By Matt Loeschman
PHOENIX — It was a record-breaking night for the Arizona Rattlers on Saturday at the Snake Pit.
Running through, over and around the overmatched San Diego Strike Force, the Rattlers treated their fans to the most points ever scored by Arizona in an indoor football game — a 91-58 runaway victory at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Rattlers quarterback Jeff Ziemba threw five touchdown passes and Jamal Miles scored five of his own — four receiving and one rushing — as Arizona shattered the previous mark for franchise points in a single game, 86 scored in the Arena Football League against the Utah Blaze in 2012.
“Never been on a football team that scored 91 points in one game,” Rattlers running back Darrell Monroe said after the blowout victory.
While most were quick to look at the Rattlers’ eye-popping offensive numbers, Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy was studying the other half of the stat sheet after the game.
“I’m not happy with the defense tonight — we gave up the most points we’ve given up all year,” Guy said. “We had some coverage busts and some blown assignments. Our focus wasn’t there at times but offensively, we kept our foot on the gas pedal.”
From the very start, there was little to no resistance from the Strike Force defense that is ranked dead last in the Indoor Football League.
Before the fans had settled into their seats, Arizona (5-0) had a stranglehold on the game.
Monroe, a 2018 First-Team All-IFL selection returning from injury that has sidelined him all season, scored on his third touch of the year. The Rattlers defense forced a 62-yard field goal miss by Ernesto Lacayo and Ziemba fired a 20-yard TD pass to Miles, who was on his way to a big half.
With San Diego backup QB Jiha Vercher in for a snap, disaster struck for the Strike Force. Vercher fumbled the exchange with his running back and Rattlers defensive lineman Connor Flagel scooped up the loose ball and rumbled in from 18 yards out. Rattlers kicker Jimmy Camacho made his third straight PAT and the home team had a 21-0 lead just nine minutes into the game.
The expansion Strike Force (0-6) finally got on the board with a 4-yard run by George Moreira Jr. Lacayo’s PAT cut the deficit to 21-7.
The teams traded scores on the next six possessions.
Miles caught a 5-yard TD pass but San Diego’s Julian Stafford countered with his own 10-yard TD reception. After Miles scampered in for a 1-yard score, Moreira broke free for a 41-yard rushing TD down the left sideline.
Miles was far from done. Ziemba threw a 34-yard laser to the former Arizona State and Peoria High School standout for yet another TD.
“Jeff was making the right reads and getting me the football,” Miles said after the game. “Everything was clicking — I was in the right spot at the right time.”
“We’ve been waiting on Jamal to get going,” the Rattlers head coach said. “He did a great job tonight running his routes and catching the ball.”
Moreira’s third TD of the first half was a 12-yard screen pass from Derrick Bernard to cut the lead to 42-28. Monroe, happy to be back on the field after missing four games, tallied another 6-yard rushing score with under a minute before halftime
.“The coaches wanted to make sure I was 100% before I got back out there,” said Monroe, the league’s 2018 Offensive Player of the Year. “During my reps in practice this past week, I started to feel like I was back in the groove. Next week, I’ll be even better.”
San Diego’s Bernard was then intercepted on fourth down by Arizona’s Devontae Merriweather. Miles made the Strike Force pay, catching Ziemba’s fourth TD pass of the first half with 8 seconds before the break. Camacho was 8 for 8 on PATs in the first half and Arizona led 56-28.
“We took advantage of what their defense gave us,” Miles said. “We executed well.”
Vercher nearly made another huge mistake on the last play of the half. He overthrew his receiver and Dillon Winfrey picked off the pass. With a convoy of blockers, Winfrey nearly scored but was forced into the sideboards at the San Diego 1 yard line.
Lacayo had a field goal blocked to start the second half and Arizona’s Jarrod Harrington got into the scoring act, grabbing a 24-yard touchdown pass from Ziemba as Harrington’s back slammed into the back wall of the end zone. After a defensive stop, the Rattlers hit the 70-point mark when backup quarterback Caleb Holbrook bowled over the pile for a 1-yard TD plunge at the 3:49 mark of the third quarter.
San Diego’s highlight of the night was an amazing David Carter touchdown catch on the next series. Carter snagged the 37-yard score from Bernard using one hand to secure the ball against his body as he fell to the turf. Despite the highlight reel play, the Strike Force still trailed 70-35.
Holbrook’s first Rattlers TD pass was a short connection with Sheldon Augustine. Camacho continued his perfect night to make it 77-35.
The Rattlers’ D logged another stop but Holbrook gave the ball back to San Diego with an interception. From there Marques Rodgers caught a 36-yard TD from Vercher.
Another Holbrook turnover on a fumble led to Bernard scrambling in from 4 yards out. A successful 2-point play brought San Diego within 77-50.
Holbrook found Augustine again for a 13-yard passing TD and the lead was back to 84-50. Moreira notched his fourth score on a 12-yard pass reception and Stafford caught a pass for two points.
With most of the announced crowd of 14,424 either gone or packing up to leave, Augustine gave those left in the building one last reason to cheer.
Lacayo decided to kick a line drive down the field and Augustine returned the offering 50 yards untouched to establish the new Rattlers franchise team scoring record for a single game in their 27th year of indoor play. Most of the Strike Force special teams seemed to give up on the play as Augustine motored down the field.
“They kicked off to us and it didn’t look like anyone wanted to cover so we ran it back for a touchdown. What are you gonna do?” said Guy, whose team was just 14 points short of tying Sioux Falls’ league record of 105 points in a single IFL game.
Camacho, a rookie, finished the night 13 for 13 on PATs to also set a new team record.
“We were 100% on extra points, blocked a field goal and had a kickoff return TD,” Guy noted. “Our special teams were great.”
Starting for the first time this season, Ziemba finished 11 of 15 for 124 yards, 5 TDs and no picks. Holbrook, who joined the Rattlers this past week after Verlon Reed Jr. suffered a season-ending injury, added two passing TDs in relief. Monroe led the charge on the ground with 10 carries for 64 yards and two rushing scores. Miles snagged five passes for 70 yards with four of those receptions going for touchdowns.
Defensively, Ricky Wyatt Jr. recorded 8.5 tackles (four for loss) and one sack. Merriweather and Winfrey each had one interception.
Moreira had four touchdowns in a losing effort while Bernard added three through the air.
The Rattlers long homestand is now over. The team’s last road game was February 24 and next Sunday they will travel south to face the 3-2 Tucson Sugar Skulls. Game time is set for 3 p.m. at Tucson Arena.
“Has it been that long?” Guy asked about the Rattlers’ seven weeks between road games. “We’ve been frontloaded with home games this year and we need to fix that at the league level. We will talk about more balanced scheduling in the off-season.”