight away. They were able to stem the tide however with some stout run-stuffing and tight coverage forcing the Braves to settle for a field goal. 10-7. The offence could not respond in kind with the running lanes stifled and despite a nice catch from TE Thaddee Chantry-Gellens on third down the Wolves had to punt again. On the first play of the drive the Braves went deep to #1 whose speed saw him break open downfield to put Derby in plus territory. The defence managed to stand their ground with some strong gang tackling keeping Derby short of the first down and a big TFL from DT Yass Kamara and LB Ollie Scorey pushed them back to 4th and medium. A false start prevented them from going for it and they settled for a FG attempt. A bad snap gave them no chance and the Wolves had caught a break getting the ball back still only 3 points behind. On the very next play, the Wolves gave the ball straight back as an errant throw went straight to the Derby DB.
Not to be outdone, CB Henry Faulkner-Ellis came up with an interception of his own only 2 plays later, after reading the route combination beautifully. A big return set the offence up just outside the 10 with a chance to take the lead but staggeringly on the ensuing play Derby came up with another interception after the throw was forced into heavy traffic. Luckily, a block in the back negated the 89-yard return for a score meaning Derby got the ball inside their own 20. A remarkable series of plays where the game could have swung in either direction culminated with Derby having the ball with the chance to extend their lead just before the half. Derby instantly went on the attack with #1’s blazing speed wreaking havoc as he came open on a deep crosser. 2 more quick completions put them inside the 15. A momentary lapse in coverage was all that was needed, as a slant across the middle broke wide open for an easy TD. Just like that Derby had wrested back control of the game before halftime with the score at 17-7. A crazy ending to the half which could easily have ended with Warwick on top but they weren’t able to capitalise. Now the Wolves needed their best half of the season to earn the right to progress to the next round.
Despite the poor ending to the half the Wolves were still in touching distance and quickly had the opportunity to close the gap as on the third play of the half FS James Norris managed to rip the ball from the grasp of the receiver which was recovered by CB Thomas Chardin. Another twist in a wild game with many turnovers it was now up to the offence to get some points. Following the momentum change the Wolves delved into their bag of tricks calling a trick play reverse which resulted in a big run and got the drive rolling. However, yet again the Wolves shot themselves in the foot as a few plays later they lost a fumble to surrender another scoring opportunity. Derby quickly were back into their quick passing rhythm but the defence nearly had another takeaway as veteran LB Koorosh Fatemian nearly came away with an interception off a tip. After another wild scramble leading to an incompletion it was 3rd and long and CB Coleman made another outstanding play deep down the field to knock the ball away and force a punt.
The Wolves offence could only muster another 3 and out as #88 once again blew up a play in the backfield on 3rd and short. A shanked punt meant Derby had a short field in front of them to score. The Derby RB strung together some nice runs and bounced it to the outside to take it to the endzone for a TD from 6 yards out. The Wolves had a chance coming out of halftime but with the score at 24-7 midway through the 3rd the game seemed to be slipping from their grasp. Another 3 and out for the Wolves followed despite a tough catch in traffic from TE Chantry-Gellens on 3rd down. The Braves got a decent return on the ensuing punt putting them in Wolves territory again. The Wolves defence showed their characteristic fighting spirit on this drive as they once again came up with a turnover, this time LB Ollie Scorey showing his nose for the ball as he pounced on a fumbled snap. Following yet another 3 and out, a good punt from P Norris put Derby inside their own 10. Tight coverage and a fortunate drop meant the Wolves D had forced another punt as both offences were struggling to gain any ground in the start of the 4th.
Yet another quick punt from the Wolves gave the ball back to Derby who had been less successful in their last few drives but this all changed on one play as shoddy coverage in the secondary was exposed on a double move and the receiver was wide open for a 41-yard TD to extend their lead even further. Another botched snap meant the PAT was no good and the score was 30-7. To compound this turn of events, on the second play of the next drive QB Jojic was hit as he threw sending the ball into the air and the waiting arms of the Derby LB for his second pick of the day. Derby had the chance to add even more points after a good return on the interception but the Wolves D came up with another turnover, this time SS Carnegy jarring the ball free on a pass to the flat which was scooped up and returned by LB Fatemian. The offence tried to work quickly and found themselves facing 4th down. Knowing the Wolves were chasing the game the Derby DBs were able to sit back and on this occasion come down with another INT as the ball was pushed down the field. Derby had the ball again but it was at their own 2-yard line. Relentless pressure from DTs Kamara and Will Carroll on 3 straight plays forced a quick 3 and out. Similarly to the last matchup, rather than risk a blocked punt for a TD, Derby took an intentional safety on the punt making the score 30-9.
The offence continued to get in their own way as they coughed up another fumble on the next drive, putting Derby in scoring territory. The Wolves had now rotated on defence giving playing time to rookies and also to many veterans for whom this would be the last time donning the black jersey. A lovely play from rookie DB Jimmy Rogan-Hill followed as he knocked away a deep ball in the endzone. The Wolves couldn’t keep this going though as a scramble then a run up the gut saw Derby punch it in once again. 37-9. The Wolves’ next drive was highlighted by a pair of nice runs from rookie RB Ben Meyrick but eventually stalled leading to a punt. With Derby now focussed on the clock they turned to the running game but this was singlehandedly stuffed for no gain by DT Carroll on consecutive plays. The Wolves offence got the ball back one last time but nothing of note occurred as the game came to an end.
A tough day for the Wolves and not the way they wanted the season to end. Turnovers and big plays were the downfall of the Wolves much like in each loss this season. It was a valiant effort nonetheless from a team who had been battered by injuries and were facing perhaps the best team that division 1 had to offer. If the seedings had fallen a different way then who knows how deep into the playoffs the Wolves could have gone. Despite this loss, it should take nothing away from the achievements of the regular season which saw the Wolves back where they belong and heading in the right direction for the future.