Desert Bowl preview: Desert Foxes take on Abu Dhabi Wildcats
Holding a team to zero points is a tall order in any game, let alone in the championship against opposition that suffered one loss all year.
Al Ain, however, can take confidence from handing the Abu Dhabi Wildcats that lone defeat, and that too by blanking them 14-0 in the final game of the regular season.
When the foes clash Friday at Dubai Sports City in the first Desert Bowl to feature the Desert Foxes, Sharp wants to see history repeat itself.
“We’re planning to pitch the first shutout in a Desert Bowl game. Period. Anything less than a shutout will be a failure for us,” said Sharp.
Claiming a victory over the two-time champions will be a challenge in itself for Al Ain.
While the Desert Foxes have toiled away at the bottom of the league since the its formation, Abu Dhabi have been a mainstay in the Desert Bowl, this trip marking their fourth appearance.
Last year’s title game, however, is the one sticking in the mind of Wildcats players. Abu Dhabi suffered their first loss on the grand stage, at the hands of the Dubai Barracudas, in a back-and-forth contest that resulted in Tony Robinson’s men falling just short.
“There’s a sense that we’ve been there before and I think last time we went there with a mindset of we’re capable of winning it all, and we’re going in with the same mindset, but this time we know we have to finish the job,” Robinson said.
Both Robinson and Sharp are coaches who are animated on the sidelines in their own way, but the latter’s trash talking is unmatched.
Sharp has never lacked confidence in his squad, even when they were struggling to get a single win, but now that the Desert Foxes can back up his bark, he’s warning it’ll be at another level tomorrow.
“It’s going to be epic. Epic. Epic,” Sharp repeated with conviction. “This is must-see TV. For us to travel through the trials and tribulations we’ve had and I can actually talk noise and we can back that up, oh it’s going to be epic. I’m going to lose a friend.”
Robinson believes Sharp’s bravado will be just another reason for his team to bring their best.
“I think it will be a motivating factor for our guys to make him eat his words, so to speak,” he said.
Al Ain are attempting to finish off their dream season, one of firsts in which they’ve earned their first win since 2012-13, their first shutout and first playoff victory.
MILLER’S MOVE PAYING OFF
Wherever Davion Miller goes, Desert Bowl appearances follow.
After reaching the final game of the EAFL season three times with the Dubai Stallions, the running back will make his fourth appearance Friday, this time in a slightly brighter shade jersey.
Miller was at the forefront of players to switch teams in the offseason, joining others from around the league to take up the chance to bolster an Al Ain Desert Foxes team that had been in desperate need of bodies and talent.
The player movement has paid instant dividends and brought more parity to the league, with Al Ain winning four of their seven games this season, including their first-ever playoff victory, coming in the first round over the defending champion Dubai Barracudas.
Now, Miller will return to the scene that saw him pick up the Desert Bowl MVP in 2015.
“It feels good, man,” said Miller. “When we started the season, we had one goal and that was to get to the Desert Bowl with the Desert Foxes. Over the years, they’ve been getting their butts kicked and we decided to come together and put it in for this team. I’m excited to go back.”
On the other side, the Abu Dhabi Wildcats have their own experienced running back in Vivaldi Tulysse, who will also play in his fourth Desert Bowl.
Speaking on his big-game know-how, Tulysse said: “It’s really mental. You have to stop the penalties and just stay focused. If we do all that, we’ll win the Desert Bowl.”
BREAKING DOWN DESERT BOWL V
Wildcats offence v Desert Foxes defence
It’s no secret. The Abu Dhabi Wildcats’ offence starts and stops with their dominant running game, spearheaded by star back Vivaldi Tulysse.
But the Wildcats can do their damage with more than just Tulysse, with battering ram Robby Lopez serving as the thunder to Tulysse’s lightning.
Expect them to utilise options early and often, while also reaching into their bag of tricks to give the multi-skilled Tulysse chances in the receiving game and a couple throws downfield.
To counter, Johnny Sharp’s team will stick to their ‘alignment, assignment and keys’ motto, which basically tells the defence what they need to do regardless of how the opposition lines up.
Desert Foxes offence v Wildcats defence
Abu Dhabi’s ground game has rightly received a lot of praise this season, but the Desert Foxes have their own running attack they can lean on, highlighted by Davion Miller and an offensive line featuring plenty of size.
As Tony Robinson pointed out, Al Ain’s offence beat on people and wear them down with the run before taking advantage of sucked-in defences with deep passes. It was on full display in the first-round defeat of the defending champion Dubai Barracudas, whom the Desert Foxes relentlessly attacked downfield until finally connecting on a deep touchdown heave.
The Desert Foxes aren’t afraid to rotate quarterbacks either, with Jay Hall serving as a change-up to keep defences on their heels.
While not as glamorous, special teams should never be overlooked, especially in a game of this magnitude with the stakes as high as they are.
The kicking game has been down usage-wise throughout the league this season, but kick-offs and punt coverage remain paramount for winning the field position battle.
Al Ain have one of the most dangerous return men in the EAFL in Muhammad Abdullah, who showed his home-run-hitting ability as recently as the first round of the playoffs, when he fooled the Dubai Barracudas’ punt coverage by picking up a ball that had stopped rolling before taking it 35 yards to the house. One play like that could swing a tightlycontested game.
In terms of narrative and what’s best for the league, it would be cool to see the Desert Foxes finally break through and win the title, which would give every team in EAFL at least one Desert Bowl win.
But as far as they’ve come and for all the hard work Johnny Sharp and the players have put in to turning around the Al Ain programme, it’s hard to deny that Abu Dhabi have been the best team in the league this season.
From top to bottom, their talent and depth is unmatched and it helps when you have the biggest game-changer in the entire EAFL, Vivaldi Tulysse, on your side. Al Ain will make them earn it, that’s for sure.
Wildcats 14, Desert Foxes 12
Jay Asser - Sport360