Following a historic 2016 season which saw the Saints claim a undefeated record and a 3rd championship title, expectations were high for the success to continue into Division 1.
Head Coach Andrew Day always wants to give his players a firm test at the start and this tradition continued with friendly fixtures against the premiership Farnham Knights and the Division 2 North champions, Leicester Falcons.
With a large number of returning veterans and a number of rookies, Oxford entered the preseason with a healthy squad size but were lacking experience at the quarterback position. Their American quarterback Destin Maulding lead the 2016 team to a Division 2 championship but left before the 2017 season.
Oxford were defeated in both preseason games but they achieved Andrew Day’s aim of testing his players against strong opponents whilst getting rookies their first experience of American Football.
During the offseason, Maulding returned to the US and there was a hole at the quarterback position. Competition for the spot came from Ben Denton who was the quarterback for the Saints playoff season in 2015, but dropped out due to illness towards the end and missed the majority of the 2016 season too.
Kyle Swann was the #2 quarterback in 2016. It was his first year at the position and he took over from Destin Maulding in some games but overall had limited experience.
During the Division 2 South Final however, Maulding suffered a hamstring injury before half time and Swann steadied the ship for the remainder of the game, helping Oxford secure a 24-2 win over the Cambridgeshire Cats.
Up next was Marcus Alphonso, a young quarterback joining the Saints who had some experience at youth but no kitted football. With lots of potential and a strong arm, Alphonso saw game time early in 2017 but stood down for the remainder of the season and it is not yet known if he’ll be back in 2018.
Placed in the SFC1 Central following promotion in 2016, the Saints were alongside Sussex, Solent, South Wales and Ouse Valley. Due to the 5 team conference, it was decided that the Saints would play Sussex and Ouse Valley three times and two games against both Solent and South Wales.
Oxford soundly beat South Wales, Ouse Valley and Solent Thrashers throughout the year but lost all three games against the Sussex Thunder, including a very close 13-12 defeat.
The later stages of the season saw the Saints stumble and take heavy losses from Solent and the Ouse Valley Eagles on the return visits, dealing a severe blow to their playoff hopes.
Game 1 – LOSS – Oxford VS Sussex
Entering their second year at Oxford’s new home venue Tilsley Park, the Saints began the season by hosting the Sussex Thunder.
A tough opponent who were promoted to Division 1 in 2015, they were also responsible for knocking Oxford out of the playoffs in the 2015 quarter final 50-13.
In the opening game of the 2017 season, the Saints struggled against the conference favourites and did not find the endzone until the 3rd quarter when James Walter scored on a 43 yard touchdown run. By this point however, the Thunder were up 35-8 and claimed their first win of the year.
Oxford 8-35 Sussex
Game 2 – WIN – Oxford @ South Wales
Their first away game of the year, Oxford travelled to South Wales to take on the Warriors, who were recently competing in the premier division but asked for voluntary relegation due to concerns of completing another season at the top level.
Rookie quarterback Marcus Alphonso made his first start in the game and led the Saints to a narrow 13-6 victory in a scrappy affair.
South Wales made progress in the air with 208 passing yards whilst Oxford stuck with their reliable ground and pound game, including a 156 yard / 2 touchdown performance by James Walter.
Oxford 13-6 South Wales
Game 3 – WIN – Oxford VS Ouse Valley
Two teams that had not yet met on the field, the Ouse Valley Eagles were formed a few years ago in a merger between the Bedfordshire Blue Raiders and the Milton Keynes Pathfinders.
The Saints put on a strong display at Tilsley Park to secure a 35-14 win. The game started close with both teams delivering touchdowns in the first quarter and former Saint Mike Turner causing damage with the Eagles defensive unit, claiming two interceptions.
A half time score of 14-14 was converted to 35-14 in Oxford’s favour with Tony Glover running in three touchdowns in the second half and a strong defensive performance which allowed only 54 yards to the Eagles.
Oxford 35-14 Ouse Valley
Game 4 – LOSS – Oxford @ Sussex
The first of two back to back road games against the Thunder, Oxford were handed a 26-14 loss in Brighton.
The day started well with a competitive first quarter but the Saints fell behind when Sussex scored three touchdowns in quick succession. This sent Oxford into half time with a 19-0 deficit when the game was 0-0 just a few minutes earlier.
Oxford’s defense improved in the second half and held the high-powered Thunder offense to just one score, along with gaining 3 interceptions.
The offense found their momentum and put together sustained scoring drives with James Walter picking up 2 touchdowns, but couldn’t overcome the half time hole.
Oxford 14-26 Sussex
Game 5 – LOSS – Oxford @ Sussex
The third and final game against the Thunder was a much closer afternoon. The Saints suffered an agonising 13-12 defeat after having the lead in the 4th quarter.
