Tristan Varney’s long awaited return to the Birmingham Lions helped spur his side to a devastating 71-6 victory over the Nottingham Outlaws at xpLosION.
Nottingham quarterback Luca Rossoni threw an interception to veteran defensive back Greg Freeman to give Varney the easiest possible start, taking possession of the football close to the Outlaws’ ten yard line. With his first pass of the game, he found an uncovered Stefan Rowden close to the left sideline for an easy touchdown.
Nottingham took to the field needing to get a foothold in the game against the hosts, who were overwhelming favourites before the game, but failed to convert their next three plays into a first down. With the Outlaws punting from close to their own goal line, the last thing the visitors needed was a bad snap, but that was exactly what they got. Nottingham recovered the ball, but the punter was taken down inside the end zone for a safety. From the resulting kickoff, star running back Dan Conroy ran all the way back for his first touchdown of the night on a reverse.
By the end of the first quarter the Lions were 21-0 up, courtesy of Varney’s second touchdown; this time Michael Napper was the beneficiary of soft Outlaws coverage. Second string running back Eni Osonaike put the game almost beyond doubt at 27-0 for the Lions’ first rushing TD, as it became abundantly clear to the thousands of spectators gathered along the sidelines, as well as those watching live on Guild TV, that Nottingham were woefully unable to compete with the ruthlessly efficient Lions offensive unit.
Nottingham finished last year with a 5-3 record, but will need to take huge strides forward in all three phases of the game if they are to finish above .500 this year. They conceded three more touchdowns before halftime, Dan Conroy getting two of those, and yet again allowed Birmingham to tackle the punter in the end zone after another dreadful snap. The score at halftime was 49-0, with no realistic chance for the Outlaws to salvage anything from the contest.
The second half was a little more of a contest, with Birmingham’s energy levels seeming to drop with the game already wrapped up and the Outlaws getting more total yardage than the Lions in the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, the Lions were first on the scoreboard again in the second half, as yet another running back, Angus Hotchkies, worked his way through the Outlaws defence to add six more points to the total. The extra point attempt was botched, as Jonny Glover was unable to set the ball down for Chris Riley. Instead, last year’s starting quarterback Glover picked up the ball and somehow managed to find a receiver for a two point conversion.
The Outlaws deserve some credit for not letting their heads drop despite the monumental deficit facing them and they were rewarded with a consolation touchdown in the third quarter. Rossoni, who produced a much more measured and professional performance in the final two quarters, managed to pick out Ben Colllis for the visiting side’s only points of the game. The extra point attempt was no good as the Outlaws special teams unit let their side down once again.
At 57-6 and with no need to risk injuries to any of their star players, Varney was pulled from the field at the end of the third quarter. Birmingham’s coaching staff must have been delighted by his opening day showing, as he showed no signs of rust on his comeback. Particularly impressive was his ability to check the ball down to one of his receivers when pass rushers were closing in despite Sunday being his first competitive action since suffering a serious knee injury. Dan Conroy, arguably the best Lions performer in the first half, stayed on the bench for the duration of the third and fourth quarters. Between Conroy, Varney and a very deep group of receiving and rushing options, Birmingham may well have enough to break their losing streak in BUAFL finals, having fallen agonisingly short over the last two years.
The fourth quarter was something of a formality, although the performance of backup quarterback Alex Wake deserves mention. He led Birmingham on two more touchdown drives, throwing to predominantly second string and rookie receivers. Oliver Ashton caught Wake’s only touchdown pass of the night and Michael Franklin finished off proceedings as he ran untouched into the end zone.
In post game interviews, head coach Wayne Hill was understandably very upbeat about his team’s performance, paying particular credit to Tristan Varney on offence and Sam Marshall on the defensive side of the ball. Hill must now prepare his side for a trip to Midland Athletic Conference newcomers Lincoln in their first ever BUAFL match. With a comprehensive opening day victory already in the bag, Great Britain and Birmingham coach Hill will have supreme confidence in his side’s ability to execute against an outfit very little is known about. If his team can maintain the level of performance seen on Sunday, few people would bet against the Lions from making yet another deep playoff run and maybe, just maybe, vanquishing the demons of the past two seasons to take the championship trophy back to Brum.