The former quarterback received outstanding two-way performances from veterans Luke Norrey and Alex Rodriguez to defeat the Abu Dhabi Wildcats 19-0 in Desert Bowl VI at Dubai Sports City on Friday, relegating the capital side to runners-up for a third consecutive year.
One season after finishing near the bottom of the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) standings, the Barracudas returned to prominence under Cobb by finishing unbeaten at 6-0-1.
“It was a remarkable season,” Cobb said after lifting the Desert Bowl trophy for a second time, with the first coming as a player in 2016.
“The team just made it an easy transition for me. I couldn’t have done it without those guys. They respected the position I had and transitioned into and just made it easy for me. It was a good season.”
Norrey, who often shared the same backfield as Cobb, deflected the credit back onto his coach.
“He brings a lot of experience. He knows the guys, he knows the league and he knows football very well,” Norrey said. “He’s able to use what he knows and train the guys up. We got new guys and he was able to help them and he’s able to put certain people in positions to succeed.”
Rodriguez and Norrey flipped the script in the contest, with the former – a lineabacker – scoring two rushing touchdowns on runs of 7 and 2 yards, while the latter – one of the league’s best running backs – notched a sack, a forced fumble and tackle for a loss. Norrey also did his usual damage carrying the ball by racking up 103 yards on just seven carries.
Rodriguez and Norrey picked up Defensive and Offensive Player of the Game honours, respectively, but they could have just as easily swapped awards.
The Barracudas’ third score came on a 56-yard connection from quarterback David Pearce to wide receiver Gary Stillman.
For as many points as they scored, the newly-crowned champions were arguably more impressive on the other side of the ball.
Facing one of the league’s best players, running back Vivaldi Tulysse, the Barracudas held the Wildcats star to just 54 yards on 14 carries.
“We expected the no-hurry and the formations,” Rodriguez said. “Coach Z had us prepared for it, so we had formations to respond to everything they had – the double tight, the overload – we had positions added to the line to stop the run, which is how they beat Al Ain last week.”
Cobb singled out the defence as the number one reason the Barracudas earned their second title, saying: “If it wasn’t for the defence, we wouldn’t be here. We can win 3-0 because of our defence. It was easy for us to win like that. The defence was the backbone of the Barracudas this year.”
The past two Emirates American Football League (EAFL) seasons have ended with the Wildcats falling short at the 1-yard line, figuratively speaking, and seeing the title slip out of their grasps.
As they head into their third straight Desert Bowl and prepare to meet the Dubai Barracudas at Dubai Sports City on Friday, Robinson believes their fortunes will be different this time around because his team is different this time around.
After being humbled at the start of the season by dropping their first four games, the Wildcats righted the ship with their first win ahead of the playoffs before knocking off the reigning champion Al Ain Desert Foxes in the first round.
It’s been an usual path to get to the final week, but Robinson feel it’s only strengthened his side.
“We don’t have the number that we’ve had in the past, so that’s made me coach a better and smarter game, and it’s made the guys play a smarter game,” Robinson said. “It also removes the mentality of ‘if I don’t do it, somebody else will’. So everyone has the mentality of ‘if we’re going to get this done, I got to do it’.
“In terms of our play and for each one of the guys being accountable to the other guys, it’s a lot different than what it’s been in either of the past two years.”
So while the Barracudas enter the match-up having already shut out the Wildcats in their only meeting back in late January, coach Zavier Cobb is putting little stock in that result.
“At the time we played them, they were a depleted Wildcats team. Probably the worst Wildcats team I’ve seen since I’ve been here in the UAE and been part of the EAFL,” Cobb said. “Since then they’ve had a few veterans come back, so they’re definitely not the same team they were at the beginning of the season and it’s shown the last few games.”
Working in the Wildcats favour is also a little extra motivation in a rematch of the 2016 Desert Bowl.
In that contest two years ago, the capital’s team were burned by a controversial unsportsmanlike penalty on a late go-ahead touchdown run by Vivaldi Tulysse.
