In the last of 4 back to back games, the Nighthawks hosted Manchester Titans at JMO Sports Park this past weekend. The Titans came into the game unbeaten on the year, having bested both Leicester and Sheffield in their opening games. Heading into the game as apparent underdogs, the Nighthawks clearly didn’t read the script, heading into their mini break on the back of a strong outing against their nearest rivals.
The Titans won the coin toss, and elected to receive, giving the ball to QB Sam Bloomfield first. Manchester wasted no time in getting on the score board, with a strong, 12 play first drive, utlising both pass and run. This was capped off from the Nighthawks 2 yard line with an option play to the running back, who walked into the end zone untouched. Matt O’Connell did what he has done several times over the last few weeks, breaking through the Titans line to block the XP, and Manchester led 6-0.
The ensuing Nighthawks drive started well, but ultimately ran out of steam just before half way. Matt OC punted the ball away to pin Manchester deep in their own half, and Bloomfield took to the field again. They looked to be putting together another good drive, before an illegal block below the waist penalty pinned them deeper in their own 10 yard line. This led to Manchester punting away, and Merseyside had the ball back at half way.
It wasn’t long before Merseyside hit back, with a TD of their own, as some strong running from returning RB Martin Murphy and QB Harry Routledge set the Nighthawks up with good field position on the Titans 10 yard line. Routledge then threw to WR Alex Eager, who found himself in a pocket of space to haul in the TD. The XP was good, and the Nighthawks were up 7-6.
The Nighthawks then stretched their lead to 8 points, as Bloomfield came back onto the field and threw an interception to Jonny Weekes, who would finish the day with 3 INTs. Merseyside took full advantage of this, leaning heavily on Laurent Tshimanga during the drive. A fast run up the middle, followed by a catch down the Titans sideline, and a jump cut of a Manchester defender on his way to the end zone, saw LT reach pay dirt for his first TD of the day. Again, the XP was good and the Liverpool outfit were out to a 14-6 lead.
As the Titans tried to keep pace with the Nighthawks high octane offence, Bloomfield threw another INT, again to #23 Weekes. As the game moved into the 2nd quarter, Merseyside took a 2 score lead, when Routledge found WR Dominic Woo in the corner of the end zone for 6. Knowing the missed XP could come back to haunt Manchester, Head Coach Pennington went for 2, and was rewarded when Routledge found Woo in the other corner of the end zone for 2. Merseyside led 22-6 and looked hungry for more.
Manchester however, having headed into the game seemingly as favourites, hit back quickly. A good kick return put them in good field position in the Nighthawks half. 6 plays later, and a hand off to the Titans running back saw them put up 6, as the Manchester O Line opened up the smallest of gaps for him to squeeze in. They added on the XP, and the score was 22-13 to Merseyside.
With last year’s game at JMO weighing heavily on their mind, Merseyside were keen to snuff out any sign of a Manchester comeback and were working the clock to their advantage, knowing that they would receive the ball to start the 2nd half. QB Ben Robinson entered the game and led the home team to a clock sapping 11 play drive, converting on 4th and 2 just inside the Manchester half to keep the ball in their hands. Facing 4th and goal from the Manchester 10 yard line, Robinson connected with WR Jordan Houghton in the corner of the end zone to add another 6 points for Merseyside. The XP was converted, and with little over 5 minutes left in the half, Merseyside were up 29-13.
Manchester came out to try and score before half time, but the Nighthawks defence had stiffened up and forced a quick 3 and out. With the ball at about half way, Merseyside were forced into a punting situation, after a big sack by the Manchester defence. HC Pennington dialled up a fake punt, which was snuffed out by Manchester. They would make Merseyside pay on the ensuing drive.
After Bloomfield had led the Titans to about the Nighthawks 30 yard line, Merseyside had appeared to kill the drive, before a more than contentious penalty flag for pass interference renewed the Manchester drive. With the ball at the 12 yard line, Sam Bloomfield found a receiver open in the end zone as time expired. They successfully added the 2 point conversion to head into half time trailing 29-21 to Merseyside.
If the first half had ended with Manchester building some momentum, that cranked up a notch when returner Eager had the ball stripped from him on the kick return. Manchester pounced on the loose ball, and suddenly the game was swinging towards the Titans.
Sensing the chance to grab the momentum further, Bloomfield led the Titans to a quick drive that pinned Merseyside deep in their own 10 yard line. Facing 4th and goal from the one yard line, Manchester brought in their big DL Michael McGougan in as a full back and motioned Bloomfield out to receiver. The RB lined up as a wildcat, took the snap and just as it appeared he might find a way through, the Nighthawks Defensive Line stuffed the runner and stopped him short on the 3 yard line.
The big stop seemed to re-invigorate the Nighthawks, and #3 Tshimanga took the ball 87 yards on the very next play to extend the lead for the home team. Finding a hole up the middle, LT turned a short gain into a touchdown by outrunning the Titans defence. The XP took the score to 36-21.
Manchester quickly went 3 and out as they were forced to chase the game. The Nighthawks then also went 3 and out, and this appeared to galvanise the Titans. Making the Nighthawks punt from their own 15 yard line they blocked the punt from Matt O’Connell, who could only watch as the ball swirled towards the Nighthawks end zone. The Titans special teams swarmed to the ball and recovered it in the end zone for a Touchdown. They failed with the 2 pt conversion and Merseyside led 36-27.
This gave the ball back to the Nighthawks, who took time off the clock with a long, 15 play drive. After converting on 4th and 3 at midfield, Routledge was able to find an edge on the Manchester defence, and took the ball to the corner of the end zone for the score. The XP was added by Eager, and the Nighthawks held a commanding 43-27 lead.
With time now running out on Manchester, QB Bloomfield threw his 3rd interception of the day, again to a grateful Weekes. Again, Merseyside would make them pay, as from the very first play from scrimmage, LT ran the ball in from 18 yards, carrying defenders into the end zone for his 3rd TD of the day. Coach Pennington sent on the field goal team, who added on the XP, and the Nighthawks were up 50-27.
With the home team now rotating players in, the Titans continued to play, and a long ball downfield, from Bloomfield to their wide receiver, put them deep in the Nighthawks red zone. Facing 4th and goal, Bloomfield found an uncovered receiver in the end zone to add on 6 more for the Titans. The 2 point conversion failed, and the score sat at 50-33 to Merseyside.
Despite an onside kick attempt, and an ensuing punt to the Titans 5 yard line, that would be the end of the scoring as the Nighthawks closed the game out to take a firm grip on the number 2 spot in the Premiership North. The Nighthawks now have 2 weeks off, before making the long trip up north of the wall vs Edinburgh on June 9th.