CEFL Bowl has a history of producing cliffhangers, and this one continues that long record. It can’t get any better than the two behemoths clashing in the CEFL Bowl XV on the Tivoli stadium in Innsbruck, the football pantheon that has now hosted its third final game of the CEFL Championship. The home team, Swarco Raiders Tirol, and the visiting Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns were equal rivals in close competition. The football force that would come out on top was decided in the very last seconds.
In the tech world, a unicorn is a company with a modest start and a tenacious team that eventually gets to a valuation of a billion dollars. The club from Schwäbisch Hall may not be there just yet, but what they lack for in dollar signs, they certainly make up in tenacity. It was the prime mover that has guided the Unicorns to their first trophy on the principal international stage this season in the CEFL Bowl XV.
After a tie score in the intermission in the semifinals against Calanda Broncos, this doggedness spurred them on to discover a new gear and prevail in the second part of the game. Now, in the CEFL Championship final, at half-time they were 9 points behind the tournaments’ three-time heroes and its only unbeaten team over as many seasons. Still, they were unfazed by this disadvantage and again pulled a winning combination out of their hats.
They did it by shoring up their defense and keeping the Raiders scoreless in the second half. It’s not easy to stop Sean Shelton and his offensive weapons so that’s a great accomplishment in itself. The Unicorns’ defensive unit took away the long routes and reduced him to intermediate passes. Their front seven also sacked the Raiders’ quarterback four times and pressured him on every occasion. He handled it well but the team committed penalties and mental mistakes which proved to be detrimental.
On offense, the Unicorns have materialized some big plays that their opponents had a tough time defending. Nevertheless, their winning scoring play came 18 tics before the ending whistle and it could have also been deflected to make their rivals jubilant. The Raiders had their chances on both sides of the ball and could have won if only a few key plays went in their favor. This fact should shine a brighter light on how equal in strength these two titans are.
After all is said and done, the Raiders should walk with their heads up too. They gave it their best and were so close from continuing their streak with the fourth straight title. In the end, their loss has resembled the manner in which they overcame Calanda Broncos in the CEFL Bowl XIV in 2019, and the way they defeated Dacia Vikings in this season’s semifinals. As always, they were great hosts of the CEFL Bowl XV and their technical crew produced yet another great broadcast of the game.
The Raiders open the game on offense when quarterback Sean Shelton mounts a promising drive connecting with Toni Rabensteiner and Adrian Platzgummer for big yards. Romed Zangerle picks up 25 yards in 3 rushing plays, his last one stopping on the Unicorns’ 9. He and Shelton gain 4 more yards in 2 rushing plays but the pass into the end zone on 3rd down is unsuccessful. Emanuel Trinkl kicks it through the uprights for first points, 3 – 0.
Unicorns’ homegrown field general, Alexander Haupert moves the chains by targeting tight end Moritz Böhringer on 3rd down. He picks up another one on a bubble screen, carrying defenders on his back. Jannis Fiedler rushes for 13 yards on a couple of play and then Haupert lobs it to Böhringer again who gets behind the defenders for a 42 yard touchdown. Stadelmayer makes the PAT kick to reverse the score in his team’s favor, 3 – 7.
Austrians get the balls back and Shelton dials up Marco Schneider on 2 plays. Platzgummer finds holes in the zone defense and hauls in short passes, turning them into 29 yards in 3 catches. His last effort is stopped by a face mask penalty, which advances the Raiders to the 4 yard line. Ruben Seeber waltzes into the end zone backed by excellent blocking by the whole offensive unit and his team takes the lead, 10 – 7.
Next 2 drives by either team lead nowhere. When Haupert comes out again he’s chased out of the pocket, runs right and throws left to the wrong man. Defensive back Jan Mayerhofer wins another go for his offensive teammates before the intermission at midfield.
With 69 seconds more to play in the second period, Shelton engages with Simon Pilger twice for 20 yards, and then for 14 more with Platzgummer who stops the clock by running outside. The Raiders are now 18 yards away and they have 20 seconds to work with. Shelton and Platzgummer are good for 9 more yards and they take their final time out on 3rd down with 9 seconds left. Luis Bach flies forward on a delayed blitz but Shelton keeps his poise and locates Schneider in the end zone to up the score at half time to 16 – 7.
When the 2nd half starts German team can’t move the ball and has to punt. Tiroleans organize a long drive by Shelton linking up with Schneider, Zangerle and Toni Rabensteiner for 1st downs. He then gets sacked by Tobias Löffler and Schneider pooch-punts the ball which bounces to the Unicorns’ 2 yard line.
