The Central Alberta Buccaneers (1-1) looked nothing like the team that steam rolled the Calgary Wolfpack in Week 1 on Saturday.
They were brought back to Earth with a thud in a disappointing 31-18 loss to the Grande Prairie Drillers (2-0) at MEGlobal Athletic Park in Lacombe in their Alberta Football League Week 2 showdown.
Basically everything they had going for them after the first week disappeared this weekend.
Their offence struggled to convert drives. Their defence faded badly in the fourth quarter. And penalties continued to plague the Central Albertans.
To head coach Duane Brown, the problem was obvious.
“We played the way we practiced,” he said. “We practiced like crap this week, we had easily the worst week of practice we’ve had all year and we played like it.”
Slotback Jamie Blinkhorn had two touchdown catches for the Buccaneers while Tylor Johnson kicked a 30-yard field goal, one convert and picked up a rouge on a missed field goal. Wide receiver Matt Merkley also kicked a single on a 43-yard punt.
Grande Prairie quarterback John Warr scored two touchdowns on the ground and hooked up with Jesse Deering for a 74-yard score. Running back Tyler Boyd added one more on the ground while place kicker Tyler Fulmek had an 18-yard field goal and four converts.
The game actually started out well for the home team, as defensive back Jordan Willie picked off Warr on Grande Prairie’s second drive and returned it to the Drillers 16-yard line. Two plays later and Buccaneers quarterback Josh Achtemichuk hit Blinkhorn from 10 yards out to open the scoring with a touchdown.
But they were unable to capitalize on the early momentum.
Penalties killed the Bucs all game, and it wasn’t even major penalties, but ticky tack stuff like offensive holding and procedure penalties that stalled drives.
The offence also had a lot of issues.
Achtemichuk finished with two touchdown passes but he was also picked off twice and very nearly on several other throws.
“He was late on the balls and he tried to force a couple when we got down,” said Brown. “I thought he made better decisions for the most part this week than he made last week, I also thought his receivers hung him out to dry a little bit last week.”
The play that really killed them, however, was mid way through the second quarter on third and goal from the Grande Prairie two-yard line. With Achtemichuk lined up in the shot gun, but a bad snap went sailing past him.
The Drillers took over on downs and marched the length of the field before Warr scored on a 10 yard quarterback draw.
One of the few positives was the play of star wide receiver Merkley.
Though he did not score a touchdown, he had several acrobatic catches and several big gains to extend drives. As well, he was dangerous in the return game all night long.
But after being named a league all-star last year, this should not be a surprise to Bucs fans.
He attended the Calgary Stampeders open tryout in Richmond, Va., this spring, and even though he did not advance to the main camp, he showed well in a field of about 40 receivers.
“It was an awesome experience down at the Stamps’ camp — I wasn’t the worst, so that’s the biggest thing,” said Merkley, 26, who teaches Grade 5 at Steffie Woima School in Sylvan Lake. “I would consider myself to be top 15 with all the tests they did.”
His biggest hurdle coming back for his seventh season in the AFL was getting used to a new pivot. Buccaneers all-star quarterback Byron Stearns retired in the off-season. His replacement is Achtemichuk, and he has formed a strong connection with the wily vet.
“Josh is phenomenal, I’m pretty happy Josh has come in and filled in for Byron,” said Merkley. “He knows what’s going on and he can read things and make plays — It’s great to have a veteran quarterback in there.”
Still, the offence is a work in progress. In the meantime, they need the defence to play better than they did on Saturday night to keep them in games until they really get going.
Though they played well early, the Drillers took over in the second half, especially on the ground, as they could not stop Warr when he was running or throwing, and Boyd was a monster up the middle.
“Our D-line was owned by their offensive line, they really controlled the game and they could do whatever they wanted,” said Brown.
The Buccaneers are next in Calgary at McMahon Stadium to play the Gators at 7 p.m.
NOTES — Buccaneers cornerback/receiver/place kicker Tylor Johnson was taken to hospital by ambulance after taking a controversial hit by a Drillers defensive back on the final play of the game. He was battling for a pass in the end zone with the Drillers corner back, when the safety came across and hit him hard, making no effort to make a play on the ball.
Brown was incensed after the game.
“That reffing is the single worst bit of officiating I’ve ever seen in football,” he said. “They were atrocious referees.”