After playing to a draw in their first two head-to-head meetings, the Barracudas broke the deadlock with a last-second 3-0 victory to hand the defending champions their first defeat of the season at The Sevens on Friday.
Not only was the number one seed in the playoffs up for grabs in the clash, but both teams also put their unbeaten records on the line.
A contentious pre-game, in which the teams didn’t shake hands, was followed by a chippy contest that featured both defences at the top of their games.
With points at a premium, the Barracudas were able to seal the win on Daniel Viranyi’s 20-yard field goal with 35 seconds remaining.
“We wanted to take that momentum and we wanted that first seed,” said Viranyi. “Lot of trash talk before the game and I think it wasn’t quite what we were hoping for. Each team wanted to shut up the other team and it didn’t quite turn out that way. 3-0, lucky punch, but we’ll take it.”
The game’s hero nearly ended up as its zero after missing a field goal and dropping a would-be touchdown earlier.
But when given the green light by coach Zavier Cobb to line up for the eventual game-winner, Viranyi came through.
“I knew I could take the distance. Saw it in the first kick,” he said. “Coach trusted in me and that’s why I just took it. I didn’t think about it. Just up and in.”
The loss was a tough pill to swallow for Al Ain coach Johnny Sharp, who had been visibly upset whenever his team even allowed points this season.
Though a rematch with the Barracudas – which can only come now in the Desert Bowl – may be at the forefront of the Desert Foxes’ minds, Sharp knows they’ll have to clean up their mistakes before they can exact revenge.
“It’s a lot of work we need to do. We said that three times,” Sharp said.
“They won the game with less than two minutes to go with a good kicker. He’s a great kicker. We just hurt ourselves. I’m not taking anything away from the Barracudas because [Zavier] Cobb put together a solid game, but we made a lot of mental errors that we need to be able to do better, otherwise we won’t make it to the Desert Bowl.”
While one rematch will have to wait, the opening round of the playoffs will feature a rematch of last year’s Desert Bowl epic after the Abu Dhabi Wildcats earned their first win to move up to the three seed.
Tony Robinson‘s men have had an uncharacteristically poor season following consecutive Desert Bowl appearances, but they finally got off the mark by beating the Dubai Stallions 14-0 on Friday.
Justin Kirby reeled in a receiving touchdown to open the scoring for the Wildcats, before quarterback Robert Lega used his legs for a 7-yard rushing score and the 2-point conversion.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Robinson. “I knew the guys were capable of coming out and playing this way all season. It just took us a little longer than we anticipated and expected to put a win on the board.”
Though the Barracudas and Desert Foxes appear destined to battle it out at this year’s Desert Bowl, Robinson knows as well as anyone that regular season success doesn’t guarantee playoff triumph.
Which means the door is still open for Abu Dhabi to return to the big stage and capture a title that has been so elusive.
Robinson said: “We’re starting to peak at the right time and right when it matters and I think these guys are in it to try and make it to the dance.”
Ever since the Stallions lifted the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) Desert Bowl trophy back in 2015, wins have been more at a premium for a team that has suffered consistent turnover both on the field and on the sidelines.
But after coming away empty-handed through the first two weeks of this season, the Stallions got off the mark to earn head coach Patrick Campos his first victory with his new club by beating Abu Dhabi at The Sevens on Friday.
Offence had been a bright spot for the Stallions even in their two losses and the attack was impressive once again with Joe Chamberlain getting his first start at quarterback.
“It was amazing to get back under (centre),” said Chamberlain. “It’s been about six years since I last played QB. The last time I played we lost by about 44 so I’m quite glad we got the victory today and got the monkey off my back.”
There was little to celebrate for the Wildcats, however, as they remained winless by moving to 0-3 (one loss by forfeit).
It’s been a trying start to the season for Tony Robinson’s men after reaching consecutive Desert Bowls the past two years.
Once known for controlling the trenches, the Wildcats have struggled early on with line play.
“We have to have a little more pressure up front. I mean, our offensive line was pushed around a bit today,” said wide receiver and safety Paul Carrizosa.
“But we have a lot of faith in our guys. We need to get a little more time in practice, get some of the puzzle pieces back in order and I’m confident we can win football games.”
The top two of the teams in the league, meanwhile, battled to an 8-8 draw on Friday.
Each team’s offence was able to find the end zone this time, with Al Ain switching up their attack to finally score against the Barracudas’ stingy defence, which allowed their first points of the season.
“Our coach implemented a new offence and I think we executed it alright, considering we only had two days to practice it,” said Desert Foxes wide receiver and defensive back Te’andre McKinney. “A lot of our guys were injured so I think we did pretty good with what we had.”
On the other side of the ball, coach Johnny Sharp wasn’t pleased to see his defence surrender points again. So as he did two weeks ago, Sharp made his team run after the final whistle.
And McKinney expects some more tough love this week, saying: “I’m pretty sure we’re going to get it at practice.”
The Desert Foxes and Barracudas are knotted atop the standings with a 2-0-1 record, but the defending champions hold the tiebreaker with their superior point differential.
If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: expectations for the Al Ain Desert Foxes have been drastically raised and coach Johnny Sharp intends on meeting them.
The defending champions remained perfect on the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) season with a second win in as many chances by beating the Dubai Stallions 20-6 at Zayed Sports City on Friday.
But for Sharp, Al Ain eluded perfection when they allowed a garbage-time touchdown in the final minutes, marking the first time anyone has scored on Desert Foxes’ stingy defence through eight quarters of football.
Sharp, who proclaimed ahead of the season that he would be disappointed if his team allowed any points, wasn’t pleased to see the Stallions find the end zone on Taylor Avritt’s 2-yard pass to Theo Von Aspern late in the fourth quarter.
So after the game, Sharp made his squad run.
“Expectations are always ‘give up nothing at all’. I screamed to them, ‘if you give this up, we’re going to have to deal with it,’” Sharp said.
“Immediately, we shook hands, we lined up and we ran. The expectations are clear not only to my team, but to the league. The expectation is to give donuts to everybody, every week.”
These are the same Desert Foxes who were happy just to earn a win last season to end a multi-year drought.
But much has changed since and after claiming their first title, Al Ain have adopted the mentality of champions.
“We just need to finish. Every play is a new down,” said Desert Foxes receiver Nicholas Amica, who scored Al Ain’s first touchdown against the Stallions on a pass from Jay Hall. “[Coach Sharp] said he wanted us to finish. We just didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish.”
The Desert Foxes’ offence, meanwhile, was impressive in punching in three touchdowns.
After Amica’s score, Hall added a 1-yard quarterback keeper in the second quarter and then recovered a fumble to set up Thomas Newman’s 3-yard plunge in the third quarter.
The only points in the battle of attrition came when Barracudas quarterback David Pearce connected with Bernard Morrey II on a touchdown pass, with running back Luke Norrey converting the two-point conversion in the third quarter.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game with both sides short on players, but we trusted our line, ran hard and we got the result,” said Norrey.