Phoenix, AZ – Coming into the rubber match game of the 2012 season between the Arizona Rattlers and the Utah Blaze, there was a whole lot more on the line than the two regular season meetings. The teams split their conference games in weeks 11 and 18. All of that was out the window come game-time. The prize for the winner of this game was a trip to Arena Bowl XXV in New Orleans on Friday, August 10th. A Rattlers victory would add on to their all-time arena league record of 24 playoff victories, 19 of those in the Snake Pit. With the Rattler defense playing lights-out, the task is to stop Blaze quarterback Tommy Grady (37-63, 441 Yds, 10 TD, 3 Int), and advance to the team’s eighth Arena Bowl appearance on a quest to claim the third title in franchise history.
The Rattlers started off the game in not-so-usual fashion as Odie Armstrong (5 Att, 61 Yds, 1 TD) took a pitch from quarterback Nick Davila (21-29, 331 Yds, 8 TD), and ran his way to a 40-yard rushing touchdown, giving the Rattlers an early 7-0 lead. The Arizona defense came out in complete attack mode, as they have in the last two games. On the second play of the initial Blaze series, Arkeith Brown ran under a tipped pass for a 10-yard interception return for a touchdown. The 14-0 lead after just three minutes of play was just what the Rattlers needed.
The Blaze countered with a six-play drive that ended with a Grady to Tysson Poots (19 Rec, 182 Yds, 4 TD) 11-yard touchdown. The Blaze now trailed 14-7. The next Rattler drive was highlighted by an 18-yard run by Armstrong. The drive ended up stalling but the Rattlers settled for a 23-yard field goal by Chris Gould, making the lead 17-7. The score stayed that way at the end of the first quarter. But one play into the second quarter, the Rattlers defensive line put pressure on Grady before he found Aaron LeSue (12 Rec, 213 Yds, 5 TD) on a short dump pass and LeSue was off to the races for a 38-yard touchdown. Utah had grabbed back the momentum and was within a field goal of the lead. LeSue catch and run brought the score to 17-14 in favor of the Rattlers.
After a 33-yard kick return by Kerry Reed (6 Rec, 83 Yds), the Rattlers needed only one play to score. Reed’s big return gave the Rattlers offense great field position. Quarterback Nick Davila found Markee White (6 Rec,106 Yds, 3 TD) for a 23-yard touchdown, stretching the lead to two score at 24-14 with 13:12 left in the second quarter. Arizona had recaptured the momentum before the defense found more fortune as they came up big after a Blaze mishap deep in their own territory. Utah’s QB Tommy Grady fumbled the first snap of the ensuing drive and fell on it in his own end zone. The play resulted in a safety and a comfortable 26-14 Rattlers lead. The Blaze made a gutsy onside-kick attempt after the safety that paid dividends after recovering the kick. Utah was back in business and they had recaptured some of their lost momentum. The Blaze offense quickly drove down the field and topped off their drive with a 10-yard hookup between Grady and Poots, cutting into the two touchdown deficit and creating a five point ball game at 26-21. Davila and the Rattler offense needed to counter that score and on third down of their next drive, they did just that. Davila threw a 42-yard touchdown strike to White, his second of the night, and the Rattlers jumped back out to a 33-21 lead in what was quickly shaping up to be a fast-paced, high-scoring game.
A seven-play Blaze drive ended up with a third Grady-to-Poots touchdown pass, this one a 24-yarder. The Rattlers now led 33-28. The Rattlers recovered an onside-kick attempt but on their first play of the ensuing drive, a trick-play pass by Maurice Purify (9 Rec, 142 Yds, 5 TD) ended in an Al Phillips interception. Grady then found LeSue for a 42-yard pass. The next play ended up in a controversial call. Grady found Ed Ta’amu for a 3-yard touchdown. After official review, it was confirmed that Ta’amu had possession of the ball. The Blaze took their first lead of the night at 35-33.
Another onside-kick attempt resulted in a second Blaze recovery. Utah started their next drive with :49 left in the first half and at their own 4-yard line. Grady and LeSue continued their dominance with a big 34-yard hookup. Three plays later, Grady threw his sixth touchdown of the night, this one a 7-yarder to Lesue, giving the Blaze a 42-33 advantage. With :06 left in the first half, Davila was stripped of the ball as the Rattlers tried making a half ending drive. The Blaze followed the turnover with one unsuccessful play, and headed off into their locker room with a nine point advantage.
