Varsity Bowl XIII was hosted this year by the Pythons under the Friday night lights at Cambridge’s prestigious University Rugby stadium, the Grange. The last time the Lancers played at this stadium it was for Varsity Bowl IX, which sadly ended in a 16-0 regular season Lancers loss. Prior to that Oxford have lost one and tied one in Cambridge. The last Oxford win in Cambridge was 1995, however the Varsity bowl had a hiatus after that game until to 2012. Varsity Bowl XI was the last time Oxford visited Cambridge, and that ended with the Lancers suffering a heartbreaking loss following double over time.
The Lancers had a shaky start to 18-19 season. Incoming Head Coach Ian Hiscock was unlucky not to get at least one win from the first four games of the regular season, with the Lancers losing three of them by seven points or less. Yet in the second half of the season, the Lancers won three back to back, including a momentous 48-0 thrashing of their cross town rivals, the Oxford Brookes Panthers, resulting in silverware ; the Cavalier Cup. With that win the Lancers felt confident coming into this game on a three game winning streak. The Lancers finished the regular season with a 3-4 record.
Meanwhile the Pythons also obtained three wins in the regular season (and three loses). This was enough for them to make the playoffs, which they lost away at the Royal Holloway bears 22-16.
Kickoff: Quick start for the Pythons
With the home crowd sitting comfortably behind both sidelines, the Lancers kicked off and Python RB Simeon Kakpovi returned the ball for around fifteen yards after making some excellent moves. On the very next play, Kakpovi got away from being tackled in the backfield before turning on the gas and dodging tackles, until finally, Jesse Rose (Lancers CB and WR) made a touchdown preventing tackle at the ten yard line. Though with that 58 yard pick up, the Pythons looked motivated and physically strong. A Cambridge penalty and a tackle for loss from Lancers DT Rory Smith, wasn’t enough to stop the Pythons, as they opened the scoring with a an eight yard pass from QB Ethan Brown to WR Jonny Holland. They converted the point after to establish a 7-0 lead.
After receiving a touchback from the ensuing kick return, the Lancers dialled up a run play, but the Cambridge defense stacked the box to stop the run. You cannot blame them given that in the past three Varsity Bowls, Lancers RB Connor Thompson has run for 460 yards and seven touchdowns on them. The Pythons physical defense forced the Lancers into a three and out from their own twenty forcing them to punt.
Sadly the snap went over Connor’s head (who is also the Lancers punter), and the ball rolled out the back of the end zone for a Pythons safety. Within 13 plays the Lancers were down 9-0 and the home crowd were getting louder.
With the Pythons starting at the 50 yard line and proving they had a run game, the Lancers defense had to dig deep to make something happen. After two tackles for a loss, the Pythons went to the air on a swing play, but the hungry defense swarmed and LB Atakan “AK” Keskin & FS Max Rumbol combined to knock the ball loose, with defensive end Tom Rizvi pouncing on the ball.
With a short field (31 yards) the Lancers knew they had to come away with something. The Pythons continued to stack the box, daring the Lancers to pass the ball. With QB Will Szymanski having played 46 games for the Lancers, he showed his abundance of experience and his 52 career passing TDs proves he is not shy to throw the ball. Two back to back strikes to the dominant Jesse Rose for a combined twenty yards and a third to Chris “Megatron” Nowek put the ball at the one yard line. Connor Thompson rumbled his way in for the score with some excellent blocking up front from a slightly make shift offensive line that saw Atakan Kesin playing both left guard and linebacker. The PAT was no good making the score 9-6 to the home team.
After another decent kick return the Pythons went back to their run game, but Rory Smith once again wreaked havoc in the backfield, making back to back tackles for loss which effectively killed the drive. the Pythons were forced to punt, giving the ball back to the Lancers at around the 50 yard line. Again the Pythons stacked the box, which opened up the passing game. Szymanski popped back and dropped a perfect pass to wily veteran receiver, Andy Badger, who picked up 31 yards from the catch. Two plays later and Jesse Rose was on the receiving end of a fast ball from Szymanski, and Rose scored a 17 yard touchdown. This was Rose’s ninth touchdown of the season, which broke the Lancers record for receiving touchdowns; even more amazing given he did this in one season! Rose tried to run the ball in for 2 on a sweep but was stopped, but the score was now 9-12 in the Lancers favour.
The Pythons again made it to half way after a dangerous kick return, but the Lancers defense came up with yet another massive turnover. On the first play of the drive, FS and defensive captain Max Rumbol did just enough to force the fumble, and who else but Jesse Rose was there to scoop up the ball and tack on another fifteen or so yards.