It takes just 1 shot play for them to close the point difference. From deep in his end zone Haupert tilts back for a rainbow pass to Tyler Rutenbeck who corrals the football and pushes his defenders away to sprint across the goal line for 16 – 14.
The game goes into the last quarter with the Raiders leading by 2 points, but their next drive sputters and they punt. Haupert takes over with a big throw to Yannick Mayr for 37 yards but the rivaling defense stops them at 3 & out and the punted ball touches the pylon so the Raiders start from their 20.
Schneider and Rabensteiner haul in passes to get ahead of the chains. After 2 ineffective plays, Shelton looks for his options in the backfield on 3rd down when he gets sacked by Simon Butsch. Ensuing punt goes to the Swabian 15 yard line.
Time is 3:53 and the heat is on for the Unicorns. Fiedler rushes for 6 yards first. Haupert zips it short to Böhringer who earns 14 yards. Then a holding penalty backs them off 10 yards and Maximilian Wild bats down Haupert’s pass. On 2nd and 20 Böhringer grabs the ball on a post route when he’s hit forcefully with a helmet to helmet contact by Vincent Müller. He gets ejected for targeting and the offense is forwarded by a 15 yard penalty.
There’s 2:17 left until the end of the game and the ball is on the Raiders’ 40. Fiedler pushes through the line on a couple of rushes for 1st down before a false start penalty. Haupert goes long to Mayr but Mayerhofer disrupts the pass. Then on a designed pass play no receivers are open so Haupert takes off for 17 yards and runs out of bounds to stop the time. Following Fiedler’s 3 yard run the ball is on the Raiders’ 13 yard line and the Unicorns take a timeout with 18 seconds still to play.
Rutenbeck darts to the corner of the end zone and jumps over Thomas Kugler to cradle a touch pass by Haupert. The Unicorns are euphoric but the team keeps its poise enough for a 2 points conversion when Böhringer is left alone in the end to secure Haupert’s pass for 16 – 22.
As he prepares for a final hail Mary pass, Shelton is strip sacked by Raphael Zistler to end the game.
Sean Shelton completed 29 of 37 passes for 237 yard and a touchdown. Adrian Platzgummer collected 11 catches for 92 yards and Marco Schneider added 5 of his own which were good for 44 yards and a touchdown. Romed Zangerle rushed 15 times for 60 yards, and Ruben Seeber had 2 carries for 6 yards, and was stopped once by the end zone for a score. Raiders’ defense broke up 4 passes, which ended up being 1 less than they needed to triumph. Jan Mayerhofer picked up an interception.
Alexander Haupert posted excellent numbers with 12 of 23 for 3 touchdowns and an interception. His longest pass was a 98 yard score and the target was Tyler Rutenbeck who grabbed just 1 more pass which also went for a 15 yard touchdown. He was named the MVP of the game because his production was instrumental in the Unicorns’ win. Moritz Böhringer had 7 catches for 123 yards, a touchdown and again a 2 point conversion. The defense stepped up with 4 sacks and a forced fumble but no recovery.
After the game, production crew has asked both head coaches and some key players to communicate their perspective of the big event in short interviews.
Jordan Neuman, head coach of the Unicorns wanted to make things clear: “That was a game at the top level of what Europe has to offer with these teams, two great organizations. It came down to the very end, it took the last minute, two minute drive to win it. It was two great teams and to finish with the great exciting ending I (don’t) think you could ask for anything more. That’s why we joined the CEFL, to show… because we know that the narrative’s out there a little bit that the Unicorns have some dual passports and things, and we wanted to show that it doesn’t matter if we have them or not, we can compete with anybody. We had new guys step up, some of our German guys played great, played at a high level, and it was a really big-time complete team victory today.”
Coach Neuman says that the Unicorns would seize the opportunity to play in the CEFL again: “Absolutely! We want to play at the highest level in Europe, we want to play against the top competition. The Raiders were top competition today. Year in, year out, one of the best teams, best organizations, and any time you get a chance to play against them and compete at that level, we’re all for it.” About his team’s season in the GFL he said: “First thing (in the GFL) I want to make sure that we come back and start getting a lot of guys opportunities on the field to play during this regular season… because we have a big roster and we have a lot of guys who have earned opportunities and we want to make sure they get them. The GFL has a long season, so we got to celebrate this, be happy about it probably more days than the normal victory, and then come back and get ready to go, and try and go after the German bowl.”
Head coach of the Raiders, Kevin Herron, pinpointed some components that were missing: “I’m proud of my guys… it was a close game. In the end that missed PAT made a little bit of the difference… they’re moving down the field, they’re in field goal range, with the field goal they can win it, and then you have to play a little risky, so giving up that last touchdown, it is what it is. We had too many penalties… the “roughing the passer” penalties killed us on defense. Offensively I think we moved the ball well, we were just unable to finish the drive and get points out of it. It was always in that crucial area of the field where you can’t really go for a field goal, we were out of field goal range, but you don’t want to give them too much of the field so… it is what it is.”
