The Panthers’ season was a mixed bag to say the least.
Throughout the pre-season there was a lot to be excited about: Experience was not in short supply on offence, with an O-line anchored by bookend tackles Jamie Pierce and Luke Withers, and aided by Jack-of-all-trades tight end, James Whybrow; an exceptional running back stable headlined by the bruising Callum Glass; a receiving corps with match-up nightmares in Rob Howard and JJ Gibbs, and returning quarterbacks, Tate Butcher and Jack Gray, battling for the starting job late into pre-season. With a change in offensive play-calling duties, came the new “Falcon” position, taken over by returning fullback/tight end hybrid Cameron Christie.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers’ traditionally stout defence faced the challenge of replacing key pieces, namely in the linebacker and secondary groups. However, the defensive line was certainly the rock on which a new group could be built: With physical freaks at D-end, Stuart Thorp and Maximillian Honigsbaum, and the dominant run stuffing D-tackle Oliver Lashley, this was surely one of the strongest groups on a veteran led Panthers’ squad. In the mid-field, Jack Shepherd provided a combination of a coverage, run-supporting and pocket-pressuring ‘backer rolled into one, and the secondary would be led by fiery competitor, and team captain, safety Ian Whitehead.
OBU was able to recruit well, but as with all fresher classes, the true impact of the rookies wouldn’t be felt until later in the year. However, this wouldn’t stop some newcomers forcing their way into consideration for starting positions. Ollie Morgan, a former professional rugby player, quickly realised his potential and found himself in the all-important starting MLB spot. Joining him in the 2nd level was Will Sharkey, who proved that he could hold down the SAM spot opposite Shepherd. Alex Wright, a British U19 safety, showed his exceptional play-reading abilities from the get go, and beat out a heavy amount of competition for the coveted FS spot in the Panthers’ Cover 1 defence.
Due to the aforementioned returning experience on offence, few rookies were called up initially on the side of the ball.
Plymouth Blitz 11 – 6 OBU Panthers
The Panthers’ first game was against Plymouth Blitz, the pre-season favourite to take the division, and eventual runner up in the conference. Despite the loss, this game may have been the best example of OBU’s potential. With 135 yards rushing and 82 through the air, the Panthers’ intention was clear: Run the ball, run it hard and be opportunistic with the passing game. Glass showed the hardnosed running that we’ve come to expect from him, but this game was surely a coming out party for Cedric Cools in the change-of-pace role at RB, something we had glimpsed in the Varsity game the previous year. On the edge, Rob Howard came through with multiple catches running the dreaded slant pattern, and displaying his run-after-catch ability, turning quickly upfield and fighting for extra yards. Coming into the game, Head Coach Nick Wykes made the decision to give both playcallers game time, testament to how close Gray and Butcher were throughout the preseason.
The Panther defence showed no signs of dropping off from last season’s physical form. The D-line were constantly playing in the offensive backfield, and giving the Blitz running game no breathing room. The linebackers showed poise and maturity, with Shepherd and Morgan both delivering crunching hits, and the secondary giving up all of 4 passes, with Wright picking off his first pass of the season. All said and done, the group gave up an average of just 2.8 yards per play, forcing 2 turnovers.
But it was a game of missed opportunities for OBU, with 2 missed field goals, and 2 interceptions thrown. Combined with a 60 yard pass that went for a touchdown allowed by the defence, the Panthers’ left Plymouth found wanting.
OBU Panthers 7 – 21 Gloucester Gladiators
Due to the Panthers’ performance the previous week, OBU knew that they could win this game, and that winning out the rest of the season would mean a 2nd chance at a Blitz team they believed was certainly beatable. However, this materialised in the form of insufficient respect for the Gladiators, who came to Oxford with no such complacency.
Offensively, the Panthers generated only 136 total yards, far less than the 217 against Plymouth. Sloppy handling led to 5 lost fumbles, and only 1 of OBU’s 12 3rd downs was converted. Gloucester’s stout defence capitalised on any mistake Brookes gave them, and stood strong to allow just 6 first downs, and 25 yards passing. Game 2 also saw Gray and Butcher sharing snaps, which may have contributed to fumbled exchanges under centre, and injuries to both players saw 3rd string QB, Simon Bruus, have to come in. Gulliver, subbing in at the new Falcon spot, showed his speed and athleticism by breaking off a weaving run for 14 yards, and later putting his head down through the middle of the Gladiators’ defence for a 6 yard touchdown.
However, it was the defence who ultimately let this game get out of hand. Whilst the Panthers allowed only 5 from 16 passes, the Gladiators still managed to rack up 114 yards through the air, emphasising dips in concentration at key moments, and allowing drives to survive. Open field tackling also reared its ugly head, giving Gloucester more opportunities than they should’ve had. The one bright spot on defence came in the form of 2 Hugo Auer interceptions, in both instances caused by immediate pocket pressure from Whitehead and Pierce, respectively.
OBU Panthers 8 – 32 Bristol Barracuda
By game 3, the Panthers found themselves in a position they hadn’t expected at the start of the season: win out, or get out of playoff contention. And whilst OBU didn’t afford themselves the luxury of expecting a win, it was clear from the start that Bristol was the more prepared for a fight.
For the first time this season, the Panthers’ RBs generated fewer than 100 yards rushing, with 95. But this doesn’t do justice to the fact they accomplished this with just half the touches of the previous 2 games, averaging a very impressive 5 yards per carry. HC Wykes made the decision to start Jack Gray over Butcher, and to keep him there for most of the game, with Butcher seeing mop up duty in the final quarter. Yet again, 3rd down was OBU’s undoing: 0 for 7, and a lack of assertion by the previously sturdy O-line meant Brookes just weren’t able to string drives together.
