On Sunday 24th April the Oxford Saints claimed their 2nd win of the 2016 season, with a comprehensive victory over division favourites, the Bristol Apache.
Following two thrilling fixtures between Oxford and Bristol in the 2015 season, the re-match last weekend on Bristol's home turf was no different.
|Photo courtesy of Chris Janes|
The Saints returned from a 0-13 deficit at half time to claim a 26-15 win, with an exceptional performance from both the offense and the defense, which the Apache were unable to match.
Bristol began with the ball and on the first play, quarterback Simon Marris completed a deep pass over the middle for a 19 yard gain, with the receiver being brought down by free safety Bilal Redd.
Linebacker Spencer Duffy asserted his position on the field and made back to back tackles for a loss of yards to end Bristol’s opening drive, including a sack on quarterback Harris.
With Oxford beginning their first drive under the leadership of new quarterback Destin Maulding, the Saints struggled to make progress against the Apache defense, with running back Kev Brooks being stopped for minimal gains. A fumbled ball (recovered by Oxford) set the Saints back 16 yards and forced them to punt the ball away.
With Bristol back in possession, Oxford made another strong stand with middle linebacker Sam Stancombe leading the defense. The Apache put the ball in the capable hands of running back Jon Walters. Despite picking up yards on the ground, a penalty against Bristol set them back and tight coverage from defender Misha Brooks prevented Harris from connecting with his targeted receiver.
With both teams probing for weaknesses, The Saints began to move the ball in the form of running back Rob Johnson, who picked up 18 yards and a first down on the drive. Coming up short on 4th down, Destin Maulding attempted to convert for another first down himself but was tackled for a 2 yard loss.
Harris went to the air and found progress against the Saints defense. Further strong running from Jon Walters saw him charging into the end zone for a 14 yard gain to open the scoring for the day. Christopher Jones kicked the extra point and the host team took a 7-0 lead.
Throughout the 2nd quarter, both teams attempted to find the end zone but defiant defenses by Oxford and Bristol dominated the proceedings. Combinations of runs from Rob Johnson and Antonios Athanasiou picked up yards on the ground but the Apache defense prevented any meaningful gains.
Oxford's defense remained strong across the board with more tackles Spencer Duffy and Dean Bryan.
With the Saints offense knocking on the door, Maulding and his crew were in scoring distance and only needed a few more yards to cross into the end zone and find the equalizing score. Disaster struck and the ball was stripped away from the offense by Bristol defender Dariusz Wiercioch who then raced the length of the field and across the Oxford goal-line. The extra point kick was no good and the Apache took a 13-0 lead.
Late in the 2nd quarter, the Oxford offense found its usual fire when James Walter was switched from tight end to running back before being unleashed on the Bristol defense.
Walter picked up 6 yards on his first carry before breaking out for a 30 yard gain the play after. Further running from Walter was accompanied by a 24 yard gain from team-mate Grant Tebb, he eluded several defenders as he charged up the field.
With the end zone in sight again, a pass from Maulding was intercepted by an Apache defender and Bristol once again stopped the Saints from getting onto the scoreboard.
With Bristol looking to add another score before half time, they were moving the ball on the ground well with more tough running from Jon Walters who was supported by an offensive line clearing a path for him. Although With tackles being made by Bilal Redd, Eric Mendoza and Duffy, Bristol continued to pick up yards with each play.
Duffy fired up the Saints sideline when he landed a big hit on quarterback Simon Harris for a 10 yard sack, which also forced the ball to come loose. Defensive end Adam Baker reacted immediately and dived on the loose ball to to claim possession for Oxford. Despite an 18 yard carry by Walter, the Saints ran out of time in the first half to add points onto the board.
At the half time interval, Head Coach Andrew Day and Defensive Coordinator Nick Wykes addressed the team and made several adjustments.
Coming into the 2nd half ready to go, Oxford began with possession and it was all James Walter as he charged across the field, picking up 47 yards on 5 carries before crossing the goal-line from 3 yards out to score a touchdown.
Kicker Sam Fielden attempted the extra point kick but it was no good, but the Saints made it a one-score game narrowed the deficit to just 13-6 in favour of Bristol.
