Lamar Carswell leads Kuopio Steelers past Seinäjoki Crocodiles in Finnish playoff victory

It was billed as a meeting of Finland’s top two rushing attacks, but only one had shown up as advertised when the final whistle blew in the Maple League semi-final between the Kuopio Steelers (5-1) and Seinäjoki Crocodiles (3-3) on Saturday.

Kuopio’s Lamar Carswell returned to his early season dominance, slashing through the Seinäjoki defense for 228 combined yards and four touchdowns on the way to a resounding 35-13 playoff victory. On the other side of the football, the league’s leading rusher Christian Powell was held to just 38 yards on 16 carries by a swarming Steelers defense that met him early and often in the offensive backfield.

Carswell’s day got off to an inauspicious start on the first drive of the game. After the Crocodiles failed on a surprise onside kick attempt, the Steelers looked set to score the games first points. Carswell took a handoff from quarterback Seth Peters and pinballed his way down to the goal line, only to have the ball ripped from his arms by defender Nate Robitaille. He wouldn’t be held back for long.

After Seinäjoki failed to escape the shadow of their own goal line, Carswell had four touches on the ensuing five play drive and finished by bouncing outside for a nine yard touchdown thanks to an edge sealing block by Canadian receiver Josh Vanderweerd.

The Crocodiles struggled to generate any meaningful momentum in response. After a Spencer Cutlan punt pinned the Steelers at their own five yard line, linebacker Veikka Lehtonen looked to have turned things around when he picked off a seam pass intended for Carswell and returned it for a touchdown, only to have it called back after defensive lineman Ander Roululette caused the errant throw with a facemask penalty against Peters. Early in the second quarter, Alexander Germany came  free on a safety blitz and stripped a scrambling Peters of the football but the Crocodiles failed to capitalize.

Kuopio Steelers defense celebrating win Photo: Jari Turunen

The score would remain deadlocked at 7-0 until a flurry of activity in the dying moments of the first half. Carswell hoped to send the Steelers into the half with a 14-0 lead when he capped a 10 play, 80 yard drive by running over three defenders for a five yard touchdown with just 57 seconds remaining. The Crocodiles weren’t ready to head into the locker room point-less, however, and British quarterback Spencer Cutlan took to the air and found Nate Robitaille for 57 yards, who juggled the ball between two defenders and scampered free to the three yard line. Three plays later, Cutlan rolled out and threw the fade to an outstretched Timothy Thomas to put Seinäjoki on the board. The Steelers got the ball back with only two seconds on the clock and responded quickly. Peters found Carswell on a simple screen and the import back broke out of a Lehtonen tackle to dash 49 yards to the house and put the home team up 21-7 at the half.

The Steelers continued to pour it on in the second half. Carswell added his fourth touchdown midway through the third frame by outracing Lehtonen to the edge from three yards out and then Peters found Tino Ndongo wide open in the middle of the end zone on the next drive to put them up 35-7 with just over a quarter to play.

Carswell ended his night with a 31 yard romp as the teams headed into the fourth quarter and seemed to once again put the Steelers in scoring position. Kuopio was posed at the goal line after defensive lineman Wayne Drew was ejected from the game for a late hit, but a low snap caused Seth Peters to throw his panicked endzone toss into the arms of a waiting Timothy Thomas.

Spencer Cutlan was finally able to put together a promising Crocodiles drive in response and connected with Nate Robitaille for a contested catch at the pylon six plays and 79 yards later. The two point conversion attempt fell incomplete, as did Seinäjoki’s onside kick attempt, but a fumbled exchange by Peters gave the Crocodiles one final chance to mount a furious comeback. They would not be able to replicate their success and the Steelers ran out the clock.

While Carswell’s blistering 8.9 yards per carry drove Kuopio to victory, the Steelers put together a complete team performance. Seth Peters deftly managed the game, going a respectable 24 of 34 passing for 242 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Former Saskatchewan Roughrider Max Zimmerman of Germany was the safety valve for most of the night, catching 12 passes for 92 yards and having one long touchdown called back via a holding penalty. Ndongo added eight catches of his own for 85 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, the linebacking trio of AJ Wentland, Kadel King and Semmie Radji were all over the field, while corner Iiro Pekkarinen broke up five passes to stifle any hopes of a Crocodile comeback.

Seinäjoki boasted valiant performances in defeat from defenders Veikka Lehtonen, Alex Germany, Timothy Thomas and Nate Robitaille. Both Thomas and Robitaille caught touchdowns as well, the latter leading the way with 84 yards receiving. Quarterback Spencer Cutlan did not commit a turnover but completed just eight of 23 passes for 160 yards.

The Steelers now comfortably advance to the Finnish final next week to play the winner of the other semi-final between the Wasa Royals and Helsinki Wolverines. They hope that their electric running back still has enough gas left in the tank for a repeat performance and a shot at the Maple League crown.

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.