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Blaze-Soul Matchup an ArenaBowl Preview?

Andy Lopusnak
Friday July 20, 2012


The last AFL regular season game of the year could easily be a preview of ArenaBowl XXV when the Philadelphia Soul hosts the Utah Blaze this Sunday evening. Not only does this game feature the top two scoring teams in the league, it also has the top two quarterbacks in each conference in Utah's Tommy Grady and Philadelphia's Dan Raudabaugh.

Philadelphia, winners of seven straight, averages 68.2 points per game and Utah, winners of six straight, is right behind the Soul with 64.4. Both should end the season with the two greatest point totals seasons in league history (Philadelphia already has the top spot and Utah needs 50 points to pass San Jose which played its last game last week). The Soul has reached at least 80 points in four games, including a 92-point outburst at Georgia (tied for the most points ever by a road team). Utah has two 80-point games and in those contests, Grady tossed 23 of his AFL record 137.
 
This is the second time that these gunslingers have met. The previous matchup was in Salt Lake City on March 31, 2011 with Grady and the Blaze beating Raudabaugh's Dallas Vigilantes squad, coached by Soul offensive coordinator Clint Dolezel, by 29 points (69-40). Grady tossed for 342 yards with six passing scores and two more on the ground. In just his fourth AFL start (and first loss), Raudabaugh was picked off a career-high three times.
 
While the Soul has nothing to play for since it wrapped up home-field advantage until the ArenaBowl over a month ago, the Blaze needs a win to secure its first division title in franchise history. Though Philadelphia isn't playing for anything aside from the possibility of the best AFL regular season record this yet, expect all normal starters to start and play since the team had a bye last week. One thing to consider is that the Soul has played just one team with at least ten wins when it beat San Jose 61-55 in Week Six. That game, the Soul forced five turnovers and almost lost. In comparison, Utah has played seven games against teams with ten or more wins (3-4). Additionally, the Blaze is 4-0 against the three teams that beat Philadelphia. This is perhaps the best test to see if the Soul is for real or just played in a terrible conference.
 
As for Utah. This game is crucial. Right now, Utah and Arizona are tied at 12-5 with San Jose at 12-6. In the division championship scenario, Utah has the tiebreaker over Arizona; but doesn't have it over San Jose if all three teams end at 12-6 (assuming Utah and Arizona lose this week). If this happens, then San Jose would be the West Division champion and #2 seed getting to host #3 Arizona while #4 Utah would travel to #1 San Antonio because of the point differential tiebreaker that Arizona has over Utah. The two teams split the season series with Arizona winning by 16 and Utah winning by 13. In the Blaze's win just two weeks ago, Utah had the chance to get the points necessary but chose to run out the final 2:47. The reason was that the team was looking at the division championship tiebreakers that don't put an emphasis on point differential. However, it does apply in the non-division championship tiebreaker, which you'd think the Blaze would realize since it point differential is the reason the team didn't make the playoffs last year. In 2011, Utah and Spokane had identical 9-9 records and split their season series, but the Shock went to the postseason thanks to a 27-point win over the Blaze (Utah beat Spokane by seven).
 
My ArenaFan colleague Adam Markowitz put it simply in his playoff scenarios article like this...
 
Utah Wins/Arizona Wins
#2 Utah (13-5) (Would play vs. Arizona) 
#3 Arizona (13-5) (Would play at Utah) 
#4 San Jose (12-6) (Would play at San Antonio)
 
Utah Wins/Arizona Loses
#2 Utah (13-5) (Would play vs. San Jose) 
#3 San Jose (12-6) (Would play at Utah) 
#4 Arizona (12-6) (Would play at San Antonio)
 
Utah Loses/Arizona Wins
#2 Arizona (13-5) (Would play vs. San Jose) 
#3 San Jose (12-6) (Would play at Arizona) 
#4 Utah (12-6) (Would play at San Antonio)
 
Utah Loses/Arizona Loses
#2 San Jose (12-6) (Would play vs. Arizona) 
#3 Arizona (12-6) (Would play at San Jose) 
#4 Utah (12-6) (Would play at San Antonio)
 
Now back to the Blaze-Soul game...
 
Grady has already obliterated the AFL's single-season passing touchdown mark by 20 scores with one game remaining (137, previous record was 117) and tied the AFL single-game mark last week with a dozen TDs. He needs 166 passing yards and four completions and to pass San Jose's Mark Grieb for the AFL single-season records in those categories.
 
Assuming he surpasses Grieb in those two categories, Grady will become the first player in AFL history to break the league's single-season records in completions, attempts, passing yards and passing touchdowns in the same season. Twenty-five seasons ago, Washington Commandoes QB Rich Ingold led the league in all four categories setting the first league marks, but player has broken all four in the same season.
 
Last week, Grady tied the AFL record for most passing TDs in a game with 12 and has tossed at least ten in an AFL record three games this year. In fact, Grady's six career games with ten or more passing scores are more than any player in AFL history (1 in 2010, 2 in 2011 and 3 this year).
 
