By Matt Loeschman
GLENDALE — The Arizona Rattlers’ lone previous appearance inside Gila River Arena resulted in a forgettable 2016 ArenaBowl loss to the Philadelphia Soul. Forced by a scheduling snafu to abandon Talking Stick Resort Arena for this season’s playoffs, the Rattlers made sure that Saturday’s second act in the West Valley would be much different.
Fueled by a quick defensive start and five total touchdowns from quarterback Drew Powell, the Rattlers steamrolled the Nebraska Danger 62-45 in an Indoor Football League semifinal to remain perfect and book their trip to the 2019 United Bowl.
“We wanted to get that bad taste from 2016 out of our mouth. I’m very proud of the guys,” Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy said after the game. “To get back to this point and win is a great feeling. This is a great character team and we have 15 wins — now we have two weeks to get ready because there is one more to go.”
The win moved Arizona (15-0) just one step from a seventh championship as a franchise but their first ever without a defeat. As the top postseason seed, the Rattlers will host the third-seeded Sioux Falls Storm (13-3) on Saturday, July 13 at 6 p.m. in the United Bowl back at Gila River Arena. Sioux Falls punched its ticket on Saturday by upsetting second-seeded Iowa 52-50 on the road.
Nebraska concluded its 2019 campaign with an 8-8 record.
“This game is now over,” Guy said matter-of-factly. “We’ve got to get dialed in on what’s ahead.”
On Saturday, it didn’t take long for the Arizona defense to get going in their temporary home. On third and long on the game’s opening possession, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong had his pass picked off by Dillion Winfrey as the crowd of 13,579 was settling into their seats.
A few plays later, Rattlers running back Jabre Lolley bulled in from 3 yards out to break the scoring seal. Jimmy Camacho added the PAT to give Arizona a quick 7-0 lead.
Arizona’s defense rose up again and forced a long field goal attempt by Nebraska. The snap was botched and a desperation pass by holder Armstrong was easily picked off by the Rattlers’ Devontae Merriweather. Rattlers QB Drew Powell wasted no time in making the Danger pay, finding Jarrod Harrington with a 14-yard touchdown strike to give Arizona a two-score lead.
“We started fast and that’s what we wanted to do,” Guy said. “Our defense got two interceptions early and those are big stops.”
The momentum was temporarily halted as the ensuing kickoff was brought back 49 yards for a touchdown by Nebraska’s Mike Tatum. Diego Marquez added the extra point to bring Nebraska within 14-7 as the first quarter ended.
The teams exchanged scores through the majority of the second quarter.
Powell dashed in for a 3-yard touchdown keeper but Nebraska countered with an 18-yard passing TD from Tommy Armstrong to Eric Thomas.
Powell then connected with Harrington again, this time from 9 yards out and the Rattlers led 28-14 after Camacho’s successful PAT.
Nebraska could only manage a 38-yard Marquez field goal on its next series. After Lolley scored on the ground from 8 yards away, Arizona had a comfortable 35-17 halftime lead.
“The offensive line was dominating,” Lolley said after the game. “We knew we would use that to our advantage. All week in practice the line has been doing what you saw tonight.”
Powell showed off his electrifying abilities on the first play of the second half. The nimble QB darted up the middle and broke at least four tackles, eventually spinning his way to a 30-yard touchdown that gave the Rattlers a 25-point lead.
“That’s just will. Sometimes you have to want it more than the other team,” Powell explained. “I didn’t want to get tackled.”
Thomas caught a two-yard score to bring Nebraska closer but the Danger defense had no answer, allowing a Powell 7-yard touchdown run three minutes later. Arizona led 49-23 with five minutes left in the third.
Armstrong then found Johnny Jackson IV with a nifty 20-yard TD pass but again the Rattlers responded as Jamal Miles rocketed left to right on a 4-yard jet sweep for a touchdown to make it 56-31.
“Our offense was efficient tonight,” Guy said.
Thomas caught another pair of touchdowns, from 5 and 10 yards respectively, but the game was already out of reach for Nebraska. Lolley added his third rushing score of the game to cap the scoring.
The Rattlers’ running game racked up 186 rushing yards on 28 carries in the contest.
“That starts with the offensive line,” Guy said. “Our coaches did a great job this week and we imposed our will on those guys. We wanted to make it a physical game.”
Lolley tallied 14 carries for 81 yards and three scores. Powell added 91 yards on the ground and three more TDs. Through the air, Powell was 12-of-16 for 110 yards, 2 TDs and no turnovers. Harrington caught both of Powell’s TD throws. Defensively, Winfrey and Merriweather nabbed one interception each.
Armstrong led the Danger with 5 TD passes (4 to Thomas) but threw the two costly picks.
Despite playing away for their regular “Snake Pit,” Guy and the team were impressed with Saturday’s raucous crowd.
“There was great energy in the building,” Guy said. “We get great support on the west side. I can’t say enough about it.”
Have the Rattlers effectively exorcised the demons of Gila River Arena? Powell is supremely confident they have considering his early thoughts on the upcoming United Bowl.
“Line ‘em up. Whoever it is. It doesn’t matter, line ‘em up,” Powell said.
Sioux Falls and Head Coach Kurtiss Riggs will travel south to Arizona playing for a title for the 10th straight year. The Storm had won six straight IFL championships before the Rattlers dethroned them in 2017 in the emerging rivalry. Sioux Falls knocked Arizona out of the playoffs last season in downtown Phoenix in excruciating fashion.
Guy expects a heavyweight fight.
“They seem to always get to this point,” Guy said. “You’re looking at two of the best indoor franchises around. It’s gonna be a great matchup.”