Sydney Uni Lions opened their 2016 Waratah Bowl Gridiron campaign with a strong 32-8 win over the UTS Gators at Greystanes on Saturday.

It looked like business as usual when the Lions’ defence stopped the Gators cold on their first series and then drove down confidently to the goal line on their first possession. But a mix-up in the backfield saw the Lions fumble away possession and lose the chance for an early score.

The Lions soon had the ball back after another three and out defensive series and quarterback Matt Hilley (#14) again drove the Lions down to the goal line with some well thrown passes to Zac Smith-Bubbins (#32) and Sam Darcy (#84). The Lions could not punch the ball into the endzone, however, and had to settle for a field goal by Smith-Bubbins to get first points on the board.

The Gators mounted a drive down to the Lions’ 20-yard line on their next series, but turned the ball over on downs when safety Mitch Henderson (#20) made a sure tackle on the fourth down play. The Lions then gave the ball straight back after Hilley underthrew his receiver down the sideline. The defence seemed to have matters under control before an untimely facemask penalty extended the drive and over pursuit saw the Gators’ quarterback bootleg into the endzone for a touchdown. The Gators converted on a two-point attempt to rub salt into the wound and take the lead 8-3 with less than a minute before halftime.

The lack of time did not deter the Lions. A squib kick by the Gators gave the Lions good starting field position and a completion to receiver Harry Granger (#5) got the ball to the Gators’ 36 yard line. On the next play, Hilley threw a perfect pass to Andrew Ghaly (#89) running unmarked down the seam only to see the ball slip through his hands incomplete.

With just seconds left for one last play, Hilley made a miraculous escape from the pass rush and, under heavy pressure on the run, launched a ball to the endzone for Andrew Ghaly to redeem himself with a touchdown catch. Hilley capped the remarkable turnaround with a two-point conversion to Darcy to give the Lions the half time lead at 11-8.

The Lions took control of the game in the second half. Nick Olive (#22) returned the kick-off 26 yards and then Running Back, Charles Adams (#2), ripped off a 29-yard gain down to the goal line. After a couple of stuffed run plays, quarterback Steve Weingarten (#10) fired a touchdown strike to Smith-Bubbins to stretch the lead to 18-8.

The defence then got the ball back on the next play, Nick Olive continuing his powerhouse game by stripping and recovering the ball from a Gators’ receiver. Completions to Granger and Darcy had the Lions in position for another score until Weingarten misread the coverage to throw an interception. However, the Lions’ defence smothered the Gators, getting another turnover on downs when Keenan Mackett (#9) and Alexander Hunt (#85) took down the Gators’ quarterback for a loss on 4th down.

The Lions made the Gators pay on the very next play, with Running Back Alex Watson (#40) weaving his way through the defence for a 29 yard touchdown. The score pushed the lead out to 25-8.

The Lions defence was at it again on the next series. The Lions, led by Batuhan Tuylu (#90), with three tackles for loss and a sack, would give up a net of only 21 yards on the ground for the game and stopped the Gators for yet another turnover on downs.

It was exciting to see important contributions being made on defence by so many new faces to the team – Chris Day (#43), Mitchell Dicalfas (#44), Chenghao Cui (#53), Chris Tolson (#46), Alexander Hunt (#85), Steve Zavelisky (#81), Greg Steele-Mills (#57), Supi Save (#93) and Joel Suttor (#58) all making plays in their first game for the Lions.

The Lions finished the scoring for the game with a long range pass from Weingarten to Darcy for 49 yards on their next possession. The play rounded out a big game for Darcy, who held six catches for 127 yards with a touchdown and a two-point conversion.

Unfortunately, the UTS Gators stopped the game at that point before the start of the 4th quarter. The victory stretches the remarkable unbeaten run of Sydney University over UTS since the start of its program in 1994 to 39 wins.

The Lions now look forward to a clash against the Sutherland Seahawks on Saturday, September 17 at 6pm at David Phillips Field, Daceyville.