 
MOST CAREER GAMES WITH 10+ PASSING TD - AFL SINGLE SEASON HISTORY
RANK
PLAYER
10 OR MORE PASS TD GAMES
1
Tommy Grady
6
2
Clint Dolezel
5
3
Aaron Garcia
3
 
Joe Germaine
3
 
Sunday will be just Grady's 49th AFL start and he already has 26 career 300-yard games. If he gets 300 this week, Grady will have an AFL single-season record 12th on the season (he's tied with Grieb and Arizona's Nick Davila with 11 entering this week). The AFL record for career 300-yard games is by Aaron Garcia, who has 62 in 206 starts. Grady gets to 300 in 53.1% of his games, the highest percentage in league history. Garcia gets to 300 in only 30.1% of his starts. Fitting that Grady's first career start came against Garcia back in 2010.
 
Raudabaugh, who made his AFL passing debut against Utah in relief duty back in 2010, hasn't put up the Grady's gargantuan numbers in part, to his leading the most balanced offensive unit in the AFL, but is tied for the third most passing TDs and is fifth in yards. The Soul leads the AFL in rushing yards and is second in rushing TDs (one behind San Jose, which has already ended its season). In the red zone, the Soul rely on the ground game to score with 35 of its 39 rushing scores coming from inside its opponents' ten-yard line. Utah has 16 total rushing touchdowns, tied for the second fewest in the AFL.
 
Philadelphia's ground attack is led by fullback Derrick Ross, who has redefined rushing in this pass-happy indoor league. In only two AFL seasons, Ross ranks eighth all-time in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He also has the two greatest rushing yardage seasons (622 last year and 564 this year) in league history.
 
The Soul is without leading receiver Tiger Jones, who was signed by the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles two weeks ago. When Jones left, he was leading the AFL in receiving yards and was the first player in league history to record back-to-back 2,000-yard receiving seasons. Without Jones, Philadelphia picked up Troy McBroom, who caught 149 passes for 1,747 yards with 31 touchdowns last season with the Tulsa Talons, but was released by the Chicago Rush before the season started.
 
Philadelphia's defense leads the AFL in fumble recoveries (28) and total takeaways (61) while being second in interceptions (33) and fourth in sacks (32). The Soul is led by defensive backs Kent Richardson (AFL leading 14 INT) and Rayshaun Kizer (10 INT), who have a combined 24 interceptions and 40 pass breakups on the year. Philadelphia has returned a league-high seven picks for touchdowns. On the line, Bryan Robinson leads the Soul with ten sacks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Robinson has blocked an AFL single-season record seven kicks on special teams. The Soul's defense is the best in the red zone and has forced 15 turnovers. Utah counters with the best red-zone offense scoring 86.6% (all touchdowns). Philadelphia does have the most red-zone touchdowns (87) and have been inside the ten more than any other offense (111 times), but has turned the ball over a league-high 15 time in the red zone. The Blaze has the worst red-zone defense allowing points 88.6% of the time with only a single red-zone takeaway.
 
As for Utah, its defense has improved since former Spokane head coach Rob Keefe took over the team's less than stellar defense. After losing by three to San Antonio in his first game with Utah, Keefe's defense has helped the Blaze to six straight wins. His defense has held opponents less than 50 points in four of the seven games with no more than 64 points allowed. In the team's first ten games without Keefe, Utah allowed over 50 in all but one and over 60 seven times. Keefe was a defensive back in the Soul's 2008 ArenaBowl championship and then won another ArenaBowl two years later as the Shock's head coach.
 
Each team is led by two of the top offensive minds in the post-Ironman era.
 
Utah assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Matt Sauk has shown that fourth down is not for field goals no matter where you're at on the field. The Blaze has converted an AFL single-season record 32 fourth-down attempts and has converted a blistering 71.1% (next closest team is at 58.8, Philly is at 50%). In Sauk's three seasons as an offensive coordinator in the AFL, his teams have attempted ten total field goals (converting six). Eleven teams this year alone have attempted at least ten field goals.
 
Dolezel hasn't had as many fourth-down opportunities thanks to the best offensive line in the game that has seen Raudabaugh sacked a league-low four times. Additionally, the Soul is second in third-down conversions (55%). Dolezel's offense has 151 total touchdowns (second only to the 153 by Utah and San Jose). The Soul is the only team in the league that hasn't attempted a field goal this season.
 
Though these two squads have combined for no made field goals and just two attempts, the kicking game for both is very strong in other areas. Last week, Utah had three net recoveries that led the way for Grady to get his record-tying dozen passing scores. Philadelphia is the best percentage wise in recovering on-side kicks (35.4), while Utah is tied for the most on-side kick recoveries (6) in the league.
 
If the game comes down to a penalty late, Utah has been flagged a league-high 186 times that includes 62 that went for opponent first downs. Good news for the Blaze is that the Soul's opponents are the least penalized in terms of yards per game this season (42.2) and a league-low 41 have given Philadelphia first downs.
 
Assuming that the Soul plays its starters for the entire game, this could be a classic battle fitting for the last regular season game of the league's silver anniversary and a preview of a rematch just twenty days later in the Big Easy. 


 
Andy Lopusnak is an 11-year AFL front office veteran, spending time with the Tampa Bay Storm, San Diego Riptide and Grand Rapids Rampage. He works as a statistician for NFL and college sports for CBS Sports and is a freelance photographer. Lopusnak received two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of South Florida and has been a fan of ArenaBall since its inception.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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