In the 27-year history of the franchise playing in offense-heavy leagues, the Arizona Rattlers (12-0) had never pitched a shutout. In fact, the closest they ever came was in 1994 while still members of the Arena Football League when they held the Las Vegas Sting to a lone score in a 50-7 victory.
However, Saturday night saw the defense take center stage as the unit posted two scores, forced four turnovers and kept the Cedar Rapids River Kings (1-11) off the scoreboard in a dominating 56-0 victory in front of 3,248 fans at US Cellular Center.
Arizona seized momentum on the opening drive.
After Cedar Rapids drove to the Rattlers’ 18-yard line, River Kings’ quarterback Dalton Oliver had a snap go over his head. The ball rolled all the way back to the Cedar Rapids’ five-yard line where Oliver retained possession. Two plays later, Cedar Rapids’ kicker Phillip Nwosu had his field goal blocked by Lance McDowdell and the Rattlers recovered near midfield.
Arizona quarterback Drew Powell led his team to the Cedar Rapids’ 10-yard line where Powell called his own number, finding the end zone to give the Rattlers a 7-0 lead.
After another River Kings’ missed field goal, Powell engineered a four-play, 45-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown plunge from Roland Genesy to extend Arizona’s advantage, 14-0.
The Rattlers continued to enforce their will on both sides of the ball for the remainder of the first half, heading into the locker room with a 28-0 lead.
Cedar Rapids looked to make it a game to start the second half. Arizona back-up quarterback Jeff Ziemba took over under center, leading his team into the River Kings’ red zone. However, Ziemba fumbled a snap on the third play of the drive and Cedar Rapids recovered.
The hope of a competitive matchup was quickly snuffed out on the first play of the ensuing drive. Rattlers’ defensive back Devontae Merriweather stepped in front of an Oliver pass and raced passed any would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone, effectively preserving Arizona’s blowout victory.
-The win clinches a first-round bye and home-field advantage for the conference championship game. Only the Iowa Barnstormers (11-1) stand in the Rattlers’ way for home field advantage throughout the Indoor Football League playoffs.
-Arizona defensive lineman Nik D’Avanzo led the stellar defensive performance with eight total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a pass deflection, a fumble recovery and a blocked field goal.
-A big moment came on the last play of the third quarter. With Cedar Rapids on the Rattlers’ doorstep, quarterback Ben Wilkerson ran to his right and looked to plunge into the end zone. Arizona linebacker Ryan Langford ripped out the ball and defensive back Devin Cockrell scooped and scored from 38 yards out to extend the lead.
-Scottsdale Saguaro and Northern Arizona University alumnus Kamron Johnson (playing in his first game in a Rattlers’ uniform) came away with an interception late in the fourth quarter to preserve the shutout. Johnson also collected two tackles and was a force on special teams.
The Arizona Rattlers return to Talking Stick Resort Arena on Saturday, June 8 to host their in-state rival, the Tucson Sugar Skulls.
Kickoff is at 5 p.m. and can be seen live on YouTube.