2007: The Drive for Five
The Lions rallied from 14 points down to defeat the UTS Gators 34-28 in the 2007 Waratah Bowl and complete the “Drive for Five”.
The game was a true test of character, particularly for quarterback Dan Kelen. After throwing only 4 interceptions in over 200 attempts on the year, Kelen’s first two passes were picked off to put the Lions under immediate pressure. The Gators took full advantage of the first interception, returning it to the 11 yard line and then firing in a touchdown pass on 1st down to take an early 7-0 lead.
Kelen threw his second pick on the second play of the Lions’ second possession, but this time the defence held firm. In one of the game’s many big plays, defensive end Fady Aoun tackled the UTS running back behind the line on 4th and 2 at the 29 yard line to force the turnover.
The Lions looked to have something going on their next possession when Kelen hit Brad Ryals on a 37 yard pass down to the 15 yard line. However, a holding penalty put the Lions in a hole and Croasdaile came up one yard short on a 4th and 10 screen pass to leave the ball on the 6 yard line with nothing to show for the drive.
The offence was having trouble getting its normally reliable ground game on track, but the defence, under defensive co-ordinator Ryan Wonser, appeared to have UTS in check going into the second quarter. But on 3rd and 7 at mid-field, the Gator’s halfback burst through the line to run away for a 42 yard touchdown – the longest running play allowed on the season and only the 4th rushing touchdown conceded for the year. However, all of that was cold consolation when facing a 14 point deficit.
When Kelen threw his third interception on the first play of the next drive it looked like the Lions were digging themselves into a hole they may never get out of. The UTS quarterback lofted the ball into the endzone for an apparent touchdown on the next play, only to see the score wiped off on a holding penalty. The Lions defence took hold of the lifeline and drove the Gators back to the 35 yard line, forcing a punt on 4th down.
Sydney Uni then sought to establish its ground game, running the ball out to halfway, but failed to convert on 3rd and 1 to give UTS another chance to go to a three score lead. The Gators drove down to the 18 yard line, where Lions defensive captain Joe Lim made a key play by spearing through the UTS line on a blitz to tackle the Gator’s halfback for a loss. The field goal attempt from the 21 yard line was blocked by Colby Myers, giving the Lions the ball with less than a minute before the half.
Showing that he may have been shaken, but now stirred, Kelen set about getting the Lions back into the contest. On first down, he scrambled for 9 yards, then on second, he hit Brad Ryals for 31 yards to the 10 yard line. On second and goal and in the face of the UTS blitz, Kelen hit Matt Croasdaile out of the backfield on a 9 yard touchdown pass with only seconds left in the half. The Lions were on the scoreboard and, if anything, happy to be down by only 14-7 at the break.
If the Lions had started the game cold, then they were red hot for the start of the second half. Tristan Cauhepe returned the opening kick-off into the Gator’s half and, on the first play from scrimmage, Ryals burnt his coverage for a 33 yard touchdown reception. The PAT was missed to keep Sydney Uni behind 14-13, but the Lions were on the move.
The Gators looked to have struck back with their own long kick-off return to the Lions’ 23 yard line, but on first down, free safety Anthony Sinton picked off a pass over the middle and returned it deep into the Gators’ half. A third down completion to James Shine got the Lions to the 3 yard line, where Liam Erby sliced through on the next play for the touchdown. After Matt Croasdaile bulled into the endzone for 2 points, the Lions had scored 3 touchdowns in the last 8 plays from scrimmage to take a 21-14 lead.
The Lions defence sent UTS three and out on its next possession, but a long punt saw the varsity pinned on its goal-line. Liam Erby picked a good time to hit his longest punt of the year and the immediate danger was averted.
The teams then traded possessions until the start of the fourth quarter saw the Lions with the ball on their own 17 yard line. Kelen hit Mathew Freeman for a 17 yard gain to get the drive under way and then found James Shine behind the coverage for 22 more yards down to the UTS 26 yard line. A few plays later and it was 2nd and 1 on the 17 yard line. Game MVP Liam Erby had his number called on the lead play and bounced the play outside and into the clear. Showing good speed and strength, he won the race to the corner and muscled the ball over the pylon for his second rushing touchdown. The Lions had now scored 28 unanswered points and had a 28-14 lead with 10:12 to play in the fourth quarter.
Colby Myers looked to have all but settled the issue when he intercepted the UTS quarterback on the first play of the next drive. However, the Gators got a lifeline of their own when the turnover was negated on an encroachment call against the Lions’ defensive line. UTS put together a good drive down to the goal-line, but on 3rd and goal from the 3 yard line, Myers appeared to have the quarterback wrapped up – only to see him flip an underhand toss to an alert receiver for a touchdown. With 8:20 still left in the game, UTS had brought it back to a seven point margin with plenty of time on the clock.
A UTS player was badly injured on the ensuing kick-off, resulting in a delay before the game could be re-started. This could have been unsettling for the Lions’ offence, but they took it in their stride and set about running time off the clock. Six run plays later and the varsity had moved the ball to the Gators’ 25 yard line. The offensive line of Dave Thode, Cameron Lawrence, David Allen, James Gifford and Paul Edwards stood up when it counted to keep the chains moving and the clock ticking. Kelen then found Croasdaile in the flats, who knocked over his covering defender before being pushed out at the 5 yard line. Kelen completed his personal comeback with a touchdown toss to Brad Ryals in the back corner of the endzone. Kelen would finish with 15 completions from 22 attempts for 249 yards and 3 touchdowns – a remarkable turnaround after his horror start.
With 4:15 left in the game, the Lions did not want to give up a quick score, so the defence forced the Gators to pick away underneath the coverage. UTS worked the sidelines and moved the ball down the field on a 9 play scoring drive to again bring the margin back to just one touchdown.
With 2:15 on the clock and the Gators with only one timeout, the teams prepared for the on-side kick. UTS tried a surprise move, kicking the ball short but in the air. James Gifford knew his rulebook and signalled for a fair catch before safely securing the ball. However, Gifford’s quick thinking came to nought when the Lions were ruled to have lined up offside requiring a re-kick. The Gators went back to the traditional kick along the ground, but Captain Leigh Louey-Gung had clean hands under pressure. The game came down to needing a first down on 3rd and 6. This time Croasdaile came up one yard to the good, fighting for 7 yards after being initially stopped at the line of scrimmage. Kelen took a knee and the Lions had won the 2007 Waratah Bowl and their fifth consecutive NSW championship. Mission accomplished.