The Philippine Punishers used a stingy defense to thwart a determined Saipan Sharks team.
Jai Merchant's 18-yard Interception return for a touchdown with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter gave the home side a win in the exhibition match held in the Philsports field on Saturday.
The Fil-Am Strong Safety won the game ball from Punishers playing coach Tim Beasley. Merchant played several positions on both sides of the ball, everything from Running Back to Wide Receiver to Linebacker and Defensive Back.
And in the final possession of the game for the Pinoys, Merchant even played Quarterback for a series and reeled off a 20 yard-run that gave the Philippines a valuable first down as they tried to run the clock out.
The Punisher's regular QB for most of the game, Mike Hoese, threw three interceptions but did toss a 20-yard touchdown pass to wideout GJ Dy in the first quarter that opened the scoring.
The point after from the Punisher's kicker, Australian Dave Mouatt, was true but a flag on the play forced the Philippines to retake the kick, and from five yards further out Mouatt was unable to boot the pigskin through the makeshift PVP-pipe goalposts that were strapped to the Soccer goals. That miss kept the score at 6-0.
In the second quarter the visitors then produced a brilliant 70-yard scoring drive that culminated in a one-yard scoring plunge from running back Jeff Boyer. In that possession Shark Quarterback Josh Lutrelle went 5-for-6 passing in what was easily the most impressive passage of play of the game.
Curiously, Saipan elected to go for a two-point conversion instead of a one point kick, and Lutrelle's throw deep into the corner of the end zone was caught, but out of bounds, which kept the score deadlocked at 6-6.
Saipan had difficulty in the kicking game, with two punts barely fluttering ten yards past the line of scrimmage.
The game was played with modified rules: no kickoffs after scores, only to start each half. Teams were seemingly not allowed to try and block punts or point afters, and only two players were allowed to rush the kick returners.
The field was 90 yards long from endzone to endzone instead of the usual 100, and there were numerous two-minute water breaks scattered throughout the game.
Merchant broke the stalemate midway through the fourth quarter when he picked off a wayward Lutrelle pass in the center of the field and sidestepped several Sharks on his way to the right corner of the end zone.
Mouatt's point after touchdown this time was good for 13-6.
But Saipan were not finished, as they marched deep into Punisher's territory with only minutes to spare.
However on fourth down on the Punisher five yard line, Saipan went with a quarterback sneak play that was snuffed out by the Punisher's defensive line for a memorable goal line stand.
A fumble by Punisher Linebacker/Running back Will Yeh, who had earlier sacked Lutrelle, gave Saipan one last roll of the dice with under a minute to go. But the visitors were stymied by the Punisher's prevent defense and once again Saipan turned the ball over on downs.
The Pinoys then took a knee with 10 seconds remaining and as the clock ran out, celebrated the win.
"These guys came to play ball" said the 43-year-old Beasley, who was forced to play when Right Tackle John-T Vergara had an exam to take that day and was unavailable.
"They gave us one hell of a game but we kicked it into overdrive and stepped up our game. We still have some weaknesses to work on for next year."
The game was a project of the American Football Federation of the Philippines, which is headed by Beasley and his Filipina wife, Des.
It is their aim to eventually become a National Sports Authority for American Football, as well as to become the 65th member nation of the International Federation for American Football.
The win is the fourth this year for the team against one loss against the Guam All-Stars in Clark last April. They beat the Hong Kong Cobras in Clark, topped the Beijing Guardians in China, then completed a sweep over Hong Kong last July. This was their first-ever game in Metro Manila.
The Punishers have foreign players like Beasley, linebacker Steve Smith, and wide receiver Ben Paulson, but the overwhelming majority are Filipinos.
The AFFP plans a developmental league next year with four Metro Manila-based teams and two clubs from Subic.
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