Kuopio Steelers smother Helsinki Wolverines to capture Finland’s Maple Bowl crown

Fans hoping for a high scoring football game may have been disappointed, but that didn’t shrink the smiles on the faces of those in the Kuopio Steelers organization when the final whistle sounded in the Finnish title game. The heavily favored top seed lived up to their reputation, taking their first ever Maple Bowl title in a comfortable 21-0 shutout. After three consecutive Kuopio scores to open the ball game, the Steelers defense smothered any attempts at a Wolverines comeback for four near perfect quarters of play.

In a game that featured few highlight reel plays, the Steelers gave those in attendance some early excitement on their very first drive when veteran quarterback Seth Peters spun away from Helsinki defender Ville Valasti on third and ten, rolling out to find Tino Ndongo a step behind coverage for a 53 yard catch down to the Helsinki two-yard line. Three plays later, star import Lamar Carswell leapt over the pile to put the first points on the board. After Semmie Radji tipped Helsinki quarterback Christopher Forcier’s third down pass on the next drive, the Steelers got the ball back and went to work. The electric Carswell caught a screen pass and followed the big men up front before cutting back against the grain, racing 56 yards into the red zone. Going for it on 4th down, Peters shoveled the ball to fullback Ville Lindsten, who followed pulling guard Elmeri Saastamoinen four yards up the middle to paydirt. Just over eight minutes into the football game, the Steelers had produced the two largest plays of the day and scored their final offensive points.

Kuopio Steelers star RB Lamar Carswell leaving defenders sprawling Photo: Jari Turunen

While the offense may have finished producing points, the Steelers defenses wasn’t quite so satisfied. On the ensuing drive, safety Max De Falcis jumped a Forcier pass intended for Sebastien Gauthier and the Frenchman raced 45 yards to the endzone to put Kuopio up 21-0. The two teams would then settle into a  defensive deadlock, making the De Falcis pick six the final scoring play of the 2020 Maple Bowl.

Kuopio continued to maintain pressure for the remainder of the first half but fell short, failing to convert on fourth down twice in Wolverines‘ territory. Helsinki finally got a drive going to end the second quarter, marching 64 yards in 14 plays thanks to big plays from Sebastien Sagne and Cedric Johnson. After a Tommy Kaczocha personal foul made it first and goal, Steelers defenders Aatu Suhonen and Bartosz Bednarczyk stuffed the Wolverines for three straight losses. Sagne couldn’t outjump Iiro Pekkarinen on the final endzone toss and Helsinki turned it over on downs to end the half.

The Wolverines threatened to score once again to start the second half after a Sagne kickoff return and Niko Kantonen catch across the middle got them into plus territory right off the bat. Kuopio defensive end Semmie Radji quickly put the optimism on ice, bursting around tackle Mikko Rajala for a sack before Kadel King tackled Forcier short of the sticks to force a turnover on the fourth down scramble. The Wolverines offense would not see the Steelers‘ half again until their final drive of the fourth quarter when a pass intended for Micky Kyei was intercepted by Roni Laine, allowing the Steelers to run out the clock and secure their victory.

Kuopio RB Lamar Carswell getting hauled down Photo: Jari Turunen

Kupio locked down their first Maple Bowl win with a complete defensive performance. Helsinki quarterback Christopher Forcier was held to just eight of 21 passing for 118 yards and two interceptions, while Micky Kyei was nearly erased from the rushing equation with just 24 yards on 11 carries. Defensive linemen Semmie Radji and Aatu Suhonen led the way, each recording three tackles for loss while Radji had two sacks to Suhonen’s one. All-Star linebackers AJ Wentland and Kadel King played easy mop up duty in behind, while corner Iiro Pekkarinen led the group with four tackles and a pass breakup. Overall, it was a complete stifling of every aspect of Helsinki’s offense.

The game’s MVP, Lamar Carswell, had a pedestrian game by his standards but did more than enough to secure victory. The dazzling import had 98 yards on 23 carries, one 56-yard catch and a touchdown to cap a rookie season for the ages. Quarterback Seth Peters, vindicated in his third straight title game appearance, controlled the game by going 13 of 21 passing for 176 yards and a touchdown. Tino Ndongo led the Steelers with 73 yards receiving thanks to his long opening drive catch, but it was German Max Zimmerman who caught the most passes with five receptions for 40 yards. Backup up Finnish running back Aku Uotila doesn’t look like much on the stat sheet, but he ground out 59 yards on the final series before going backwards 69 yards to ice the clock.

Kuopio Steelers celebrating their first ever Finnish championship title Photo: Jari Turunen

While the offense disappeared, Helsinki’s defense played admirably in defeat, holding Kupio scoreless after the first quarter and forcing four turnovers on downs. Star Swede William James racked up nine tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss to lead his unit, while Sebastien Gauthier and Ville Valasti also had noticeable impacts.

After three quarters of grinding, defensive football, Steelers players erupted in uncontrollable jubilation. For many, this championship represents the culmination of years of blood, sweat and tears that have brought them tantalizingly close to the mountain top before. Now, they’ve finally broken through.

In an unprecedented season, Finland overcame the hurdles presented by COVID-19 and, with the whole world watching, proved high-level football could be played safely. There are some who might place an asterisk beside the Steelers championship, given that the eight-time defending champion Helsinki Roosters chose to play without imports this year. The Steelers should have none of it. They earned their title with consistently dominant play and hard work, showing they can be one of the finest teams in Europe when given the chance.

Asterisks are for the losers.

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.