The Cheetahs returned to St Albans in style this week, putting up 50 points on the hotly-tipped Berkshire Renegades, SFC 2 conference winners in the 2016 season.
It didn’t look like as if that would be the case early on, as a fumble on the first offensive snap for the Cheetahs gave the ball back to the Berkshire outfit in prime position, undoing the good work done by the defence on the opening drive. They came up big again, with safety Mark Foster delivering a tone-setting blow to jar the ball loose and help stall the drive.
The strong running game that featured so heavily against Hastings returned with added emphasis, as the Cheetahs took turns to run inside and out all the way into the redzone, before fullback Craig Cudmore slammed the ball home form short yardage. Multiple tackles in the backfield by the D brought out the Renegades punt unit, but a high snap gave the Cheetahs the ball inside the redzone again and 2016 MVP Adam Adeniji duly converted, running a toss play in at the edge for his first of the 2017 season. Cudmore converted the two point try.
Berkshire seemed to come alive on the next drive, a deep shot placing them well inside Cheetahs territory. They saw a touchdown pass negated by an offensive pass interference flag, only to convert another pass a couple of plays after and remind the home side that there was still all to play for. The XP attempt was scuffed and no good. Conor Wilson’s quickness as a kick returner set the home side up on the 50 and the next drive was over almost as soon as it began, as QB Jason Scurfield connected first over the middle and then deep over the top with receiver Ben Weeks for the touchdown. TJ Ajayi did well to convert the two points despite last-ditch tackling attempts on the goal line.
Renegades stuck to their air game and the Cheetahs defence lapped it up, forcing another 3 and out. A good rush and pressure made the Renegades punter put the ball out just inside the Cheetahs half giving the black and yellow a great starting field position.
Scurfield was in rhythm now, leading a fluid drive down the field into the Renegades redzone. A smart boot out and deep ball almost provided another TD, but a defensive pass interference in the end zone made the Cheetahs job easier as the ball was spotted inside the Renegades 5. This opened the door for Adeniji to power inside for another score – he got up to convert the two points and close out the half. Cheetahs went into the break up 30-6.
Starting at their own 20, the Cheetahs began to mix up the calls and confounded the defence. A wide combination of QB keepers, pass plays and runs marched the home side swiftly down the field, until a pinpoint pass found Ajayi who fought well to win the individual battle and bring the ball down in the end zone. Conor Wilson converted the two points with a nifty run to the outside.
The kick team were in no mood to let up, Charles Quincy bringing down the returner on their own 5 yard line, although a flag brought Berkshire out past the 15. Perhaps the flag fired up the D – either way cornerback Tom Hutton took it upon himself to make a play with an acrobatic interception immediately after.
A first punt from the home offence on the next drive put the defence back on the field sooner than they may have liked… but they took things into their own hands once again, quite literally for defensive lineman Ben Bruce who’s pressure on the Renegades quarterback was rewarded with the ball dropping into his hands for the pick.
Berkshire heads seemed to droop a little after that and the game wound down somewhat, drives exchanged before a loopy ball landed in the lap of safety Foster for the third Cheetahs interception of the game. A key swat from Ben Brown at cornerback seemed to give the D the advantage on 3rd and long, but the Renegades quarterback saw the opportunity to throw deep and connected with his receiver to give the away side their second score of the afternoon, along with a successful two-point conversion.
The Cheetahs were stung a little and answered right away, with running back Jake Ingles putting together a number of back-to-back gains before breaking big on a toss play for a 47 yard run all the way home. With the game now in the bag, everyone wanted to get in on the action and another defensive lineman – this time rookie Ryan Hargreaves – picked off the Berkshire quarterback and managed an impressive return before being brought down inside the redzone. The home side missed the ensuing field goal, but once again the defence gave them the ball back for another attempt – this time it was linebacker Josh Kent leaping high to pluck the ball out of the air. Again the Cheetahs ploughed through the Berkshire defence, with good plays from Ajayi and Ingles taking the Cheetahs down inside the 10 before Cudmore converted yet again.
Despite an audacious attempt from the Berkshire running-back to take the ball home from the Cheetahs 40 on the last play of the game (and he almost did…), that was to be the end of the scoring. Cheetahs won the game 50-14, and go to 2-0 on the season.
Speaking after the game, interim HC Roger Brown was pleased but cautious:
“[It was] an important win over a team who appear to be our rivals within our conference at this early stage of the season. On the surface, it appeared a divisive contest, however our competitors were having their opening game against us and we already had one win already under our belt. Coupled with the Easter weekend and all the issues that comes with, it could be that we faced a weaker team on the day and were able to surprise our opponents with our state of readiness. What’s clear is that the Renegades are a well coached and structured team with clear weapons on the field and, when we play them again, I’m sure we will face an awoken dragon.”