Helsinki Wolverines squeak by Wasa Royals in Finnish playoff thriller

Seppo Evwaraye has seen it all. From his time at the University of Nebraska to stints with the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings, an excellent season in NFL Europe and illustrious career in Finland, the hulking lineman has played a lot of football games. The final game of the 38-year old’s career may top the bunch, even if the result leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth.

Evwaraye’s Wasa Royals (3-3) had a chance to topple the favored Helsinki Wolverines (4-2) but came up just short of advancing to the Maple League final, losing 42-41 in a back-and-forth playoff thriller. The loss came despite an all-time great performance from star Royals import Alpha Jalloh, who racked up 278 all-purpose yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. None of it was enough to stop the Wolverines‘ persistent comeback effort.

Helsinki found the end zone first on a day where big plays came by the bushel and defense was often hard to come by. On the third drive of the game, import quarterback Christopher Forcier found a streaking Sebastien Sagne in behind Royals‘ safety Viktor Manty for a 45 yard touchdown strike. The extra point attempt was blocked by Marrti Kass and the Royals answered back quickly. Wasa quarterback Brandon Gwinner connected with running back Nico Barrow as he ran free down the seam, sending him 52 yards to paydirt.

The single point margin wouldn’t last long, as pint sized Micky Kyei took a hand off on the next play from scrimmage, made one cut and sprinted 79 yards untouched for the touchdown through the hole provided by the Wolverines‘ O-line. The Helsinki two-point attempt failed and it came back to bite them three plays later, when Alpha Jalloh got a step on Sebatien Sagne and took the Gwinner pass 49 yards to retake the lead. The Royals entered the 2nd quarter up by a slim 14-12 margin.

Helsinki Wolverines WR Sebastian Gauthier Photo: Irja Vaateri/@ivgraphy

The Wasa offence was not content to sit on its heels in the second frame. Scrambling import Brandon Gwinner converted a crucial fourth down gamble with a cross body pass to Jalloh, then found his favorite target again on a swing pass that he bounced all the way down to the goal line. Two plays later, Gwinner ran the read option in himself as Ville Valasti crushed an empty-handed Nico Barrow.

Afforded a short field on the kickoff, the Wolverines came back swinging. Kyei bounced outside for a 33 yard run, then Forcier escaped pressure and scrambled the remaining 24 yards to the end zone to cut the deficit to three after a botched two point attempt. Peter Lundstrom took the ensuing kickoff 40 yards into plus territory, but Gwinner kept momentum on the Wolverines‘ side when he tossed his next pass into the waiting arms of import linebacker Oscar Vazquez-Dyer.

Unfortunately, Forcier returned the favor just three plays later. While running for his life, Forcier’s desperate pass was tipped in the air by Lamin Latikka and picked off by Jalloh. Jalloh finished off the ensuing drive by taking a jet sweep for an 18-yard score, following the physical lead blocking of Barrow who occupied two Wolverines defenders.

After a strong return from star Swedish defender William James, Micky Kyei again found the edge for 33 yards and Forcier hit Sagne for his second touchdown on a 15 yard corner route. In response, Wasa drove the field on the back of Barrow but were forced to settle for a 26 yard Santeri Kangas field goal. With no time left in the half, Forcier tried a final end zone heave to put the Wolverines on top but it was intercepted by Jalloh and the teams went into the locker rooms with the Royals holding a 31-25 lead.

It quickly became apparent that half-time defensive adjustments would do little to douse this Finnish barn-burner. On the second play of the third quarter, Jalloh hit Helsinki cornerback Elmeri Laalo with a stutter on his go route and Gwinner found him open deep for a 79-yard touchdown. The Wolverines exploited a coverage break of their own on the following drive. Jani Mannerbacka got caught looking in the backfield and Cedric Johnson slipped in behind for a 45-yard touchdown catch down the sideline.

Jalloh attempted to keep his team rolling with an electric 40 yard return but the Royals fell short after going for it on 4th down. A sprawling Cedric Johnson converted a fourth down gamble of Helsinki’s own and Forcier snuck in from one yard out to cap a 13 play, 73-yard drive. With the extra point, the Wolverines took a precarious one-point lead.

The Royals marched the field for the remainder of the third quarter, but Helsinki’s Artuu Ketonen drove on an inbreaking route to start the final frame and deflected the ball to his teammate Micky Kyei for the endzone interception. The Wolverines punted on the next drive and pinned Wasa inside their own 20-yard line, but Gwinner hit Markus Persson wide open for a 40-yard bomb right in the center of the field. After Jalloh couldn’t get his feet down on an endzone toss, Santeri Kangas hit his second field goal from 36 yards out to give the Royals a 41-39 lead with just over five minutes remaining.

Wasa Royals Alpha Jalloh was magnficient in defeat Photo: Irja Vaateri/@ivgraphy

With one chance left to seize the game, Helsinki quarterback Christopher Forcier took over. Using his legs and arms interchangeably, he took his team 70 yards in 10 plays and ate up the remaining clock, getting into the red zone with assistance from a Peter Lundstrom pass interference penalty in the endzone. For a moment, it seemed like Alpha Jalloh would play hero once again when he stripped the ball from Forcier on a mad dash to the endzone, but Kyei fell on the loose pigskin and Tomi Jokinen booted a 26-yarder to put Helsinki up by one. With 21 seconds remaining, Jalloh was unable to break free on a short pass from Gwinner and the Wolverines left the field cheering as time expired.

While Jalloh stole the show in defeat, Helsinki had more than its share of standout performances. Chris Forcier went 17 of 31 passing for 259 yards and three touchdowns through the air, while adding 75 yards and a score along the ground, managing the game admirably despite two interceptions. Receiver turned running back Micky Kyei finished with 11 carries for 157 yards and a touchdown to go along with his defensive interception. Fellow CFL Global Combine invitee Sebastien Sagne scored twice on nine receptions for 125 yards, while import Cedric Johnson had three catches for 83 yards and his own touchdown. Dominant Swedish linebacker William James was everywhere on defense with 9.5 tackles, while former Eastern Michigan defender Ville Valasti made his presence felt in the backfield with 3 tackles for loss.

Royals quarterback Brandon Gwinner was on target with the deep ball all day, going 15 of 27 for 338 yards and three touchdowns along with two picks, as well as 45 yards and a score along the ground. Running back Nico Barrow had double the workload following an early injury to Tom Suoste and responded with 93 yards rushing, 80 yards receiving and one touchdown on 17 touches. Import linebacker Zachary Blair led the defense with 7 tackles in a losing effort.

The Wolverines fought their way into the Finnish final with a gutsy performance, but after going shot for shot with Alpha Jalloh they have to refocus their efforts towards shutting down Kuopio’s Lamar Carswell next week. The Wolverines escaped one superstar import by the skin of their teeth, doing it again will take every weapon in their arsenal.

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.