Starting the second half with the lead and the ball, the Blaze couldn’t capitalize on the momentum. Rattlers defensive back Arkeith Brown picked off his second pass of the night off of another tipped pass. On the first play of the drive, White made his third touchdown catch of the night, his most impressive. A 19-yard one-handed, acrobatic catch brought the Rattlers within two points, 42-40. Only two plays into the ensuing Blaze drive, Grady found LeSue from 18 yards out for the All AFL wide receivers third touchdown of the game. The score was now 49-40 Blaze with 11:35 remaining in the third quarter.
Coming out of the first half, Rattlers wide receiver Maurice Purify had been held without a catch, but Davila changed that quickly. Purify caught a 26-yard pass bringing the ball into Blaze territory. After a false-start penalty, Purify was found wide-open for an 18-yard score. The back-and-forth was in full effect and the score was now 49-47 in favor of the Blaze. Another long Blaze drive was ended on the seventh play with Grady extending his new AFL record for TD passes with his eighth scoring toss of the night. This one was to Poots’ giving the big physical receiver his fourth of the night and put the Blaze up 56-47 with 4:34 left in the third quarter.
The Rattlers next drive was only two plays with the second being another Davila-to-Purify touchdown. The 19-yard touchdown added to the shootout and made the score 56-54. The Blaze ended the third quarter with their drive progressing into Rattlers territory. Neither defense seemed to have an answer for either offense, and we were definitely in store for an exciting ending.
On the first play of the final quarter, Grady kept up with his dominating ways by connecting once again with LeSue for 11 yards and another Blaze score. Kyle Brotzman missed the extra point but the Blaze still led 62-54. The next Rattlers drive started with 13:49 left in the game. Davila led the team down the field from his own 3-yard line. On the eighth play of the drive, Davila found his favorite target, Maurice Purify on a third-down play for a 12-yard score. A fake-field goal attempt for a two-point conversion failed for the Rattlers and the score was now at 62-60 with 8:36 remaining.
The Blaze gained possession of the ball and ran 7:36 off the clock by way of ten plays combined with three penalties on the drive. It looked as if their drive was over after a fourth down stop by the Rattlers defense, but a flag gave them another shot at the end zone. Grady tossed his tenth touchdown of the night, this one to Shaun Kauleinamoku for three yards, giving the Blaze a 69-60 lead with 1:00 left in the game.
On the first play of the Rattlers drive, they proved why you play hard until the clock displays zeros. Davila quickly hit Purify for their fourth connection of the second half. This one was a 30-yard scoring strike and brought the hometown Rattlers within two at 69-67 with :55 left. An onside-kick was recovered by the Blaze at the 7-yard line. With only :41 seconds remaining and the ball inside the Rattlers 10 yard line the Blaze somehow found themselves facing fourth-down at the Rattlers 2-yard line after three consecutive incompletions, each of which stop the clock without forcing Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy to use a timeout. On Utah’s fourth down attempt Rattlers linebacker Kevin McCullough stepped in front of Tommy Grady’s last pass of the evening, giving the Rattlers possession deep in their own territory with only :35 seconds left and trailing by two points.
Davila found Purify on consecutive passes to advance a total of 21 yards. Another 17-yard pass to Kerry Reed got the Rattlers down to the Blaze 7-yard line. A miscommunication between Davila and Armstrong on an attempted run up the middle led to a 1-yard loss. The Rattlers had the ball at the Blaze 8-yard line with :16 seconds left and their bayou dreams in the balance. An incomplete pass brought the clock to :12 seconds. Then on third-down, Davila, once again, found Maurice Purify for the game winner. A successful two-point conversion attempt gave the Rattlers a remarkable 75-69 lead with only :09 left. Grady hit Poots 14 yards downfield to bring the clock down to only :02 seconds left. One last gasp by Utah fell short as Grady attempted to use the end zone net, which are in play, to ricochet the ball into the hands of one of his receivers in what was a hail mary attempt. The ball fell incomplete and the Arizona Rattlers had pulled out a victory that you could only witness within this incredible action packed league know as Arena Football.
The Arizona Rattlers are Back-to-Back National Conference Champions and prepare for a trip to ArenaBowl XXV in New Orleans where they will take on the American Conference Champion Philadelphia Soul. The game is scheduled for 7:30pm AZT and is shaping up to be a special event for the league’s silver anniversary championship game from the New Orleans arena on Friday, August 10th.
Russell Athletic Offensive Player of the Game: (ARI) Maurice Purify
Riddell Defensive Player of the Game: (ARI) Arkeith Brown
JLS Ironman of the Game: (ARI) Kerry Reed
AFL Playmaker of the Game: (ARI) Odie Armstrong
Cutters Catch of the Game: (ARI) Markee White – One handed touchdown catch
Spalding Highlight of the Game: (ARI) Davila’s game winning touchdown to Purify with nine seconds left.
National Guard MVP: (ARI) Nick Davila