On EASTER SUNDAY, the Oxford Saints opened their division 1 campaign with a 35-8 loss to the Sussex thunder
Following promotion in 2016, this was the first contest of the regular season with both teams having a lot of history against each other.
Expected to be the toughest opponent the Saints will face in their conference this year, the Saints struggled to find the endzone until the 3rd quarter.
Before kickoff, both teams and spectators observed a 1 minute silence in memory of Roger Hedges. As general manager of the Oxford Saints, Roger was a big part of the club and passed away in 2007.
The game on Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of his passing and his daughter Kelly Hedges was the guest of honour to perform the coin toss.
Starting with the ball, Oxford’s offense with returning quarterback Ben Denton in charge were halted immediately by Sussex defenders. Running backs James Walter and Tony Glover were both tackled for minimal gains and the Saints were forced to punt on their opening possession.
Oxford’s defense made an equally strong display and forced a punt, following tackles from defensive end George Wright and safety Martin Fitzpatrick.
On their next drive, Sussex took advantage of a 15-yard Oxford penalty which gave them good field position. On 3rd down, veteran quarterback Eber Kington made a deep a pass to receiver Adam Fishlock who was in space and reeled in the ball for a 25-yard touchdown. Danny Wallace kicked the extra point.
With Oxford’s offense still struggling to make yards against a tough Sussex defense, they continued to end drives on 4th down with a punt. Towards the end of the 1st quarter, Sussex attempted a field goal from 27-yards out but the kick from Danny Wallace went wide right.
The Thunder extended their lead in the 2nd quarter when running back Ben Chukwu-Onu sprinted up the sideline on the first play of the drive. He ran into the endzone untouched for a 67-yard score and another extra point from Wallace.
Sussex continued to put pressure on the Saints and on 2nd down, a pass from Ben Denton was intercepted and returned for 25-yards, giving them good field position again.
Shortly after, Eber Kington completed another deep pass to Adam Fishlock who ran across the line for his 2nd touchdown of the day. Extra point from Wallace was good.
In the 3rd quarter, the Saints defense gained much needed momentum when linebacker Calvin Holmes intercepted a ball from Eber Kington and returned it 12-yards.
The offense with first year Marcus Alphonso now under centre were unable to capitalise on the forced turnover and gave the ball back to Sussex on 4th down.
Oxford then looked like they were going to force a turnover on 4th down themselves but Eber Kington showed his abilities once more, passing the ball into the hands of Daniel Branch for a 24-yard touchdown. Wallace remained consistent and added the extra point.
With Oxford desperate for a score of their own, first year quarterback Marcus Alphonso was intercepted and Dan di Lucia returned the ball all the way back for a 40-yard defensive touchdown. With another quick score and extra point kick, Sussex pulled ahead with a 35-0 lead.
Late in the 3rd quarter, Oxford rotated in 2nd year quarterback Kyle Swann. Running from Tony Glover and a pass to Sam Armstrong gave the Saints a 1st down. Swann then handed the ball off to Walter who broke through the Sussex defense behind blocking from Antonios Athanasiou and up the sideline for a 43-yard touchdown run.
Looking to cut the deficit, the Saints went for the 2 point conversion and Swann passed the ball to rookie receiver Andrey Kays for the extra points.
The 4th quarter saw both sides exchanging blows but neither were able to make it to the endzone. The Saints were finding their rhythm with longer drives gaining more yards, including a pass to Armstrong for a 22-yard gain.
Running from Walter and Glover added 1st downs but no scores.
Meanwhile, the Saints defense finished strong forcing back to back punts from Sussex but unfortunately the damage was already done.
Sussex 35-8 oxford – Final Score
On the ground, both teams gained similar yardage with the Saints gaining 151 and the Thunder 170. Both teams earned 12 first downs each but the main difference came in the air.
Veteran quarterback Eber Kington was 18-8-1 (attempts/completions/interceptions) on the day with 3 touchdown passes, 2 of them caught by Adam Fishlock. The Thunder added another score on the ground from Ben Chukwu-Onu
The Saints used all three of their quarterbacks who combined for 26-11-2, with 1 interception being returned for a score.
The single touchdown for Oxford came from a 43-yard run by James Walter in the 3rd quarter, followed by a 2 point catch from rookie Andrey Kays.
Despite the heavy scoreline, there were good performances to take away from Sunday and lots to build on for the season ahead.
While Sussex are heavily tipped to take the SFC1 Central title, we know that we can perform better then we did today. We are now fully focused on our trip to South Wales on 23rd April where we aim to prove that we can compete in Division 1 – Chairman Graeme Taylor
Next game for Oxford is on 23rd April away to South Wales Warriors. Next home game is on 7th May when the Ouse Valley Eagles travel to Oxford.