Written by: Luke Rainey Columbus’ defense contributed their fair share against LC3, but repeated turnovers on the other side of the ball sank their ship.
Why the Thunderbirds won and the Explorers lost
It is not out of the ordinary for the Thunderbirds’ defense to command dominating victories against their competition. But to force 4 turnovers in the 2nd half, along with 2 defensive touchdowns, is an unprecedented feat that may never be accomplished again.
What makes it even more impressive is the fact they did this against the stacked offense of Columbus, with several ferocious playmakers under the command of quarterback Latavien Worrell. He threw for nearly 400 passing yards, with receiver CJ Robinson accounting for more than half of his total.
The Thunderbirds found themselves down by 13 without any offensive momentum. While they were able to hold the Explorers to 2 field goals, one of which with a stop on 1st & Goal from the 1-yard line, Columbus’ special teams rose to the occasion with a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown by Dashon Robinson.
Toronto would respond with 9 unanswered points, also failing to score 6 from the goal-line in the moments before halftime.
However, all of the Explorers’ success was overshadowed by a horrific rendition of “Groundhog Day,” with Worrell and receiver Braxton Banjo being the stars of the show.
Worrell committed the first turnover once he was strip-sacked from the Thunderbirds’ 5-yard line. Max Night recovered and did not face a single challenger as he ran the entire distance for the lead-changing touchdown.
Both teams kicked field goals on their next possessions, and with 8 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, the Explorers needed to do what they have done the entire game; drive the field in an efficient manner.
The only difference is that they would need to find a way to complete their drives.
After a furious charge down the field, the Explorers were near the 25-yard line with slightly under 6 minutes left. Worrell threw a pass up the middle to Banjo. He made the catch at the 10-yard line, but as he tried fighting his way through Toronto’s defense, he coughed up the ball and gifted the Thunderbirds another possession.
He would do the same exact thing inside the 2-minute warning during the Explorers’ final chance to attempt a comeback. Toronto would finish with a 26-16 victory.
After a sluggish first half for the Toronto Thunderbirds, Cornell Mickens came within inches of exacerbating their problems as they were attempting to tie the game.
On a carry at the 37-yard line, Roman Morrison delivered a hit that knocked the ball out of Mickens’ hands. Henry Dockett returned it to the 8-yard line before getting chased down and tackled by Corbin.
Unfortunately for the Explorers, further review of the turnover indicated Mickens’ right knee was down before he lost possession. The Thunderbirds would kick a field goal on the same drive, narrowing Columbus’ advantage to 4 when it was likely the Explorers would have had a 14-point lead if the fumble stood.
This would have been helpful when Columbus committed 4 turnovers in the next quarter-and-a-half. The probable 11-point difference on the ruling kept the Thunderbirds alive, and their struggles on offense would not turn into a problem because of this.
Play of the Game
It is not possible or fair to differentiate any of the turnovers for the Thunderbirds in the second half. Each of them carried their own significance in their victory over Columbus.
The strip-sack on Worrell returned for a touchdown gave Toronto the lead for the first time.
The pick 6 by Jiren Grey opened their lead to multiple possessions.
The forced fumble against Braxton Banjo put Toronto in absolute control of the game’s final minutes.
The second forced fumble against Banjo punctuated the victory.
Without any of these turnovers, the outcome may have been completely different.
It was clear that the Explorers could move the ball fairly smoothly against Toronto. If they were able to break the plane just once on offense, the Thunderbirds would have needed to rely on an offense that did not quite set the world on fire up to that point.
“5, I guess” on a scale from 1-10 was perhaps a perfect way for Thunderbirds’ Head Coach Kozyra to describe Toronto’s outing against Columbus. He understood the difficulties of playing a strong division rival on the road, but still said, “Those offensive slow starts need to be addressed.”
Explorers’ Head Coach Bill Nicholson did not shy away from pointing out the big issue they had with turnovers. He admitted that it was the defining factor in the outcome, but gave praise to his defense for keeping the Thunderbirds in check.
“If not for the turnovers, it’s a different game,” Nicholson explained. “But our defense also held them all game, which was a huge win even with us losing.”
Thunderbirds’ deep threat receiver Carlton Fatinikun was injured after making a catch early in the 2nd quarter. As he exited the field, he appeared to be clutching his right wrist, but the status of his injury is not known.
Toronto, 2-0, will host the Sacramento Condors in Week 3, while the 1-1 Explorers will host the Brooklyn Barons.