The Colchester Gladiators hosted the Bristol Apache in their National League quarter-final and stormed to an early lead before holding the visitors at arms length to confirm their place in the southern final.
Bristol finished the season with an 8-2 record in the Southern Conference and came with a reputation for hard running and solid defence, and they did not disappoint. But the Gladiators have some playmakers of their own and broke the game open early with some big plays.
The Gladiators started stronger, forcing the Apache to lose yards on their first series, with Gary Shuttleworth and Raul Barclay stopping spectacular tackles in the backfield for losses. The Gladiators had no problems moving the ball with Casey Campbell rattling off a 28 yard gain before QB Curtis Bourke added another 15 for consecutive first downs. But the Bristol defence stepped up and forced a turnover on downs.
The reprieve was short-lived however when, on third and 23, James Birch tipped a pass which Luke Box gratefully received and rumbled all the way to the Bristol four. Two plays later, Bourke found Chris Jackson in the end zone for the first of his four touchdown throws. Nathan Brown kicked the extra point and the Gladiators had an early 7-0 lead.
After a Bristol punt, the Gladiators doubled their lead when Bourke found Anders Bengston with a short pass before the speedy receiver followed his blocks before turning on the after-burners, scorching down the sideline for a stunning score. Brownâ€™s kick was again good for a 14-0 score which remained until early in the second quarter.
The Bourke to Jackson connection worked again, for a 48 yard gain, setting up Campbell for a six yard touchdown run to make the score 20-0.
The Gladiators were threatening a rout when, after a short Apache punt, Campbell ran for 34 yards before Bourke found Chris Palmer in the flat. Palmer made four defenders miss before crossing the goal line for his teamâ€™s fourth score of the day and a 26-0 advantage.
The Apache offence put together their best drive of the day, traveling 63 yards in 14 plays with some strong running through the centre of the Gladiatorsâ€™ defence, but after advancing to the Colchester three, a penalty and stops by Sam Gennings and Alex Robinson on third down, and Box and Birch on fourth down, Bristol came away empty handed.
A 37 yard run by Campbell got the Gladiators out of trouble but a fumble was recovered by the Apache, and a score looked imminent when a Bristol runner sliced through the home defence before Gennings made a touchdown saving tackle. Another penalty set Bristol back and they failed on another fourth down play, turning the ball over to the Gladiators.
Bristol were then gifted an opportunity to get back in the game when the Gladiators lined up to punt. A high snap sailed over the punters head and the Apache set up just seven yards out.
They wasted no time in converting this golden opportunity on the next play and the extra point narrowed the deficit to 26-7 giving the Apache some belief going in to half time.
The Gladiatorsâ€™ offence made a statement on their next possession when Campbell converted a long third down play for a first down before Bourke found Jackson again who picked the ball up inches from the ground, and outsprinted the defence to record a spectacular 48 yard touchdown play. Brownâ€™s kick was good to restore the 26 point advantage at 33-7.
Bristol started to show their frustration and lost some of their discipline on their next possession with one defender accruing 30 yards of penalties, leaving them with a 2nd and 40. Unsurprisingly they could not convert but soon had the ball back after a Gladiator fumble.
Another holding penalty negated a first down and they had to punt but another Gladiator turnover, a Bourke interception, gave them excellent field position, on the home teamâ€™s 20 as the final period began.
With the offence spluttering with consecutive turnovers, the defence needed to step up and they did just that with an excellent goal line stand. On third down on the three, Box and Mark Gilbranch combined to halt a Bristol runner, and on fourth down AJ Crabbe and Raul Barclay were quick to read a pass and stopped the receiver for a two yard loss.
Bristol were winning the battle of field position but the gallant Gladiators defence would not crumble and stopped the Apache on downs.
As time was running out, one final Bristol drive was threatening a consolation score, but on second and two, junior graduate Nick Carver, who had just come on to replace Crabbe, was in the right place and picked off the Apache QB, returning it to midfield when time ran out with the Gladiators triumphing by 33-7.
Head Coach Matt Roberts was delighted with the result, if not the overall performance and commented: â€œAs I said to the teamÂ after the game, the first and most important priority is simply to win and reach the Southern Final, and we did that. Having said that I’m far from happy with the overall performance; personally as Offensive Coordinator I didn’tÂ doÂ a good enough job in the second half adjusting to a much improved Apache defence which was awkward to play against, that pressured the ball and backed us up at times.
â€œWe were alsoÂ guilty ofÂ simpleÂ errors, bad decisions andÂ turnovers so I was thankful for a great first half which really put the game to bed early. What was pleasing was that we did take our chances, and as often is the way against a pressure defence, so when a play goes, it goes big.Â Bengston, Jackson andÂ Palmer all picked up long scores off otherwise innocuous plays thanks to their athleticism. Jackson hauled in two massive passes to score on one and set upÂ Campbell with a short range TD and CampbellÂ more importantly gainedÂ some massive yards on some classy runs.
â€œDefensively I was very pleased on the whole. We made numerous fourth down stops, had a couple ofÂ interceptions on the day and with Luke Box leading the charge with aÂ dominant performance at middle linebacker, we looked the better unit.Â With the offence struggling in spells we had to play more defence than we would have liked to, so our excellent depth was used to it’s fullest. The ability to rotate players with negligible drop in performance is vital in these tough games and nothing shows that more than junior graduate Nick Carver in his first game finishing the game with an interception in our endzone and a great 50 yard run back to seal the game.
â€œWhilst their inside, power running game was never going to win the game for them once we were so far ahead, it did pose a lot of problems for us. With that in mindÂ certainly we need to break down the film, identify the areas we can improve on and tighten up in before the toughest game of the year.
â€œWe now have the biggest week of the season, so not only must we break down our film and look at ourselves, we must also carry on with the scouting breakdown on the #1 ranked Solent side and find a way to get the win, and get to the National Final, but I’m happy we don’t appear to have picked up any new injuries so should be in good shape.”
The Gladiators will travel to Southampton to tackle the also 10-0 Thrashers in a game that will provide the southern finalist in the National League final with the prospect of promotion to the top tier of American Football in this country, the Premier League. The Gladiators last competed at the top level way back in 1992.
Further information about the Club and contact details for all sections can be found at www.colchestergladiators.com.