Rattlers a no-show as Soul roll to title
You can't spot a great football team a 21-point lead seven minutes into any game.
The Arizona Rattlers simply did not show up to play in ArenaBowl 29 on Friday afternoon at Gila River Arena about a half hour west of their usual home field -- the Snake Pit in downtown Phoenix.
A combination of poor execution, five turnovers and an unlucky bar ball were too much to overcome as the Philadelphia Soul took an early three-score lead en route to a convincing 56-42 win.
The victory gave the Soul (16-3) its second Arena Football League championship and denied Arizona its sixth overall title. Rattler fans know this feeling all too well as the home ArenaBowl curse continues. The Rattlers have now lost three straight championship games played in the desert (2004, 2011, 2016).
The Rattlers (15-4) did things Friday they have not done in years. Five turnovers, a lost kickoff off the bar for a Philly TD and subpar offense left the home crowd looking on in shock as Philadelphia collected the Foster Trophy.
Falling behind big early, Arizona fought all the way back as the fourth quarter began. KJ Morton stripped the Soul's Ryan McDaniel as he dove toward the end zone. With the ball back on offense after Dan Buckner recovered, Arizona quarterback Nick Davila (23 of 38, 281 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) slipped a bullet pass into Maurice Purify with 14 minutes left in the game. Nick Pertuit's PAT tied the game at 42-42.
Philly's next possession saw Buckner miss a chance for a critical interception. Soul QB Dan Raudabaugh (20 of 36, 278 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT) made Arizona pay, hitting Shaun Kauleinamoku for a score to give the Soul a 48-42 lead. Arizona's Tyre Glasper blocked the extra point, giving the Rattlers a chance to take their first lead of the game.
With the crowd of 13,390 looking to roar their approval, the Soul's Jake Metz made the biggest play of the game. He hit Davila's arm, forcing and recovering a fumble -- Arizona's fourth turnover of the game.
Raudabaugh quickly capitalized with "SK" making an incredible TD catch with a defender draped all over him. A successful 2-point conversion put the Soul up 56-42.
A last ditch effort by Arizona ended with another interception thrown by Davila as disappointed fans hit the exits.
ArenaBowl XXIX started in disastrous fashion for the Rattlers.
With a large, vocal crowd on hand seeking Arizona's fourth title in five years, Philly quickly silenced Rattler Nation by driving down the field to take a 7-0 lead. Perhaps the harbinger of things to come was when Arizona's best pass rusher, Damien Borel, absorbed a block to his knees on the second play from scrimmage and never returned to the game.
The negative momentum continued as Mykel Benson was ruled to have fumbled as he crawled toward the goal line on the next possession. Replays appeared to show Benson's arm and shoulder down. Not only did officials give Philly the ball, defender Beau Bell was not ruled down by contact even though he was clearly sitting on the field. The ball popped loose and Dwayne Hollis took it 49 yards the other way to quickly make it 14-0.
The nightmare was finally complete when Anthony Amos misplayed the ensuing kickoff. He fumbled the bar ball and Tracy Belton slid in to score yet another Soul TD.
Some Rattler fans were still settling into their seats and their team trailed 21-0.
Purify scored to get the Rattlers on the board but another Soul touchdown set a new ArenaBowl record for most points scored in a first quarter of a championship game -- 28.
The Rattlers spent the next two stanzas playing catch-up. Benson scored a couple rushing touchdowns and Rod Windsor, held to 42 yards receiving, hauled in a pair of scores as Arizona crept within 42-35 as the third quarter ended.
Arizona has expectations to win a championship every season and Head Coach Kevin Guy has to be wondering what went wrong. A Rattlers team that had averaged 82 points per game in the first two playoff games of 2016 was held to 40 points lower than that.
While poor officiating ended the Rattlers' 2015 season, there can be no blaming the zebras for this result. The Rattlers were simply outplayed in all three facets of the game -- offense, defense and special teams. For the first time in the three ArenaBowl meetings between these teams, Raudabaugh clearly outshined Davila, who collected his third AFL MVP trophy the previous day.
And while the Soul celebrate a title deep into the Arizona night, the Rattlers will have an entire offseason to wonder why they had one of their worst showings in years on the league's biggest stage.