Match report by Stuart Dick.
The Northumberland Lightning shocked the Aberdeen Roughnecks on the opening day of the British American Football National League season with a 10-8 victory at Ashington Rugby Club on Sunday afternoon.
The heavily fancied Roughnecks, who reached the play-offs last season with a 6-4 record, made the long journey south to Northumberland to take on a Lightning outfit that went 1-9 in its rookie season, suffering heavy 44-20 and 53-0 defeats to Aberdeen last season.
The Roughnecks first drive showed some potential, but the Lightning held firm against their Scottish opponents forcing a punt that Aberdeen were able to down inside the 10 yard line. Northumberland’s offense struggled to gain yards, but an excellent punt by Michael Raven flipped field position in the home sides favour.
From that point onwards, the defences dominated, particularly Northumberland’s who got immense pressure on Aberdeen QB Chris Breen; rookie linebacker Liam Allen a particular menace totalling two sacks with fellow rookie ‘backer Dan Bandeira also sacking the QB. Second-year DE Sean Hall picked up his first sack of the season, the defense getting four in total. Rookie CB Luke Osbourne also made his first career interception as the Lightning shut out their opponents in the first period.
On the other side of the ball Northumberland managed to move the ball thanks to the running of RB Dale Merritt and the blocking of an offensive line including two rookies.
The hard work paid dividends in the second quarter when, after a fumble recovery by Hall after another vicious sack, Raven kicked a field goal through the uprights to give the Lightning a 3-0 lead.
A crucial play before the end of the first half almost provided more points for the Lightning. A fantastic pass rush forced Breen into an errant throw, the ball picked off by recent transfer Michael Brown who ran the ball back to the three yard mark.
However, there were two flags on the play, both on Aberdeen, but the referee’s called the play should never have happened, meaning Aberdeen inexplicably kept the ball, and with that the action in the first half ended.
The third quarter followed a similar pattern, Northumberland and Aberdeen’s defences on top, both stuffing the run game, but Lightning had the edge in pass defense forcing a number of mistakes from the oppositions trigger-man.
By this point the Lightning had been forced into changes on defence, having only 11 players on that side of the ball. TE Ross Conley was now playing at linebacker, with TE Lee Davison and QB Stuart Dick splitting time at Free Safety from the 2nd quarter.
With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Northumberland furthered their lead. Allen broke through the Aberdeen offensive line, making a crunching hit on Breen as he was in the process of throw.
The ball looped in the air for Conley to intercept, running the ball in from 23 yards out, Raven’s block opening a lane for Conley to reach the endzone. The Aberdeen quarterback was unfortunately forced out of the game after the hit with a shoulder injury.
To their credit, Aberdeen came back strong in the remainder of the game, running the ball up the middle for small but sustained gains. With just over two minutes remaining in the game a busted coverage allowed TE Rob Hayes to run free down the middle of the field, catching a 40 yard reception for the score, RB Ollie Schaffmann converting the two points leaving the score 10-8 in Northumberland’s favour.
With two minutes remaining it meant Aberdeen would be forced into an onside kick, Lightning rookie RB Daniel Patterson picking up the kick despite a pile on from the Roughnecks.
The Lightning still needed a first down to secure the win, but after three straight run plays Northumberland were forced to punt the ball away, Raven kicking the ball out of bounds.
This left Aberdeen with one last play with 4 seconds remaining from halfway. The Roughnecks backup QB dropped back and fired to his left where FS Dick was waiting to grab the interception and take a knee to end the game.
A fantastic effort by the Lightning against a side who went to the play-offs in 2015, defeating Northumberland 97-20 on aggregate last season.
Head Coach Mal Ditcham said following the game;
“I’m delighted with the guys today, going up against a team like Aberdeen on the opening day was never going to be easy, but the team played brilliantly and managed to grind out the win. Last year was our first in the league and at times we found it difficult, so to get a win in the first game really shows how far we have come in the last 12 months. The lads did brilliantly, I can’t praise them enough. We will not get carried away though, this is just 1 win, we have another 9 games to go, so our focus now switches to our home game against the Glasgow Tigers. I’d like to say thanks to Aberdeen for making the long trip down south, they put up a strong fight and the late TD really made it an exciting finish. The Roughnecks are a great organisation and we’ve enjoyed all of the games we’ve played against them. We wish them all the best for the rest of the season”
Game day sponsors Punch Drunk Comedy supplied two tickets for an upcoming gig to the game’s Most Valuable Player, awarded to rookie LB Liam Allen for his 2 sack performance, along with a number of other big plays. If you want to join Liam at one of these shows, Punch Drunk 2.4 is coming to Blyth, Bedlington and Ashington between 18th-21st April 2016, click on this link to access their Facebook event for more information!
Next up for the Lightning is a home game against the Glasgow Tigers on Sunday 24th April, 2.30pm Kick-Off at Ashington Rugby Club, further information to follow soon!