Commentary by Burn Fm sports Josh Hunt, Sam Harrison and Tom Halliday
The first quarter was dominated by the two defences, with neither team able to put points on the board. Birmingham quarterback Alex Wake settled into a good rhythm early on, connecting on a number of passes and showing willingness to throw deep against the Hurricanes secondary, but the running game couldn’t get going against a stout Hertfordshire defensive front. In a quarter where offensive highlights were at a premium, wide receiver Tarren Patel provided one moment of magic to reel in a rocket of a pass from QB James Cunningham.
The Lions’ defence, led by star lineman Josh Vines, continued to cause Cunningham and the Hurricanes offence all sorts of problems, shutting down the passing game in the second quarter. The ground game started to show signs of life as Ben Johnson found a few creases to run through, but still Hertfordshire failed to put points on the board.
As Herts’ offence stalled, Birmingham’s was picking up steam. With the two minute warning fast approaching, the Lions took the lead on a short Wake pass to Stefan Rowden, who made a sharp diving catch low to his left inside the endzone. Though the extra point attempt was blocked, the defence came up strong once again to preserve a 6-0 lead heading into half-time.
It seemed for a long time like the second half would play out in the same manner as the first, as both teams were forced to punt on their first two possessions. However, Birmingham’s second punt was a beauty, Will Hussey sending the ball sailing downfield where Hertfordshire’s Johnson muffed the catch. The Lions recovered the ball, and found the end zone two plays later as Xavier Ajuwon sprinted in at the right pylon.
Wake picked out Mason Baptiste on a successful two point conversion attempt to make it 14-0, and despite Hertfordshire’s best efforts, they couldn’t find a way to break down the ferocious Lions defence. One long drive ended up about ten yards shy of Birmingham’s goal line, but Mitchell Arthur’s subsequent field sailed wide right.
Birmingham appeared to have the game wrapped up when Xavier Ajuwon once again looked to have gone over at the right pylon, but instead the ball was adjudged to have been fumbled, going out beyond the goal line for a touchdown.
Soon after, the lead was extended thanks to another error on special teams by the visitors. Dom Gould never came in to punt, but the snap sailed over his head and he was forced to kick the ball through his own end zone for a safety. 16-0 to the Lions.
A few minutes later, WR Charlie Hardman did seal the victory when he snagged a jump ball from Wake for six more points. He then stepped up to convert the extra point, putting his team into an unassailable 23-0 lead.
The rest of the game was a formality, Birmingham’s defence pitching a shut-out in its first fixture of the 2014/15 season. All that was left was for Vines to be crowned the inaugural XS Power Drink MVP, as the Lions celebrated a margin of victory that few could have predicted before the game.
The nature of the win means there is no doubt that Coach Wayne Hill’s team is well set to wrestle back their National Champion status that was lost in a 20-15 defeat at the hands of the Stirling Clansmen in last year’s Championship Game.
The defence looks as good as any I’ve witnessed in five years of watching the Lions play. MVP Vines has a rare skill set at this level of competition, but there’s also a huge amount of talent around him: DBs A-Jay Crabbe and Sam Jeater, LBs Remy Claustres and Maxwell Stevens-Petitjean and fellow defensive lineman Jean-Paul Neveu are just a few of the others worth mentioning by name.
QB Alex Wake appears to have made huge strides since being beaten out by Jonny Glover in a contest for starting responsibilities last year; he sparked the Lions into life with a few key early completions in the first half.
Dan Conroy was hard to replace in the Lions backfield a season ago, but RB Xavier Ajuwon is one to watch going forward. With Kwame Otchere in a supporting role, Birmingham’s run game improved throughout Saturday’s contest and will undoubtedly continue to do so in later fixtures.
With the top two teams in the Premier South qualifying for the Championship semi-finals, xpLosION provided the ideal start to the Lions’ season. Hertfordshire, meanwhile, are by no means out of playoff contention. One of the best coached teams in British American football, expect them to provide a far sterner test when they host Birmingham for the final fixture of the regular season