Sudbury Gladiators head coach Reg Bonin could not have asked for much more.
Coming off a frustrating 45-1 loss at the hands of the Huronia Stallions two weeks ago, and taking full advantage of their bye week, the local OFC squad bounced back with a very solid all-around 16-13 victory over the North Halton Crimson Tide.
Along with returning to a level of play their coach expects, the Gladiators secured a playoff berth in the process, improving their season record to 4-2-1 in their first year under the guidance of Bonin.
A fourth-quarter 70-yard touchdown pass from QB Hunter Holub to Jon Landry proved to be the difference, as the Gladiators bounced back just three plays after surrendering the lead for the first time in the game.
While both teams had some degree moving the ball early on, the punting games were virtually non-existent, with Sudbury and North Halton often resorting to third-down gambles. As such, neither team was able to gain much advantage in the battle for field position in a scoreless opening quarter.
On their second possession of the second, however, the Gladiators capitalized after Holub turned the corner on a quarterback keep, racking up 47 yards in the process and carrying the ball down to the two-yard line.
Two plays later, he would call his own number again, bulldozing in from the two. The homeside came up smelling of roses on a botched point after holder Aaron Campbell spotted Cameron McDermid downfield, allowing Sudbury to chalk up an 8-0 lead.
The Crimson Tide replied late in the half, not long after QB Andrew Allen scrambled 37 yards of his own to establish scoring position for the visitors. Dondre Palma punched in the major, though the two-point conversion attempt was thwarted by the Sudbury defence.
Recovering their second short kick of the game to start the second half, the Gladiators' offence had trouble gaining traction, as neither team put up any points in quarter three. Making a change at quarterback, the visitors brought in Tanner Cadwallader to start the fourth, with the elusive pivot giving Sudbury some headaches in the early going.
Whereas Allen, who fits the physical profile of a fullback, was more likely to look straight up the gut and try and run over the opposition, Cadwallader was much more of a throwback to the Sudbury days of Daniel Poirier.
"We knew they had really athletic quarterbacks," noted Gladiators' defensive back Miller Donnelly. "We knew that we were going to have to contain them — and we knew that they were going to throw some deep balls.
"For the Johnny Manziel-like quarterback, it was harder, because he would keep the play alive for almost 15 seconds, so you had to cover longer. With the other guy, you had to worry about him running straight up the middle. They both posed different threats."
The change to Cadwallader seemed to spark the Tide, as the QB connected with Brandon Lorenzo Ihanzy on a 37-yard pass and run, and then scrambled for 25 more, giving North Halton a first down on the Sudbury 15.
Going back to Lorenzo Ihanzy, Cadwallader struck paydirt, with the Crimson Tide moving ahead 13-8. It was, however, a very short-lived lead. With the ensuing kickoff sailing out of bounds, Sudbury took over at their own 40.
Holub went to the air on first down, failing to connect with August Danyluk. But his next pass was right on the money, hitting Landry in full stride, directly in a seam in the secondary, with the Collège Notre-Dame 100-metre sprinter doing the rest, bolting his way to the end zone.
Though Sudbury had trouble maintaining drives thereafter, they were bailed out on a couple of occasions by some impressive punt returns courtesy of Devyn Chenier, who somehow weaved his way in and out of traffic while racking up almost 80 yards in returns.
Key fourth-quarter interceptions by both Donnelly and Josiah Walt also helped preserve the lead, with the Gladiators catching one final break. Looking to punt on third down near midfield, Landry again fell victim to a hard-charging rush.
Thankfully, on this occasion, he spotted John Bronicheski some 15 yards downfield, with the defensive back juggling the ball just for a second before gaining the yardage needed to allow the offence to run out the clock.
The Gladiators wrap up their regular season with a visit to North Bay next Saturday, facing the Nipissing Wild at 3 p.m.