It was a strong performance all game long, especially from the defense and a missed extra point was the decider.
The Thunder finished the 2017 season with a perfect 10-0 record but no doubt feel lucky that their year was not tarnished with a loss to the Saints in this matchup.
Oxford 12-13 Sussex
Game 6 – WIN – Oxford VS Solent
After two defeats in three weeks at the hands of Sussex, the Saints needed to return to winning ways and did so in style with a 33-14 victory against the Solent Thrashers at home.
With James Walter at quarterback for the majority of the game, he had a star performance throwing 2 touchdowns to Sam Armstrong and running in another 2 himself, whilst picking up 142 rushing yards.
The defense however were less effective in the air which was exposed by quarterback Bradley Sawyers and the Thrashers offense, with the visitors getting 211 passing yards against the Saints.
Oxford 33-14 Solent
Game 7 – WIN – Oxford VS South Wales
Their only shut out of the season came against the former premier side with a dominating 42-0 win at Tilsley Park, sealing relegation for the Warriors to Division 2.
Both the offense and the defense were on form, with the Saints securing a 28-0 lead at half time and adding a further 14 points in the second half.
The defense were a formidable force allowing only 75 total yards, including 2 sacks and 1 interception.
Oxford 42-0 South Wales
Game 8 – LOSS – Oxford @ Ouse Valley
The turning point of the season, the Saints stumbled on a visit to Bedfordshire and suffered a 20-6 defeat.
The defense struggled to stop big plays from the towering running back Jamahl Alert and the offense gained 340 yards compared to 223 by the Eagles, but couldn’t convert it into points.
With the Saints previously expected to finish number 2 in the conference, the next 2 games became must-win’s in order to keep that goal alive.
Oxford 6-20 Ouse Valley
Game 9 – LOSS – Oxford @ Solent Thrashers
With a defeat from the Eagles in Game 8, the Saints could not afford another loss as there were now three teams who could finish the season with a 5-5 record (Oxford, Ouse Valley and Solent).
The Saints dealt with the Thrashers earlier in game 6 but struggled on the road to Southampton in a 40-21 loss. With key running back James Walter not kitting up for the game and Tony Glover also sidelined for the majority of it, the Saints were without their best offensive weapons.
Kyle Swann put in a good shift at quarterback but Oxford’s limited passing game could not keep pace with Solent’s, which saw Bradley Sawyers slinging three touchdowns to Dayle Greenfield alone.
Oxford 21-40 Solent
Game 10 – WIN – Oxford VS Ouse Valley
With elimination from the playoffs now looking likely following the loss to the Thrashers, the Saints required both a win over the Eagles and for the 0-9 South Wales Warriors to defeat the Thrashers in their final game.
Oxford took a 14-3 lead at half time with Tony Glover and Sam Armstrong finding the endzone, but the visitors crept back in with big plays from Kase Chibwe who scored two touchdowns and Nick Tilbury threw a third.
In rainy weather, the Saints took back the lead late in the 4th quarter with a 34 yard field goal from Sam Fielden, followed by a defensive stop on the next Eagles drive to seal the win.
With Solent defeating the Warriors competently on the same day, Oxford were eliminated from the playoff race but claimed the 3rd spot in the SFC1 Central conference.
Oxford 24-22 Ouse Valley
Although a 5-5 record for their first year back in Division 1, the Saints would have had their eyes set on another playoff run following wins over the Warriors, Thrashers and Eagles. All they had to do was repeat those performances to secure the #2 spot behind the undefeated Sussex Thunder.
Losses on the road to Ouse Valley and Solent proved their undoing, with the Game 9 loss to Solent being the finishing blow.
Oxford relied on their strong run game and tough defense this year, with only 2 receiving touchdowns (both in Game 6 by Sam Armstrong).
The lack of a established quarterback may have also caused the Saints to lean on their run game more frequently. Running backs James Walter and Tony Glover continued to be the foundation of the offense, contributing the most touchdowns throughout the year.
The addition of a new receivers coach late in the season should help improve Oxford’s passing threat in 2018.
Whilst the season may have ended sooner than hoped, Oxford can build on it’s success for 2018 and the Saints will be pleased that they ran the conference champions Sussex the closest.
With Division 1 playoffs starting soon, it will soon be determined which team from the south will be earning promotion to the top premiership tier.
South Wales are confirmed for relegation to Division 2 so there will be a vacant spot in the SFC1 Central conference, likely to be filled by another team being promoted to Division 1 but it is also possible that the league will re-align the conferences.
Either way, expect the Saints to be facing some new teams in 2018.