This past Sunday saw the Nighthawks travel to local rivals, the Manchester Titans, in a crunch match which will have a huge bearing on the Premiership North this season. The Titans would put the Nighthawks to the sword from the off and would hold a lead throughout the game.
Right from kick off, Manchester pinned Merseyside deep in their own 20 with a kick through the end zone for a touchback. The much vaunted Manchester defence, fresh off a shut out against perennial Prem North champions Tamworth, came out fast and forced the Nighthawks into a 3 and out, aided by a false start penalty as nerves kicked in. The Titans special teams sensed an opportunity for a quick score and took it immediately, blocking the punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety. 2-0 to the home team.
Manchester would get the ball back immediately from the kick off, and put together a methodical 8 play drive, which would see them extend their lead. Facing 3rd and goal from the 1 yard line, QB Bloomfield found WR Bamber in the end zone on a slant route to extend the Titans lead. The XP was up and good, and Manchester had raced out to a 9-0 lead.
Merseyside received the ensuing kick off and would put together a really good looking drive, moving the ball efficiently and effectively during the 12 plays. They would be forced to punt the ball from the Manchester 26 yard line as the wind blew in their faces. The ball was downed on the Manchester 6 yard line by LB Mark Houghton, and Manchester took over.
After a fumbled pitch on 1st down, Manchester were pinned back on their own 2 yard line, when Merseyside would score their first points of the day. QB Bloomfield took the snap and passed it straight to Bamber on a jet sweep, only for Bamber to be tackled in the end zone by LB Jack Langton for a safety. Manchester up 9-2 in a rare game that had already seen 2 safeties in the first quarter! Merseyside would go 3 and out quickly, as the Titans defence swarmed to the ball. A short punt after a low snap would give Manchester the ball back just inside their own half as time expired on the 1st quarter.
The Titans would waste no time in getting back on the board, as Bloomfield connected with Bamber again for another TD. Facing 1st and 10 from the Nighthawks 16, Bloomfield threw a rainbow down the Titans sideline to Bamber, who found himself wide open. The XP was good, and Manchester led 16-2.
The Nighthawks once again struggled to move the ball, and were gifted another set of downs around their own 25 yard line as the Titans were drawn offside by QB Routledge’s hard count. This would spur the Hawks on, as another methodical drive downfield, aided by Routledge’s legs, saw the Hawks deep in the Titans 5 yard line. Another offside penalty gave them a fresh set of downs, and after two runs up the middle were stuffed, RB Tshimanga would punch the ball into the end zone from 1 yard out. Eager put the kick through the uprights, and suddenly the Hawks were back in it at 16-9.
The Nighthawks defence then stepped up and turned the ball over quickly, forcing Bloomfield to scramble and throw an incompletion on 4th down. Facing a short field just inside their own half, the Nighthawks offence would enter the field looking to tie the game up. This would be shortlived though, as Routledge threw an interception across the middle of the field, which the Titans would return to the Nighthawks 33 yard line. Bloomfield would take full advantage of the turnover, as he found a wide open George Slade down the sideline, who would take the ball in for 6. The Nighthawks defence managed to block the XP, and Manchester’s lead was stretched to 22-9.
The two teams then exchanged possessions, as the Titans D stuffed the Nighthawks in their own half, and Bloomfield threw an interception to Ben Rawthore as time ticked down in the first half. This would bring the first half to a close, and the Titans led 22-9 at half time.
The second half appeared to start well for the Hawks, as Matt O’Connell pinned the Titans deep in their own 5 yard line with an excellent kick off. Two runs were immediately stuffed, and the Titans faced 3rd and long from their own 4 yard line. Bloomfield had other ideas though, as he threw a ball down the Titans sideline for Slade to haul in and take the distance for a 76 yard TD. The XP was good, and suddenly the Titans were well clear of the Hawks, up 29-9.