With quarterback Mike Hindmarsh taking over duties for the Apache in the 2nd half, Oxford strong safety Chris Fox dealt a blow early on with a 7 yard sack on Hindmarsh as he attempted to scramble and find space.
Hindmarsh and the Bristol offense were able to keep the drive alive and continued to progress up field until Bilal Redd claimed his first interception with the Oxford Saints, leaping high in the air to snatch the pass from Hindmarsh.
Walter continued to have a break out game as he continued to wreak havoc against the tiring Apache defense, running for 49 yards in a single play before being brought down.
In Bristol territory, Maulding completed a deep 21 yard throw to Grant Tebb in the corner of the end zone, who managed to reel in the touchdown pass despite close coverage by Apache defenders.
Head Coach Andrew Day made the decision to take the lead and instead of kicking the extra point, he kept Maulding on the field. The quarterback rolled out and threw a pass to tight end Richard Bloomer who was uncovered in the corner of the end zone, giving the Saints an additional 2 points. 14-13 Oxford.
Oxford's defense closed the 3rd quarter on a high note with a further sack on the Bristol quarterback, this time forcing a 7 yard loss at the hands of linebackers Graeme Taylor and Dean Bryan. The defense continued to put pressure on the Apache with further tackles from Baker, Bryan, Mendoza and Stancombe.
The relentless James Walter continued to be an unstoppable force and was on track for a record breaking performance, with a run for 26 yards and then a touchdown run for 49 yards into the end zone. The kick was no good but the Saints moved to a more comfortable 20-13 lead.
Oxford's brutal defense continued to over power the Apache and the next drive saw defensive end Conor Whitehouse land a 7 yard sack on Hindmarsh, followed by a 9 yard sack from Stancombe on the next play, forcing Bristol to punt.
The Saints marched down the field again with running from Walter and Athanasiou, before Maulding handed the ball to full back Luke Fry who charged untouched into the end zone for a 28 yard score, marking his first career touchdown with Oxford.
Fielden attempted the extra point kick but it was deflected and a Bristol defender scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the Oxford end zone, awarding them 2 points. 26-15 Oxford.
As the final whistle was blown, the Saints celebrated their victory over the division favourites in what Oxford considered a must-win game.
Walter ended the game with a remarkable achievement and personal record of 270 rushing yards, the majority of which were earned in just the 2nd half of the game. An average of 10.8 yards per carry. He also contributed two touchdowns and was named Team MVP (most valued player) for his standout performance.
These kind of stats and his ability to create momentum for his team reaffirms the logic behind Walter being called up to the GB Squad, with his first game against an international team coming up in September against Russia.
The game was also the first for new player David Anthony who filled in occasionally at nose tackle. It was noted by the defensive coaches that he had a very strong first game and his stand out performance was driving the Bristol centre deep into the backfield and taking him to the ground.
James Walter added: “I’m extremely proud of the team this weekend; for not getting disheartened despite being down by two scores at half time.
The decision of the HC to move myself to running back at the start of the second half proved crucial as we managed to drive the majority of the field and score, thus providing the spark to turn the game around.
Inspiring players all over the field such as Rich Christian’s sterling performance as part of a revitalised offensive line against a heavy blitzing Bristol defense; combined with some outstanding plays from all over our own defense.
It's always amazing to hit new records, 270 personal rushing yards almost exclusively in the second half is phenomenal. Our offense is going from strength to strength with playmakers all over and I don't see why both the team and I cannot go on to set more records this season."
Head Coach Andrew Day commented after the game: “The heart and desire shown by the lads was something else. Not only coming from a 2 score deficit at the half, but to totally dominate the second half scoring 26 points to Bristol's 2 and in the end running out as comfortable winners.
I'm really pleased with this win but we won’t rest. We know that only continued hard work on the practice ground will keep us going in the direction we want."
Defensive Coordinator Nick Wykes added his thoughts on the defensive performance: “We had playmakers right across the unit and Sunday was a disciplined, focused and very promising performance. A lot of things we need to go away and tidy up, but today the Defense showed real character and played their part in a very imposing team performance."