Porvoo Butchers earn tough, come-from-behind defensive win over United Newland Crusaders

Sometimes in life, things don’t turn out exactly as expected. More often than not, this is the case in the game of American football.

Most casual observers, as well as those who study Finland’s Maple League, expected a high-powered offensive shootout in Porvoo on Friday night when the hometown Butchers and the United Newland Crusaders clashed in their final regular-season game in Finland’s Maple League.

Who wouldn’t?  The Crusaders were coming off a momentous victory last week over the previously unbeaten Kuopio Steelers scoring 58 points against the league’s top-rated defense. And Porvoo had rung up 47 points and over 500 yards in offense in their game against the Seinäjoki Crocodiles. The two teams combine had put together over 1,100 yards of offense and scored 105 points the previous week. A Robert Johnson- Jabari Harris quarterback duel seemed like a sure thing. Bet the over on total points in the game!

What didn’t get factored in was the two defenses who stepped up and put on a battle and stymied the potent offenses. In the end, the Butchers pulled out a 20-12 victory climaxed by a Timi Nuikka interception in the end zone with 1:48 left in the game to seal the victory and send the Butchers faithful, who sat in a steady drizzle, home with smiles on their faces.

With the win, the Butchers finished the regular season with a 5-3 record and secured their first winning season since 2011. The Crusaders ended up 2-7 after a great second half of the season showing to secure their place in the Maple League for 2022.

For the Butchers, the game started out sloppily as a slew of penalties and mistakes sent their initial drive of the game in reverse. After a punt, the Crusaders marched down the field with Johnson, the career all-time Finnish leader in yards passing masterfully guiding his team down the field. Twelve plays and 74 yards later Johnson hit former University of North Carolina Central wide receiver Nolan Corpening with a 4-yard touchdown pass for a 6-0 lead. A bad snap and muddy conditions caused the extra point attempt to fail.

When the Butchers got the ball back after a 27-yard kickoff return by Mikko Seppänen they had good field position near midfield. However, the drive was like watching a tennis match from midcourt. The Butchers would have a big play only to see it nullified by a penalty. Three penalties and a devastating injury to running back Sean McAllen, who would leave the game and not return, left the offense dazed and Harris was intercepted on the Crusaders 3-yard line. Ironically, the interception worked in the Butchers favor however as it put the Crusaders in a hole, and they had to punt the ball away on a three-and-out series. With a short field, the Butchers took advantage, scoring on a Marcus Siiskonen 38-yard touchdown run around the left end. The Ilmari Ikäheimo PAT was good giving the Butchers a 7-6 lead just seconds into the 2nd quarter.

The Crusaders responded immediately with a 71-yard 7 play drive topped off by a Johnson pass to brother Cedric Johnson for 15-yards and a touchdown. Cedric Johnson, who had quarterbacked the Helsinki Wolverines earlier in the season, attempted a pass on a 2-point PAT but the attempt fell to the ground in the end zone incomplete, leaving the score 12-7 Crusaders.

The rest of the first half was a battle of defensive stops. The Crusaders stopped the Butchers twice when Porvoo was in scoring position. And the Butchers Niko Roiko picked off two Robert Johnson passes. The second half started with the same vigorous defense and this time the Butchers special teams came up with a huge play. On 4th and 9 from their own 41-yard line, Mike Hall’s punt was blocked by linebacker Niko Pennanen and Timi Nuikka picked up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown. Ikäheimo had his extra point blocked by the never-say-die Crusader’s defense and the score was 13-12.

The Butchers defense continued to give the offense good field position and Harris drove the team down to the Crusaders 6-yard line only to have the Crusaders defense rise again with key sacks and more Butchers penalties, moving them back to the 20-yard line where they turned the ball over on downs.

Once again Roiko rose to the challenge and separated Irish wideout Finn Kearns from the ball after he caught a Johnson pass and Timo Oksanen recovered the fumble.  However, as the Butchers again got to the 6-yard line more penalties moved them back and an attempted 28-yard field goal by Ikäheimo sailed wide left.

For most of the second half, the Butchers defense kept the Crusaders contained in their own territory and the game was played on the Crusaders side of the field. The Butchers, normally a very efficient red-zone team failed to hit pay dirt. After another forced fumble at the Crusaders five-yard line killed another scoring attempt frustration was seeping in. Finally, with 4:14 left in the game after another big defensive stop which gave the offense the ball on the Crusader 25-yard line, Harris went to the air and found Seppänen open on a corner route for the touchdown, breaking the long drought. Ikäheimo completed the Butchers scoring with the point after and the score was 20-12.

Four minutes is a lot of time in the hands of Robert Johnson though, and it seemed to many in attendance to be too much as he methodically brought the dormant Crusaders offense back to life. Many were beginning to envision another overtime contest just as the first match had been back in June. With just over two minutes left, the Crusaders were knocking at the door at the Butchers 11-yard line. On first down the attempt to brother Cedric was incomplete. Second down brought another incomplete pass as the Butchers got pressure on the quarterback and Johnson had to get the ball away. Finally, on third down, Johnson saw a man coming open across the middle in the end zone. As he threw the ball Nuikka saw the receiver and moving from his linebacker position intercepted the pass and downed the ball in the end zone for a touchback. With 1:48 left in the game, the Porvoo offense went to work trying to run out the clock. After UNC had exhausted their time outs, on 3rd and 1 Harris ran for an 8-yard gain getting the first down and enabling the Butchers to take a knee and run out the clock without giving Johnson another shot.

While not the offensive shootout many expected, the defenses created huge plays and a close evenly fought game developed between two teams on the rise.

On the day Kam Harris led the Crusaders in rushing with 14 carries and 64 very bruising yards. Robert Johnson was 22-39 passing with 251 yards and 2 touchdown passes. But he was intercepted four times in the game. Corpering led UNC with eight catches for 71 yards and a TD while Cedric Johnson added six catches for 65 yards and a touchdown.

Defensively, Maple League-leading tackler Mike Hall had another big day with nine tackles and one sack followed by Hungarian linebacker Zoltan Golita who has proven to be a standout player in Finland this season who had five tackles, two of them for losses, and a sack.

For the Butchers, Jabari Harris led the attack with 14 carries for 61 yards rushing while also throwing for 173 yards on 17-39 passing. He had one touchdown and one interception on the day. Vesa Aaltonen had six carries for 11 yards in relief of McAllen and Marcus Siiskonen had the big 38-yard TD run. Seppänen led the receivers with six receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, Roiko had two interceptions and a forced fumble, and Juka-Pekka Suomalainen had another interception. Nuikka had 4.5 tackles to go with his game-sealing interception and TD return. Niko Pennanen added 4.5 tackles, followed by  Ikäheimo who had four from his safety position.

The Butchers, winless last season,  move on the play the Helsinki Roosters in the Maple League semifinals next Saturday, September, 5th in Vantaa.

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