It’s an old cliché but this clash could be described as ‘a game of two halves’.
Before I get to the nitty-gritty of what actually happened, I’ll set the scene. Pulling up at the University complex, the rain is lashing down on the windscreen of my little Nissan Micra, which had performed miracles just staying on the rain swept motorways, I look out and I think to myself, ‘Was this really worth it?’
Hat. Scarf. Gloves on, I make my way to the pitch side with notebook and pen in hand and what I was about to witness, was in fact, worth the effort.
Loughborough started proceedings, after both sides had done their hardest to psyche each other out in the huddles, with Birmingham returning the ball to the Aces 40 yard line after a late hit was flagged.
Two pounding runs up the middle from GB running back Dan Conroy and then a pass to the flat put the Lions in a fairly strong position but after quarterback Jonny Glover rolled to his right on fourth down, he could not connect to wide receiver TeeJay Dar-Orunega, who should have done better.
Loughborough Aces quarterback Nick Jacquet entered the field knowing he would need a big day if the Aces offense were to prevail against a talented Lions defence but it could not have got off to a worse start, with only his second snap, a double effort from Sam Marshall and Denzil Byron brought Jacquet to his kness in the end zone to concede a safety and give Birmingham a very early lead. [ 2 VS 0 ]
The next Birmingham possession also brought points with Glover completing a throw to wide receiver Ben Brown, who had an excellent game, resulting in a touchdown and [ 8 VS 0 ] lead after the field goal attempt was blocked.
Jacquet took to the field for the second time and was hopeful of recouping some confidence and making yards on the Birmingham defence. Former league MVP Adam Hope was given his chance but was gang tackled, making just two yards.
With second and eight remaining, Jacquet was like a rabbit caught in the headlights of the Birmingham express, as he was once again sacked giving Loughborough no choice but to punt the ball away.
The rest of the quarter was played out with errors on both sides of the ball. Glover and Julian Morgan collided after the snap and fumbled but were able to retrieve the bouncing ball; while Loughborough quarterback Nick Jacquet was once again sacked after a fake handoff to Hope failed to distract the oncoming pass rush.
This meant Loughborough were left with no option but to punt the ball away, yet a lack of discipline by the Lions special team gave the Aces the ball back after a flag for roughing the kicker.
The Aces resumed the game in similar fashion to the way they began it with slot receiver Ben Burslem grinding to a halt after a big hit by defender Greg Pearson and then the inevitable sack on Jacquet came with the offensive line offering little protection resulting in a punt.
The next Lions possession saw them march on Loughborough with Glover being given the time of the day to pick a pass and he duly obliged, completing to wide receiver Drew Newiss for a 60 yard gain before being brought down by Aces linebacker Jean-Paul Jones.
Running back Dan Conroy then thought he had scored a mesmerising 20 yard run for it to be called back for illegal motion in the Birmingham backfield. The disappointment didn’t last long on the Lions sideline as two plays later Glover threw his second touchdown of the day, this time to Drew Newiss. The resulting field goal was fired wide left leaving Birmingham ahead by fourteen points. [ 14 VS 0 ]
The Loughborough offence skipped on to the pitch trying to motivate each other and instil some extra belief into what they were trying to do.
Quarterback Jacquet must by now have been thinking ‘what do I have to do to avoid falling on my ass?’… he was kept wondering after being brought to the ground once again as stand-out performer Sam Marshall lay on top of him.
Fortunately for the Aces, Jacquet was able to brush himself down and complete a well thrown pass to receiver John Mathewson who galloped forward to reach the first down marker.
After finally finding some rhythm, Jacquet managed to wriggle free of the Birmingham defensive line and scamper away for a 12 yard gain.
At last it looked like the Loughborough offence that had been so prominent in previous games had arrived, but it was a false dawn as just like that Sam Marshall pounced on a tip ball and sprinted 75 yards for a Birmingham defensive touchdown while the Loughborough sideline watched on in horror. [ 21 VS 0 ]
The half ended with Jacquet throwing an interception into the Birmingham end zone and defensive back AJay Crabbe coming away with the ball.
After the break Jacquet and the Loughborough Aces sprung out of the trap, surely knowing that if they were to avoid an embarrassing score line, they would need to step up their game and take it to Birmingham.
After connecting with slot receiver Chris Ossom, Jacquet scrambled to the left and was taken out by Great Britain defensive end Kyle Burrows who would injure his ankle on the play and be unable to continue.
Ben Burslem completed a big run for a first down before Loughborough would finally get on the scoreboard with a well thrown ball to Chris Ossom. The extra point was fumbled after the snap so the score remained [ 21 VS 6 ] to the Lions.
The Lions were aware that the tide was turning so they handed off to the reliable Dan Conroy but even he was thrown to the floor by the physically impressive linebacker, Jon Varney. Could the Aces actually come back from this?
Quarterback Sope Dirisu was now under centre for the Lions and began with a confident pass to Ben Brown but ultimately the drive would stall and Birmingham was forced to punt.
Adam Hope had so far been used as a battering ram for the Aces but was given a chance to shine, receiving the ball on three consecutive plays making almost 40 yards in the process. This new found faith in Hope resulted in Loughborough reaching the Birmingham 20 yard line only for a fumbled pass to ruin all their hard work and leave Birmingham gasping with a sigh of relief.
The Lions had a chance to close out the quarter on top but a fumbled snap gave Loughborough possession back immediately as the referee signalled for time.
A rejuvenated Aces offense carried on the feel good factor with Jacquet throwing to Ossom and Hope dancing through missed tackles as smiles turned to frowns amongst the Lions ranks.
After a series of penalties on both sides of the ball, Nick Jacquet rolled to the right looping the ball to running back Hope, who tip toed down the sideline and dived for the pylon. The call was good and Loughborough were serious contenders again. [21 VS 13]
Knowing that time was against them and a team in front of them capable of running down the clock, Head Coach Paul Sherratt decided to go for the onside kick, a brave decision that would prove unsuccessful as Birmingham gathered the ball.
Both sides were misfiring under the pressure and traded punts before Sope Dirisu threw to Drew Newiss to enter Loughborough territory leaving Aces fans fearing the worse.
After a misplaced throw and sack by Dirisu the pressure was on to convert third and long and he thought he had done when the Lions executed a screen play for Dan Conroy perfectly before it was brought back for a hold.
Loughborough had 2min 52 seconds left on the clock and would have to go the full length of the pitch if they were to force overtime, at the very least but a sack by Game MVP Josh Vine, ended all hopes and they conceded the game with about a minute remaining.
Birmingham showed today why they were runner-ups last season and why they are red hot favourites to make a finals appearance once again. They exploited the weaknesses on the Loughborough offence and executed some well drawn out plays.
Loughborough were in danger of being blown out of the water in the first half but they deserve huge credit for having the desire and ability to get back in to the game.
Birmingham Lions 21 VS 13 Loughborough Aces
*FightForTheYard would like to thank Sope Dirisu for the interview and Michael Gill for standing in the cold with him.*