A much changed Birmingham Bulls opened their 2017 BAFA NFC1 South campaign with a defeat at local rivals Sandwell Steelers at Tipton Sports Academy on Sunday – but with a performance full of promise for the remaining nine games.
Having seen a winter where veteran starters had retired or moved to new pastures, the Bulls once again kicked off the season with a number of rookies in key positions and with many ‘experienced’ players only starting their 2nd season.
And the Bulls got off to the worst possible start against a Sandwell side who hit the Jets for 71 points the previous weekend when Steelers QB Callum Davidson connected with former Bulls Youth player Josh Lawrence for a long passing touchdown and the sense around the stadium was of a repeat performance from the home side.
But the Bulls are not the Jets.
The Bulls offense converted on their first 3rd down of the season with a screen pass to Tyrone Johnston putting them into Steeler territory although the drive stumbled on the next play as a fumbled snap handed the ball back to Sandwell.
This would be the theme throughout the first half with the expected mercy clock nowhere near in sight as the tough tackling Bulls ‘D’ blunted much of the Steeler offense and, despite giving up a couple of long plays after the opening play touchdown, the bend but not break mentality kept the score close enough for the Bulls struggles on offence to turn it around in the second half.
Unfortunately the game was put beyond the Bulls in the 3rd quarter when an opening drive punt block gave the Steelers the ball on the 4 yard line and it took them just one play to force the ball into the endzone, putting pressure on the Bulls to mount a scoring drive.
The Bulls failed to score on their next possession and the game was effectively over when Davidson and Lawrence combined for their second TD of the game to put the Steelers almost home at 19-0.
Pete Bennett carried much of the load in the absence of power back Marc Bonazebi but with the passing game struggling for yardage, the Steelers were able to blunt the Bulls attack and the visitors could ill afford the mistakes that crept into their game in the final minutes of the game, putting an undeserved slant on the final scoreline.
A pick 6 made it 25-0 and, in the closing moments of the game, a botched pitch out to Tyrone Johnston saw the ball squirm free and was recovered in the endzone to complete the 32-0 scoreline on favour of the Steelers.
Whilst the loss for the Bulls will come as little surprise to those who predicted their demise, the performance from the ‘D’ against one of the favourites for the Division 1 title in restricting their opponents to few offensive points, especially in the first half, will raise hope that the team will be back in the win column sooner rather than later.
A combination of rookie mistakes and the absence of some key players on offence did not help but there were plenty of positives from the the afternoon in the Black Country.
Steelers coaches commented on how hard the Bulls were hitting and the defense overall played a solid game, second year man Matt Teal made an impressive debut on kick return duty and the offensive line were solid, for the most part, all day – and with the sideline having a positive vibe all day, as every man, woman and child in a Bulls uniform pulled in the same direction, there may well be one or two surprises in the season ahead.
Next up is a visit from Nottingham Caesars on Sunday (30th April, 1.30pm KO), the first of three successive fixtures with the East Midlands outfit.