Shanghai Warriors Take American Football League of China Title, Become First Two-Time Champs

“Third time’s the charm”, as the old saying goes.

Shanghai Warriors linebacker Ibrahim Ma, finally succeeded on his third chance in four games to score a touchdown on a fumble recovery. And this one really counted. Twice before he missed out on recovering a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. This time he made no mistake. And it could not have come at a better time.

With just a minute and a half remaining in the 2017-18 AFLC Championship Game, and the Warriors protecting a slim 22-20 lead over the defending champion Shanghai Titans and with the Titans threatening, Ma got another chance.

Facing a do-or-die 4th down, Titans quarterback Matt Smith lined up 5 yards behind his center, took a step or two to his right to give his teammates directions, and promptly watched the snap sail past him deep into the backfield. Smith could not pick up the ball, and he watched as it bounced right into the hands of Ma, who scooped up the fumble, and returned it 43 yards for the game-clinching touchdown, helping the Warriors win 30-20, and making them the first team in AFLC history to win two championships.

Ibrahim Ma’s (#30) game-clinching fumble return touchdown

“I got a little lucky”, said Ma. “Right as I ran to the ball to pick it up, it bounced up into my hands perfectly, and I just ran the rest of the way.”

The defensive score was the perfect exclamation point to the Warriors’ victory, as their defense came up with stop after stop in the second half after being burned for nearly 200 yards of offense in the first half.

Cameron Shubert (#4)

There was nothing much to separate the two teams throughout the game. T

he Titans started off hot on the first drive, marching 58 yards down the field in 6 plays, with Cameron Shubert’s (#4) 31-yard catch being the key play, culminating in running back Lane Shen’s (#1) 1-yard touchdown run to give them an early 7-0 lead.

The Warriors would answer right back however, overcoming multiple penalties, and a broken ankle suffered by starting running back Andrew Crook (#7) on their first play, to cover 54 yards in 8 plays, with Chris Gardner (#2) finding Van Calvin Le (#4) streaking down the middle of the field for a 19-yard touchdown pass. Gardner’s 2-point conversion run made the score 8-7 Warriors.

Van Calvin Le’s 19-yard touchdown reception

The Titans came right back, driving down to the Warriors’ 1-yard line to begin the second quarter. Shen ran to the left, and appeared to come very close to crossing the goal line, but the Warriors’ Curtis Good (#1) jarred the ball loose before it crossed the plain, and his teammate Donatas Keras (#53) recovered. The Warriors would punt, and once again, the Titans reached the Warriors’ 1-yard line. Smith exited the game for one play after receiving a big hit from linebacker Dennis Bridgeforth II (#27).

Backup quarterback/defensive end Emre Gurel (#19) entered the game and tried to sneak the ball into the end zone, but fumbled the snap, and Bridgeforth was there to recover for the Warriors. On the very next play however, Gardner threw the ball up for grabs, and it was intercepted by Titans safety Hong Xiangyi (#7). 2 plays later, Smith struck paydirt for the Titans, hitting Jibril Rasheed (#16) for a 26-yard touchdown down the sideline to put the Titans back on top 14-8.

But with time running out in the first half, Gardner led the Warriors down the field with a series of short passes, and finished off the 11-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run up the middle on the last play of the half, tying the score at 14.

Matt Smith (#3)

Warriors wide receiver Tim Gomez (#22) makes a spectacular catch

The Warriors received the ball to begin the second half, and picked up right where they left off on offense, driving down the field in 11 plays, and capping off the drive with a short touchdown toss from Gardner to Tim Gomez (#22), expanding the Warriors’ lead to 22-14. Both teams’ defenses then proceeded to take over the game for a period of time, until the fourth quarter, when Smith started moving the Titans down the field. He completed 6 straight passes, the final one being a short pass over the middle to Rasheed, who ran it in the rest of the way for a 15-yard touchdown, his second of the game. Trying to tie the game with a 2-point conversion, the snap sailed over Smith’s head, and was recovered by the Warriors, leaving the Warriors with a slim 22-20 lead.

Titans wide receivers Eason Chen (#47) and Jibril Rasheed celebrate Rasheed’s 2nd touchdown of the game.

Gardner was intercepted again on the Warriors’ next possession, this time by Rasheed, but the Titans gave the ball right back, turning it over on downs, as Thomas Piachaud (#50) came up with a huge 4th down sack of Smith. But the Titans defense held firm, giving them the ball back with about 3 minutes to play, and another chance to take the lead. On a 2nd and 10, Smith heaved the ball deep down the middle of the field. Curtis Good leaped backwards, trying to come up with a game-saving interception, but the ball bounced off his hands and right into the arms of Eason Chen (#47), who then raced down the field all the way to the Warriors 10-yard line for a 55-yard gain.

Eason Chen’s 55-yard reception

Two minutes remained, and the Titans were in a good position to finally take the lead. But on 3rd down, the snap flew over Smith’s head, and he was swarmed over by the Warriors defense after retrieving the ball, getting tackled back at the 35-yard line. On the very next play, well, for Ibrahim Ma, the third time was truly the charm. One final drive by the Titans with less than a minute remaining was halted, as Curtis Good closed out the Championship Game the same way he closed out the semifinals, with a game-ending interception to seal the result.

With the win, the Warriors not only became the first team to win two AFLC titles, but also improved on what is already the best league record in AFLC history, now 23-6.

By the numbers

For the Warriors, Gardner finished 14/25 for 184 passing yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, while Gomez led the team with 5 catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. Van Calvin Le added 3 catches for 41 yards and a touchdown, while Bradley Anlauf (#44) chipped in with 3 catches for 42 yards. Defensively, Dennis Bridgeforth II led the way with 8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, and a fumble recovery, while Curtis Good also contributed 6 tackles, 2 interceptions, and a vital forced fumble. For the Titans, Matt Smith went 19/29, passing for 305 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Eason Chen solidified himself as possibly the best native Chinese wide receiver, putting in a monster performance with 9 catches for 155 yards, while Jibril Rasheed notched 5 catches for 63 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Cameron Shubert added 3 catches for 55 yards. On defense, Paco Lam’s 7 tackles, and Li Zheng’s 5 tackles and an interception, led the way for the Titans.

 

Danny Zhang
Danny Zhang is a Chinese-American college student who grew up playing American football in the Boston area. He has a keen interest in the development of the sport in China, where he has recently studied, worked, and experienced football’s rapid growth firsthand.
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