Coach Herron is also a big supporter of the CEFL: “We’re always looking forward to the CEFL, we’re always looking forward to seeing teams that we normally don’t face. I know the guys love it, I love it, it’s a great competition and I think it’s good for the European football.” About the mental errors of his team he added: “Especially here in the big ones you have to cut out the mistakes. The team with the (fewer) mistakes… you’re at one level… the team that makes (fewer) mistakes wins it. That’s what we have to learn from this: be more focused and cut (out) the penalties.”
The MVP of the game, Tyler Rutenbeck, wide receiver of the Unicorns: “It’s kind of surreal right now. We knew it was going to be a good game and it ended up being a good game. To execute like we did at the end of the game and in the second half it feels good. We earned this, we earned this one.” He chastised himself on the issue of a few dropped passes: “I had to make a little adjustment, but those are the ones that I need to catch. I had to get on myself a little bit and come back stronger in the second half… Their offense, Sean Shelton… he’s a baller… we player here in 2016 and that’s the first time I saw him and he’s still on it (with) how he runs his offense… and we bend but don’t break… our defense. They’re a good team, this was a big game and we won and (we have) momentum. We go to Stuttgart next week and it’s the next game and that’s the most important so that’s how we look at it.”
Moritz Böhringer, Unicorns’ tight end has now won his first trophy after returning from the NFL: “I came back to win championships and this is number one of two. We’re going back, trying to win GFL too“. He also shared his view on how football in the NFL differs from the game played in Europe: “It’s definitely faster and players have more experience and more time (on the field). The defenses play different looks so especially as a tight end you have to prepare more for that and it’s a little easier (in Europe).
Sean Shelton, Raiders’ quarterback offered his view of a tough loss: “When you face a defense like the Unicorns’ they will give you some things, they will play soft, they will challenge you to be consistent and we’re just not there yet as an offense. We’re not there to consistently maintain drives and to punch it in at the end. And that takes a really specialty offense where you don’t get penalties, you don’t get missed assignments, you don’t get a missed ball or a dropped ball or whatever the case may be. I think that’s been the trademark of our offense from 2017 to 2019 and now we’ve had some turnovers. That’s been the storyline of our season, we’ve had injuries, and that’s the key that we were missing today. In the second half for us not to score is just… we have to execute better in those scenarios.”
Shelton also hinted that the departure of wide receiver Sandro Platzgummer to the NFL wasn’t easy on the team: “We could execute really well for first 3 downs… because we don’t have an explosive offense anymore… and then we get a holding and it’s 1st and 20, or there was a drive where we jumped offside and then we miss a blocking assignment on 1st and 15 and now it’s 2nd and 12 and that’s not really how our offense is designed. Even if we move the ball 50 yards prior to that it doesn’t matter. That’s the consistency that I’m talking about. They did a great job of disguising coverages and moving things around, but if you’re robotic about it and go through your concepts, always follow your rules, always do what you’re supposed to do – you’re going to be successful and we had a tough time in the second half doing that.”
Sandro Platzgummer, former wide receiver of the Raiders and now a New York Giant of the NFL was watching the game from the sidelines: “At the end of the day it’s all about the details and the fundamentals. There’s so many little things that eventually led to a loss. (It’s the) first time the Raiders lost in Tivoli in probably 8 years, (it’s) the first time they’ve lost the final game in a long time. Obviously for me it’s tough to see because staying on the sideline and not being able to help out… it kind of hurts.” He noticed this about his former team’s offensive unit: “I think the offense did a really good job running the time (off)… moving down the field. Drives always took so long… eventually it was just the first down that we should have made that could have won us the game. Obviously Sean Shelton is still probably the greatest quarterback I’ve ever played with in Europe. I think he had a lot of pressure, he dealt very well with the pressure today, from the defensive line of the Unicorns. Losing is always tough but I’m sure the Raiders are going to come back and it’s going to be very motivating for everybody to try to work hard because it’s been a while since we lost the final game… I don’t even know when it was. I think everybody is going to have to look at themselves and try to get better. The Unicorns just played a better football game today.”
Sandro said that the main difference of playing in the NFL versus Europe was: “The speed. I’ve never played a football game (over there yet) and I hope it will happen sometime this year, but the speed is different. Football is the same game. Sometimes they call plays different names but playing on the field is exactly the same thing. Everything is about the details, every step has to be perfect, every catch has to be perfect, so that’s really the difference, it’s almost not human anymore.”