By Matt Loeschman
PHOENIX — For the first time in their 27 years playing football indoors, the Arizona Rattlers are perfect in the regular season.
The San Diego Strike Force offered little resistence on Saturday night as the Rattlers rolled to their 14th straight win, an easy 57-16 victory at Talking Stick Resort Arena that also clinched home field advantage throughout the Indoor Football League playoffs.
“We still have two more to go,” said Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy, referring to the two playoff wins needed to claim the franchise’s seventh championship. “At the end of the day, the playoffs are coming through the desert and the message is dominance. We want to dominate our opponent so we need to get in that mindset.”
The Strike Force concluded a miserable 2019 expansion season with a 1-13 record, their lone winning coming April 14 over the 1-13 Cedar Rapids River Kings. Arizona (14-0) swept all four games against San Diego this season.
“We challenged our defense this week,” Guy admitted. “It was a team effort. A combination of game planning and good execution paid off tonight — our defense is really good when we get dialed in.”
It was indeed the Arizona defense that set the tone early. They forced San Diego into an early fourth down and kicker Ernesto Lacayo was short with a 54-yard field goal attempt.
Following the stop, Rattlers quarterback Drew Powell connected with Jamal Miles on a 15-yard TD pass to break the scoring ice. Jimmy Camacho added his 100th PAT of the season and the Rattlers led 7-0 six minutes into the game.
“It was all about us tonight,” Powell said after the game. “We wanted to come out and set the tone.”
The Strike Force offense again was stonewalled and Lacayo missed a 48-yard field goal attempt wide left. Arizona’s defense had its second stop in as many possessions. A few plays later, Powell did the honors himself, bowling over Strike Force defenders on his way to a 13-yard touchdown run. Camacho hit the PAT and the Rattlers held a 14-0 lead after one quarter.
San Diego drove to the Arizona 1 on their next possession but again the Strike Force was denied by the stingy Rattlers’ D. After three negative plays, San Diego QB Jihad Vercher threw incomplete on fourth down and the Rattlers maintained their two-score lead.
A Roland Genesy Jr. fumble inside the Strike Force 10 yard line gave San Diego new life, but their drive stalled and the visitors settled for a 28-yard Lacayo field goal. Arizona led 14-3 at the 6:30 mark of the second quarter.
Powell again would not be denied on the ground, punching in a 1-yard TD run to extend the lead to 21-3 at the 2:32 mark.
Guy, going for the jugular, called for an onside kick. Camacho executed the squib kick perfectly and Davontae Merriweather recovered for the Rattlers at the 12 yard line. One play later, Powell lofted a gorgeous 38-yard bomb to Anthony Amos for a touchdown. Camacho’s kick put the Rattlers in full control at 28-3.
“That was a game changer,” Guy said. “We caught them off guard and then went up top.”
A Rattlers’ sack thwarted the next San Diego drive and another 48-yard attempt by Lacayo sailed wide right.
With an opportunity to score last in the first half, the Rattlers botched a fourth down play inside the Strike Force 10 yard line. It didn’t cost them, though, as Lacayo missed a 36-yard field goal as the halftime buzzer sounded.
“We can’t have those turnovers in the postseason,” Guy said. “That can get you beaten.”
The lead stretched to 32 as the second half began. Genesy Jr. scored on the ground from 6 yards out and Camacho made the PAT, extending the cushion to 35-3 at the 10:13 mark of the third quarter.
San Diego responded with its best series of the game capped by a 24-yard Vercher-to-David Carter touchdown pass. Lacayo’s tough day continued as he missed the PAT and Arizona led 35-9.
Jeff Ziemba replaced a resting Powell at quarterback and immediately got on the score sheet, firing a short pass to Amos who broke several tackles on his way to a 36-yard TD. The PAT was blocked but Jarrod Harrington was “Johnny on the spot,” picking up the ball and meandering through several Strike Force defenders for 2 points as the announced crowd of 14,036 roared its approval. Arizona led 43-9 with 5:28 left in the third.
A botched field goal ended the next San Diego drive. After a bad snap, Lacayo didn’t even bother trying to find an eligible receiver, simply throwing the ball 15 rows up into the stands. Miles then said “thank you very much,” scoring on a jet sweep to extend Arizona’s lead to 50-9.
“Our goal tonight was to get seven stops — we got eight,” Guy said. “That gives us some momentum going into the playoffs.”
Marques Rodgers hauled in a 12-yard score from Vercher on the next series, cutting the Rattlers’ lead to 50-16.
Miles then electrified the crowd with a 54-yard kickoff return for a score. The former Peoria HS/Arizona State speedster went nearly untouched up the middle and Camacho added the PAT to cap the scoring.
Playing just one half, Powell was 12-of-16 for 151 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. He added two more TDs on the ground.
“Drew is getting more comfortable in the offense and he’s a natural leader,” Guy said of his starting quarterback. “We will need him at his best in the playoffs. He is very confident and his teammates feed off that.”
Genesy Jr., who has rotated with Jabre Lolley and Darrell Monroe at running back, excelled with 13 carries, 100 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“Our O-line was amazing tonight,” Genesy Jr. said. “They created running lanes throughout the game.”
Amos led Rattlers’ receivers with 86 yards and 2 TDs. Miles chipped in with a kickoff return TD and one receiving score. The Rattlers racked up 320 total offensive yards compared to 189 for San Diego.
Defensively, Connor Flagel led Arizona with two sacks and three tackles for loss. In their 14 straight wins, the Arizona defense held an opponent to 21 points or less four times, including a road shutout at Cedar Rapids.
As the top seed in the IFL postseason, the Rattlers have a bye until the playoff semifinals set for Saturday, June 29 at Gila River Arena in Glendale. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. The Iowa Barnstormers (12-2) have the #2 seed and also have a bye.
In the opening round next weekend, the #6 Tucson Sugar Skulls (7-6) travel to face the #3 Sioux Falls Storm (11-3). Also, the #5 Nebraska Danger (7-6) will be at the #4 Green Bay Blizzard (9-5). The lowest remaining seed will travel to Arizona for the semifinals.
Guy said his Rattlers will rest, heal up a bit and then get into playoff mode.
“We have an extra week to heal up and get dialed in mentally,” Guy said. “It’s the little things that matter now. Attention to detail wins in the playoffs — it doesn’t matter where we play.”
“It’s a new season,” he said. “Now we get to go attack it.”