Now the Lancers had another short field to strike. Szymanski passed the ball to four different receivers on this drive; Jamie Fowler, (one of the Lancers offensive captains) picked up seven yards, Andy Badger with five yards, Connor Thompson for a few yards, and Jesse Rose for ten yards leaving us at the five yard line. Despite the strong run defense from the Pythons, they could not stop Connor Thompson’s stiff arm, as he popped his run outside for his 9th rushing touchdown of the season, breaking the Lancers season touchdown record, previously held by Szymanski. The PAT was good and the Lancers were now up 9-19.
To Half Time
The last few drives before the half became a sloppy affair. The Pythons gave up yet another fumble on their next drive, with incoming President Stewart Humble getting the sack, forced fumble and recovery.
Despite another short field, the Lancers turned over the ball via an interception, which led to an exchange of punts. Cambridge fielded a punt and returned it for the touchdown, but it was called back due to a block in the back. With little time left in the half they failed to do much and the half time score remained 9-19 to the Lancers.
A Bizarre Second Half
Despite being down the Pythons still looked physically stronger, outnumbering the Lancers by about 10 or so players, and with so many Lancers playing both ways it meant the away team had to play smart and control the clock. The Lancers were nursing a few injuries by this point, but with the Pythons now worried about the pass game, they changed their line up, which in turn gave Szymanski and Thompson some room to pick up some much needed first downs on the ground. Veteran Jamie Fowler also picked up a crucial first down. The nine play drive bled some of the clock and moved the ball some thirty plus yards before the Lancers punted.
The Lancers forced a quick three and out via two back to back tackles for losses, one from S Leon Hughes, the Lancers moved the ball quickly downfield via a defensive pass interference but sadly they too turned the ball over via fumble inside the Pythons twenty yard line.
Then came an almighty long drive from the Pythons. 17 plays on the field which included multiple penalties from both teams saw the ball move forward and back dramatically. Ten of these plays were short runs which practically drained the rest of the third quarter. The highlight of this drive was when DE Tom Rizvi notched a drive killing 15 yard sack, but two dubious penalties from the Lancers gave the home team a fresh set of downs. Three plays later the Pythons went for it on fourth down, but the ball was incomplete.
Sadly the Lancers offense were intercepted after 2 plays, meaning the rather gassed Lancers D were back on the field after their immense 17 play stand. With a short field the Pythons were soon at 4th down and six on the Lancers seven yard line. They opted to go for the TD via the air. The Lancers were in great coverage, as S Leon Hughes tipped the ball before CB Richard Matheson knocked the ball out of the receiver’s hands. A massive celebration ensued when Matheson held his nerve in the biggest moment. Matheson quietly had a great game, holding his own despite being targeted by the Pythons QB a number of times.
Yet the game was not over. With just minutes to go, the Lancers needed to bleed the clock and gain some field position, as they started the drive from their own seven yard line. A 19 yard strike to Jesse Rose and then a further 14 moved the chains quickly for the Lancers, but the Pythons knew the Lancers would then run the ball and they forced the away team to punt once more.
Now the Pythons had a mountain to climb, with QB Ethan Brown having to sling it deep. The ball hung in the air, and after competing for the ball Jesse Rose came down with the interception. Yet four plays later the Lancers fumbled, but with such little time surely the Pythons would not be able to do much, and in turn they too fumbled, giving the Lancers the ball with enough time to kneel it out. The second half saw five turnovers in what was a bizarre period of football.
Both sets of fans would surely be pleased by the gripping drama on display, with big plays, and both teams playing their heart out for the Varsity trophy.
As per usual with the Varsity Bowl games, both teams come together in the middle. The Losing team picks the MVP from the winning team. Outgoing President and offensive captain Will Szymanski gracefully lifted the Varsity Bowl. He was also awarded the MVP trophy by the Pythons, as he finished with 15/30 for 171 yards, one touchdown; passing the ball to no less than five different receivers.
29 runs for 47 yards
4 of 18 passes for 24 yards. 1 TD and 1 INT
Total. 47 plays for 71 yards
25 runs for 47 yards and 2 TDs
15 of 30 passes for 171 yards. 1 TD, 2 INTs
Total. 55 plays for 218 yards.
MVP: Will Szymanski
MVP: Jesse Rose
OMVP: Jesse Rose
DMVP: Rory Smith
Hammer: Oscar Rahnama
Special Teams: Connor Thompson
Juice: Richie Matheson for his pass deflection