Badalona Dracs survive early challenge and QB controversy in win over Zaragoza Hurricanes

The Badalona Dracs are no longer bulletproof in their throne atop Spanish football, but the four-time reigning LNFA champs have proven that if you are going to take a shot at the king, you better not miss.

The upstart Zaragoza Hurricanes, coming off back-to-back victories, made just such an attempt on Sunday, storming to an 13-7 lead over the Catalonian powerhouse in the first quarter. Before an unlikely upset could take shape however, the Dracs snapped back to reality and dominated an exhausted Hurricanes roster the rest of the way for a 41-13 victory.

After import Cory Benedetto struggled early, completing just 3-of-8 passing for 25 yards and an interception, the Dracs were sparked by veteran Spanish passer Sergi Gonzalo and rode with the homegrown product for the remainder of the afternoon. Gonzalo performed admirably, but it was the Dracs defense and special teams that ultimately made the difference, producing four takeaways, two scores and excellent field position throughout.

That would be apparent right from the get go. After both offenses sputtered on their opening drives, Badalona pinned the Hurricanes deep in their own end on the game’s third series. Forced to punt from their endzone, a low snap ricocheted off the legs of punter Antonio Dantart and Eduardo Cuenca fell on top for the Badalona touchdown.

Badalona Dracs WR Niko Lester #25 evading a tackle by Zaragoza Hurricanes DB David Perex #23 Photo: Badalona Dracs

The early deficit filled Zaragoza with fire. Quarterback Dustin Hawke Willingham took off up the middle for 24 yards on the first play of the next drive and running back Denzel Duchenne bounced outside for 18 more on the next play. Finally, Willingham finished the drive by hitting a streaking Luis Sanchez for a 23-yard touchdown to tie the game.

Zaragoza wasn’t done. The Dracs offense fell flat once again and a shanked punt gave the Hurricanes fantastic field position. With seemingly endless time in the pocket, Willingham waited patiently and made Badalona pay with a 24-yard touchdown strike to Angel Javier Marin.

After a blocked extra point, the Hurricanes possessed a surprising 13-7 lead and looked poised to extend it. The next drive began with a scrambling Cory Benedetto inexplicable throwing deep into triple coverage on first down, allowing a sprawling Denzel Duchenne to make a highlight reel interception, but the play would mark the end of the day’s positives for the Hurricanes.

Unable to overcome poor field position, Willingham threw a pick of his own to dynamic German-American Niko Lester and the Dracs took over on their opponent’s six-yard line. Desperate for a spark, Sergi Gonzalo trotted out on the field for the first time and proceeded to throw three straight incompletions. It wouldn’t matter, as Badalona gambled on fourth down and Gonzalo miraculously evaded a sack from Pablo Gomez, rolling left and hitting Jordi Rua for a toe-tapping touchdown catch. By the time Rua had extricated himself from the netting at the back of the endzone, the Dracs had a one point lead.

The Hurricanes swung big to regain momentum with a spectacular 22-yard diving catch by Duchenne but their troubles would quickly return. Willingham looked to the endzone and Niko Lester got away with some sly veteran interference, tipping the ball to himself for his second interception. The Dracs offense failed to capitalize, so the defense did it for them. When Willingham returned to the field, a diving Alex Gonzalez deflected the ball up for Lucas Masero to intercept. The Badalona defensive back turned on the jets, leaving Borja Vilella grasping for air with a nasty jump cut and trucking Luis Sanchez on his way into the endzone on a 55-yard return.

Badalona Dracs DE Eduardo Cuenca fighting off a block by Zaragoza Hurricanes OL Gabriel Rodriguez #67 en route to the QB Photo: Badalona Dracs

A bad snap on a late Badalona field goal attempt kept the score at 21-13 at the half, but the Dracs now had all the momentum on their side. Dario Dobrolevski put up a strong return to begin the third quarter, then added a 20 yard catch to put his team in the red zone, allowing Eduard Morlans to power in to the endzone from two yards out.

The under-manned and exhausted Hurricanes struggled to regain any of their early fire in the second half, but a Pablo Gomez forced fumble gave them an opportunity to stay in the two score game a the start of the fourth. A Nikolas Knoblauch sack slammed that door shut and Pol Cunillera blocked the ensuing punt to give his team excellent field position.

Rather than grind out the clock, Badalona went to the air. Jordi Rua gained 20-yards on a swing pass and then Gonzalo looked to the endzone, finding Dobrolevski at the pylon for a 25-yard score. Backed up by pressure and penalties again on the next drive, Willingham threw another interception to Lucas Masero and Gonzalo had no mercy, absorbing a hit from Michael Hall as he threw a beautiful 25-yard touchdown to Rua for the 41-13 silencer.

With the majority of their young roster playing both ways, the Hurricanes didn’t have the stamina to keep up with the Dracs in the second half. Quarterback Dustin Hawke Willingham took to the air often but completed just 7 of 25 passes for 97 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions, while the speedster from Surinam, Denzel Duchenne, ran out of gas after amassing 87 yards on 12 carries, 22 yards receiving and one interception. Import linebacker Michael Hall was noticeable on defense, as was defensive end Pablo Gomez with a sack and a forced fumble.

Zaragoza RB Denzel Duchenne #3 looking for running room with Dracs DB Lucas Masero #20 in pursuit Photo: Badalona Dracs

It was Badalona’s trademark athleticism on defense that wore out their opponent. Niko Lester and Lucas Masero each had a pair of interceptions and Mike Taylor III, Felipe Archilla, Nikolas Knoblauch and Pol Cunillera added sacks in the performance.

On offence, Sergi Gonzalo triggered the comeback and finished 12-of-24 for 180 yards and three scores. Austrian Dario Dobrolevski was the game’s busiest receiver with six catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, while Jordi Rua added three catches for 51 and two scores. Eduard Molina led the way in the backfield with six carries for 44 yards.

The win was an important one for the Dracs, who intensified their grip on second place in the Eastern Conference by advancing to 3-1 and made a playoff spot considerably tougher to obtain for the third place Hurricanes, now 2-3. The Catalonian powerhouse seem assured a chance to maintain their title but must sort out their burgeoning controversy at quarterback before another promising upstart completes what the Hurricanes couldn’t.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.