Defensively it wasn’t much better, with ‘Cuda’s RB dominating whenever he wanted. A lack of edge discipline meant Bristol could run through any gaps they felt like, and then were able to flip the ball out to the flats for short passes that turned into long gains. The Barracuda were so dominant in fact, that they benched some starters at the beginning of the second half, and still managed to add on to their lead.
Bournemouth Bobcats 12 – 17 OBU Panthers
And so came the Panthers’ first win of the season. Playing for pride at this stage, OBU showed resilience and a true winning attitude.
The Panthers decided to stick to what they do best, running the ball behind a physical line. Gathering up almost 200 rush yards, there was almost no need to throw the ball. But on one of the few occasions that they did, Ryan Wiggin delivered the catch of the season. However, showmanship was not the only thing on Wiggin’s mind, when he also ran in one of OBU’s 2 touchdowns. But the star of the game was undoubtedly Glass, with his dominant running style again on display. The O-line had taken a beating during the last 2 games, and as a result, the coaching staff had to shuffle things up. But the Panthers didn’t miss a beat, thanks in large part to the men up front.
SS Ian Whitehead suffered an injury against Bristol, and so in true football style the next man stood up. Enter Dan Goodchild. Not only did the rookie safety step up to the mark, he almost had 2 interceptions to his name, in both cases because he read the play near perfectly. Both Thorp and Lashley also demonstrated their dominance, by bursting into the backfield and stuffing any attempt at moving the ball down the middle or around the edges. On the outside, CB Matt Daniells pulled in an interception, reading both his assignment and the quarterback simultaneously to get himself into the perfect position.
OBU Panthers 19 – 2 Tarannau Aberystwyth
Following up their 1st win on the season, the Panthers were determined to show exactly why they were considered one of the strongest teams coming into the season, and displayed a truly dominant performance.
Having been announced as starter the previous week, Tate Butcher followed up by gutting the Tarannau D to the tune of 137 yards and 3 touchdowns. Butcher’s first touchdown coming from throwing the ball up to Whybrow in the end zone, who outjumped everyone to bring the ball in. Whybrow was also the destination for Butcher’s 2nd TD, when he exploited a blown coverage in the end zone. Rookie receiver Paddy Chapman displayed his fantastic ball skills on the 3rd score of the day, when he pulled in a fade pass in the back corner of the end-zone. The boys up front put in another incredible game, allowing 0 sacks, and helping Cedric Cools along to another huge rushing game. Wiggin again demonstrated his elusiveness, by dodging between blocks for yards out of the backfield.
The defensive stat sheet read like this: 0 pass completions, 0 3rd downs converted, 0 touchdowns, and 2 turnovers forced. Defensive co-ordinator Toby Durant called blitzes seemingly every other play, generating a total of 9 sacks, with star DEs Thorp and Honigsbaum bringing in 2 each. Fresher lineman Jago Thomas displayed serious burst, breaking through double teams to get himself into the backfield and disrupt any rhythm Aberystwyth could create. The result of his play was 2.5 sacks. Shepherd showed that he could get things done, whether that was blitzing, getting a sack, or in coverage, pulling in an interception.
Bath Spa Bulldogs 0 – 40 OBU Panthers
Sitting at 2 – 3, the Panthers were truly outside playoff contention, but the motivation of playing for pride proved enough yet again. Sitting well at the bottom of the league, Bath Spa were not expected to put up much of a fight, but OBU had fallen victim to complacency before, and weren’t about to let it happen again.
On the opening kickoff, the Bulldogs decided to kick it short and away from the Panthers’ returners. Unfortunately for them, the ball found itself in the hands of Gulliver, who shrugged off 2 attempts at a tackle, before walking into the end zone for the first score of the game. Butcher remained the starting signal caller for this game, following up on the previous week’s performance with another touchdown to Whybrow, who again rose up between 2 Bulldog defenders in the endzone to pull in another incredible touchdown.
Gulliver got himself back in the endzone on a sweep play, turning on the burners and outrunning 4 Bath Spa defenders. Not wanting to miss out on the action, receivers Howard and Chapman both displayed their physicality and run after catch ability, fighting for extra yards constantly. And once more, Cedric Cools showed why he may be one of the better returning running backs in the league coming into next year, finishing with 3 touchdowns. On 2 of his scores, Cools muscled his way up the middle from the 1 yard line, on his other, he followed lead blocks from Gulliver and Jago Thomas, springing for a 38 yard TD, breaking arm tackles along the way.
A Panthers’ defence that had been guilty of beating itself on a number of occasions this year came out with a very clear chip on its shoulder. It was going to give no quarter. By the final whistle, the Bulldogs had more offensive plays than they had yards, with just a solitary first down. Despite being known as the team’s lockdown corner, it took Joe Marshall until this point to bring in his first interception of the year, when the Bulldog quarterback threw an ill-advised, under-thrown lob pass. From top to bottom, the defensive line had their way with Bath Spa, with Shepherd, Thomas and Thorp all creating fumbles, whilst Whitehead and lineman Felix Barry timed blitzes well to come away with sacks.
OBU Panthers 74 – 6 Reading Knights
No, that isn’t a typo. That happened. So did 264 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 163 passing yards, 2 more scores through the air, and 11.86 yards per play. In fact, the Panthers ran the score up so high that linemen Thorp and Lashley found themselves playing at running back. To go through all personal achievements would take a while, but the highlight of this game was the performance of the departing Panthers, determined to not let the season define them. Unfortunately for the Reading Knights, they were the poor souls who happened to be the recipients of this.