The Hawks then came out with the ball, and Routledge led them on another long drive, consisting of 13 plays. Facing 1st and goal from the Titans after completing on 4th and 5, Routledge evaded the rushing Titans D by stepping up into the pocket, and throwing a pass over the middle for WR Alex Eager to bring down at the back of the end zone. The offence stayed on the field to try for 2 points, and would be rewarded when WR Dom Woo came down with the ball on a pass from Routledge. The Titans were up 29-17 and we appeared to have a game on our hands.
Merseyside came out and tried to catch Manchester off guard with a low squib kick, but the Titans special teams were quick to the ball, giving Manchester great field position. Bloomfield would waste no time in getting his 5th passing TD of the day, as he once again hooked up with WR Bamber for the latest Titans TD. Once again, the XP was tacked on, and the Titans led by 19, 36-17.
The Nighthawks needed some momentum, and appeared to get it on the next drive, when WR Alex Eager was judged to be interfered with on a pass down the sideline, putting the Nighthawks in good field position as they tried to claw their way back into the game. However, on the very next play, Routledge’s pass would be tipped into the Titans defender’s hands, who would return the ball right down to the Hawks 1 yard line, where the defender fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone. In the ensuing confusion, WR Jordan Houghton got his marching orders by the officials for two USC penalties, and the Titans would get the ball at the Hawks 1. Despite the Hawks defence stiffening, and a poor high snap by the Titans centre, Bloomfield was able to find WR James Newnes in the end zone for 6 more points. The XP was added on, and the Titans stretched their lead out to 26 points and were now well clear of Merseyside on the head to head record. The score was 43-17, and the Nighthawks were facing their worst defeat of the season.
With QB5 now restored to the QB position, Routledge moved out to WR and the Nighthawks were able to move the ball much more efficiently. Facing 3rd and goal after a long drive downfield, the Robinson found Routledge in the back of the end zone, and Harry was able to bring the ball in whilst keeping his feet in bounds. The back judge, however, indicated that the ball had been juggled out of bounds, and the Hawks turned the ball over on downs deep in the Titans red zone. Manchester then also had a player ejected, as their WR Newnes was tossed from the game.
The Hawks defence pinned the Titans back in their 20, keeping the runner honest and Bloomfield in the pocket. A short punt would give the Hawks the ball back on the Manchester 25 yard line, and Robinson found Eager wide open in the end zone 4 plays later for a Nighthawks TD. As the Nighthawks chased points to break the head to head record, the 2 point conversion failed, and Manchester led 43-23 with a little under 5 minutes remaining.
With Manchester still holding the head to head record by 3 points, Merseyside executed a surprise onside kick, which they managed to retrieve through DB Brandon Parker-Stone. They then managed to drive the ball down to the Titans 5 yard line, where the Manchester defence stiffened and held the Hawks out, forcing a turnover on downs.
The Merseyside defence also started to turn the screw, and forced Manchester to punt the ball from their own end zone, with just over 2 minutes to play. Facing a Titans defence from their own 28, with the clock against them, the Nighthawks offence put together a 10 play drive, assisted by an offside penalty, which put them at the Titans 1 yard line, facing 4th and goal. Electing to completely break the head to head record, HC Craig Pennington put his trust in the offence, leaving them out on the field instead of going for a field goal. His trust was rewarded when Routledge took the snap up the middle of the Nighthawks offensive line, and into the end zone for 6 points. Eager added on the XP, and the Titans lead was now just 43-30.
The Titans now had 22 seconds left of the game, and the Hawks defence was sent out to prevent the deep pass, knowing that keeping the Manchester defence out would be scant consolation on a difficult day. Manchester, however, took a knee and ended the game at 43-30. Whilst being at the wrong end of a beating is never good, the Nighthawks can take some comfort in the fact that should it come to it, they hold the head to head tie breaker over the Titans.
The Nighthawks now have week off before they host Leicester Falcons at JMO Sports Park on Sunday 7th July.