Attitude, Coaching Change Bring Blaze to First Conference Title Game
Wednesday August 1, 2012
Shortly before the end of the Utah Blaze home loss to the San Antonio Talons, a member of the local media turned to me and asked “So, do you think this team will make the playoffs?” My answer was a hesitant “Maybe, but probably not” because a 9-9 team would not make the playoffs and that's what the Blaze looked like. They were 6-5, had just let a 12 point lead fall apart in the final 6 minutes and had tough road games against Arizona and Spokane which looked liked losses. They also had home games against Chicago and Georgia which, at the time, looked like they could go either way.
The Blaze followed up the three game loss streak (including two losses in a row at home) winning the next two games against Kansas City and Chicago by a combined score of 123-73. Those blowouts started a five game winning streak that included home blow-outs against Georgia and Cleveland and crucial wins at Spokane and Arizona. The Blaze now find themselves at 13-5 with their first possibility to win the National Conference if they win Saturday against the Arizona Rattlers
. The Blaze have had a phenomenal turn around and appear to be peaking at just the right moment to make a push to the ArenaBowl.
But how does a team approaching mediocrity turn into a possible champion? What has changed for the Utah Blaze? “It's a mentality. When you look at the Giants team in the NFL who everyone gave up for dead in the middle of the season, and they just decided amongst themselves to make a run, play more consistent and play solid and for each other. We made the same commitment and it's shown on our play on the field. We've got a very tight locker room, those guys play hard for each other,” said Head Coach Ron James
after the Cleveland game.
WR Tyson Poots echoed those statements a few moments later, “We're really close. Within practice and within games, we just want each other to succeed and we will do whatever it takes to do that.”
That team chemistry has been seen on both sides of the ball. While the Blaze’s offensive performance has continued their record setting pace, the defense has taken a huge leap. Since that San Antonio loss at home in week 12, the Blaze’s opponents averaged 47.6 points/game. Before that, they average 62.4. It’s important to note that week 12 was the first week that new defensive coordinator Rob Keefe
joined the Blaze.
“Fortune favors the bold. We have to make some bold decisions from time to time. Change the defensive coordinator and get a bit of a spark on the defensive side. It seems to be a good formula right now.” said Coach James.
Keefe saw the potential of the Utah Blaze defense from the moment he started with the Blaze. “We have a team here which is great, the guys really care about each other and Ron (James) really puts the players in great positions.” said Keefe after his first game with the Blaze. “I believe the potential for a championship is here. I wouldn't have come here if I didn't believe that.”
The Blaze have had an extra ace on the hole since Keefe's coming. The Blaze started each of the remaining home games by getting a 4-and-out stop of the first possession of the game. Each time the Blaze won and won easily. “Every play matters, every play counts. It's all about coming out strong, coming out physical, coming out fast and recognizing what's at stake. I couldn't be more proud.”
The defense was also the key in the Blaze’s first playoff victory. In the Conference semi final game against the San Antonio Talons, the Blaze offense was held to the second lowest point total of the season, and yet the Blaze were still able to meet the Talons stop for stop including keeping legendary QB Aaron Garcia and the high power Talon offense scoreless in the entire 2nd quarter. The defensive stands the Blaze had allowed them to take advantage of an early extra point miss and beat the Talons 35-34 to win their first playoff game.
For Blaze fans, this can’t be under stressed. For the first time, the Blaze are going to finish the season with a winning record. For the first time, the Blaze have won a playoff game. For the first time, the Blaze are going to the Conference Championship. For the first time, the Blaze are playing for the ArenaBowl. That's a lot of first, but for the Blaze it's all steps for the real goal: The first AFL championship.
“I think every team has the possibility to be a champion. I think it's the attitude, work effort and attention to detail that will make you a champion. It's the effort and attention to detail that is given every single day. The fact that nobody stops, that nobody quits. If you have that mentality coupled with great coaching, great talent and great playing, a championship is always a possibility.” said Keefe after the Cleveland game.
That possibility is something the city of Salt Lake has never known. The Blaze have done a great job on slowly working their way into the sports community, and the unprecedented success has continued to grow the Blaze brand across the Wasatch valley. Everyone, including Head Coach Ron James recognizes the opportunity that is present before the Blaze as they are one win away from the ArenaBowl.
“We're getting some notice around town. The buzz around town has been palpable. I'm very happy for the fans and the opportunity that they have now to see a playoff caliber team, to see a winning team. The first incarnation of the Blaze never had a winning record. This is a great thing for our fan base, this is a great team for our locker room and I'm just humbled to be a part of it.”
And no matter what the outcome on Saturday in Phoenix, the fans are grateful to be a part of this record breaking and unprecedented season.
The National Conference Championship game between the Arizona Rattlers and the Utah Blaze game will be broadcast in Utah on KMYU. Channel 2.2 over the air, 22 on Comcast or 12 on satellite. Kickoff is at 8:00p.m. Mountain Time.
Don Eisenbarth has been following the Utah Blaze since 2006, but this is his first year covering for ArenaFan. Born in Provo to a family of BYU fans and having graduated from the University of Utah, Don has enjoyed all sides of the Utah college football landscape for decades and is excited for the return of professional football to the Beehive State. You can follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/bigdondoo
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.