Massive momentum shift powers Rattlers past Shock
It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
Overcoming a lackluster start, the Arizona Rattlers rode a huge wave of momentum and made some key defensive plays to post a dominating 72-41 victory over the Spokane Shock on Saturday in the first round of the Arena Football League playoffs.
"We started off slowly but after that we played really well," Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy said on the field following Arizona's 10th straight playoff win, a league record.
"The defense really set the tone but it was a total team effort tonight."
The victory that saw the three-time defending ArenaBowl champions finish the game on a 72-27 scoring run sets up a familiar showdown next weekend on the West Coast. The second-seeded Rattlers (15-4) will travel to Stockton, California for a battle with their arch rivals, the 18-1 top-seeded San Jose SaberCats. The game is being played 80 miles from San Jose because the SAP Center, the Cats' regular home where the Rattlers were blown out July 31, is not available next Saturday.
In posting the 31-point win, Arizona also avenged a road loss to the Shock on July 17.
Leading just 30-28 at halftime, Arizona played a second half that reminded everyone why they have hoisted the Foster Trophy the past three seasons. But the beginning of the game was anything but pretty.
The Rattlers came out of the gates in forgettable fashion. After losing the coin toss and a Shock deferral to the second half, Arizona was stopped on downs on its first offensive series of the game.
The Shock (7-12) quickly took advantage as quarterback Arvell Nelson connected with big man Deveric Gallington over the middle for a 34-yard touchdown.
Arizona's offense sputtered again on its second drive as quarterback Nick Davila had his fourth-down pass knocked away.
Again, Spokane cashed in on the turnover on downs. Nelson hit receiver Nick Truesdell streaking across the field for a touchdown with 3:43 left in the first quarter. Rattler Nation was in a state of shock as the home team, who has not lost a playoff game in Phoenix since 2011, was down 14-0.
The Rattlers high-powered offense finally showed signs of life as the first quarter ended. Davila hit the underrated Chase Deadder for a five-yard touchdown. After the Alex Zendejas extra point, Arizona trailed 14-7.
Needing a spark, Arizona's defense immediately provided one. The entire defensive line busted through and got their hands on Nelson in the end zone. As he fell to the turf, he flipped the ball toward the wall and was called for intentional grounding by referee Scott Campbell.
The safety got the crowd of 10,322 into the game and cut the Shock lead to 14-9.
Davila did not wait long to get the home crowd even more fired up. He found Deadder on a long touchdown pass down the middle of the field. After falling behind by two scores, the Rattlers led 16-14 with 13:28 left before halftime.
Continuing a trend of making big plays on third and fourth down, Nelson passed to Truesdell for a quick-response touchdown on fourth down to put Spokane back on top 21-16.
Not to be left out of the postseason party, Arizona's Rod Windsor hauled in a score at the five-minute mark as the seesaw battle continued. Windsor has now caught at least one touchdown pass in 33 straight games. This one put Arizona up 23-21.
Nelson then drove the Shock to the doorstep on the next series and did the honors himself, darting in from a yard away at the one minute warning.
Davila responded by finding the versatile Kerry Reed from 12 yards out with 19 seconds before half.
Arizona maintained a 30-28 lead at the break after defensive back Jeremy Kellem made a huge interception in his own end zone with six seconds left.
Kellem began the second half by making a two more All-Arena caliber plays to turn away the Shock. He knocked away passes on two consecutive third and fourth down plays to give Arizona some serious momentum.
With renewed life from the defense, Deadder struck again, finding himself all alone in the end zone after Davila avoided Spokane pressure up front. The score gave Arizona a 37-28 lead with 8:36 left in the third quarter.
Before the Rattlers had time to sit down in their bench area, Nelson found Braylon Bell to cut the lead to 37-35. The touchdown drive took just two plays.
On the next series, Spokane defensive back Ruschard Dodd-Masters was injured and left the game. Davila immediately exploited the weakness, tossing a gorgeous back shoulder touchdown pass to Windsor to put the Rattlers back up by two scores.
Linebacker Ben Wells continued the momentum by snaring an interception and returning it to the Shock 1. Following a penalty, Windsor snared another laser from Davila from 6 yards away to make it 51-35 after three quarters.
Jabin Sambrano hauled in an 11-yard score with 13 minutes left to keep the Shock within 51-41. Spokane would not score again, however, as the Rattlers recorded two more stops as the game wound down.
Windsor hauled in another touchdown and running back Mykel Benson delivered the knockout blow, freight training Shock linebacker Kevin McCullough for a bruising five-yard score with six minutes left.
Dodd-Masters, clearly frustrated, took a late hit penalty and subsequently started jawing with fans in the front row. Benson later tacked on a one-yard TD rush with four seconds left in the game.
To add insult to injury, a quote from Shock owner Nader Naini was shown on the scoreboard as the game clock ran out. Earlier in the week, the owner bragged his squad would "go down to Arizona and kick their butts."
Naini left the arena with his foot firmly planted in his mouth.
Davila finished the night 26-for-43 for 315 yards, 8 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Deadder had 9 grabs for 121 yards and 3 scores. Windsor also tallied 9 receptions for 112 yards and 4 touchdowns.
After Davila was sacked four times the last time the teams met, he only absorbed two on Saturday and one was on a meaningless play in the final minute.
"Nick played well," Guy said.
Nelson completed just 18-of-42 passes. He threw five TDs but also two interceptions. Sambrano was his leading receiver with eight catches for 131 yards and a score.
After being humbled at San Jose a few weeks ago, the Rattlers have now played two consecutive games where they look like they could win an unprecedented fourth straight championship.
All eyes will be on Stockton next weekend for a must-see matchup with an ArenaBowl berth on the line. The Rattlers have knocked the SaberCats out of the playoffs the last three seasons.
"It's time to make a dash for the cash," Guy said.