Instead of lifting the trophy for the third time in four years, the Wildcats were left ruing an officiating decision and thinking what could have been.
“There is a bitter taste left and it burns a little bit every time I think about it or talk about it,” Robinson said. “That’s just part of being a football coach and a football player, you remember those things. Those guys are going to remember that particular game probably for the rest of their lives.
“So anytime that comes up, it does put a little salt in the wound, so to speak. But it also puts a little fuel on the fire because the guys have been much more in key and in-tune to not having the silly mistakes we’ve had in the past.”
Cobb, however, has his own bitter taste that he wants to get rid of after the Barracudas plummeted down the league standings last season.
Now, they not only have an opportunity to claim the club’s second championship, but also to finish off a perfect, unbeaten season – not that Cobb is concerned with the extra details.
“It’s just a number to me. We want the title of champions and I think we deserve it,” he said. “We didn’t get that last year. We sat on the sidelines and the stands with a bunch of wishes and should-haves. Now this year we have the opportunity to capitalise on our failures from last year.”
The difference between peaking at the right moment and peaking too soon in the Emirates American Football League can be the difference between being on the field at the Desert Bowl and being in the stands.
The semi-final clash featuring the Abu Dhabi Wildcats and Al Ain Desert Foxes proved just that as the former stamped a third-straight trip to the title game, while the latter saw their reign as champions come to a bitter end in a 13-6 result at Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence on Friday.
It hadn’t been a pretty season for the Wildcats, who dropped their first four games before getting off the mark in the week before the playoffs. But when it mattered, the underdogs rose to the occasion and delivered.
“I knew these guys were capable of coming together and making the dance,” said Abu Dhabi coach Tony Robinson.
After Al Ain’s stingy defence had allowed 25 points all season, the Wildcats took control early with a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Ralphie Lega and a 45-yard scamper by running back Vivaldi Tulysse to go up 13-0 in the first quarter.
The Desert Foxes got back in the game on John Jones’ 4-yard touchdown run in the second period, but from there Abu Dhabi’s defence tightened up to keep their grasp on the lead.
Asked if Abu Dhabi were at all intimidated by the defending champions, Lega replied: “Not at all. We knew what we were capable of and the type of men we have on our team.
“Yeah they’re a good team and have some real good athletes, but at the same time we respect who we are and we have a lot of confidence in ourselves.”
On the other sideline, Al Ain coach Johnny Sharp was clearly upset with his players’ lack of execution.
The outspoken Sharp, who has been his team’s biggest critic, was clear in his assessment that the gameplan wasn’t the problem, saying he “coached a beautiful game”.
Sharp, who has been at the centre of the Desert Foxes emergence at both the youth and men’s level, was also noncommittal when asked if he’s returning next season.
“We’ll see. This is going to take a lot out of me,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of championship games and it just wans’t like this, so we’ll see.”
It was by no means an impressive victory for the top seed, but Zavier Cobb’s men did just enough to come out on top in a competitive game.
One week after kicking the game-winning field goal to make up for a dropped touchdown, Daniel Viranyi again redeemed himself by following up a fumble with a 4-yard grab for a score in second quarter. He also converted the extra point, which ended up being the difference in the contest.
“I have 1,000 per cent confidence in this guy and his abilities,” Cobb said of Viranyi. “He keeps his cool and I can always count on him under pressure. Yeah he might screw up throughout the game, but during times of pressure, he’s one of the guys I can call on.”
The Stallions’ season didn’t end without some fireworks as Matt Duncan connected with Christian Ridley on a 45-yard touchdown to close the gap, but the extra point conversion was no good.
Like Sharp, Stallions head coach Patrick Campos was unsure if he’ll be on the sidelines again next season.
Campos said: “It’s been an absolute honour working with those guys. It would be an honour to continue to work with them. And if the schedule permits and my lovely wife agrees, maybe I will.”
The Wildcats and Barracudas will meet in a rematch of the 2016 Desert Bowl at Dubai Sports City on Friday, March 16.