There’s been plenty of talk about the Arizona Rattlers’ offense and defense this season, but it was their special teams that got things kick-started Saturday night.
Trailing 14-0, Virgil Gray took back a kickoff 56 yards for a touchdown, the first of three straight Rattlers scores in a 65-49 win over the Utah Blaze in front of a season-high 10,216 fans at Ak-Chin Field at US Airways Center.
Following Gray’s kickoff return touchdown, which was the first of the year for Arizona, Rattlers defensive back Arkeith Brown picked off a Tommy Grady pass and returned it to the Utah 22-yard line.
Three plays later, fullback Odie Armstrong punched it into the end zone from one yard out to pull the Rattlers even at 14-14.
On the ensuing drive, Grady hit Mario Urrutia, who got behind Gray and was streaking toward the end zone. But as the receiver started to celebrate what he thought was going to be an easy touchdown, Gray caught him from behind and stripped the ball. Brown recovered it and embarked on a weaving, 15-yard return that gave Arizona the football at the Utah 24-yard line.
Six plays later, Nick Davila hit Armstrong out of the backfield on a two-yard touchdown strike and the Rattlers had their first lead, 21-14. It was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, although things got tight in the fourth quarter.
Arizona led 55-35 in the final quarter, but Utah (3-4) fought back into the game. With 4:40 to go, Grady hit Chase Deadder on a short touchdown pass to pull the Blaze to within 13 at 55-42. On the Rattlers’ next possession, Caesar Rayford sacked Davila and jarred the ball loose. Mike Alston recovered at the Arizona 23-yard line.
Grady then found Urrutia in the end zone on the next play, and Utah inched closer at 55-49. The Utah defense stiffened and forced a field goal attempt from Garrett Lindholm. The former Tarleton State kicker, who had missed his two previous field goal attempts, connected from 20 yards to give Arizona a nine-point lead with under a minute to play.
Utah fullback Ben Stallings fumbled on the first play on Utah’s next possession and it was pounced on by Arizona’s Marcus Pittman. Armstrong then scored on a one-yard touchdown run to put the final nail in the coffin.
“We don’t win without our defense and our special teams tonight, our offense was kind of sloppy,” Rattlers head coach Kevin Guy said after the game. “I thought we did a real nice job of recovering onside kicks.”
In fact, the Rattlers recovered all four of Utah’s onside attempts — three by Kerry Reed — which helped Arizona push their record to a league-best 7-1 on the year.
The Rattlers’ offense gained just 219 yards on the night and Davila had one of his quieter performances of the 2013 season. The lefty from Cincinnati threw for 208 yards and five touchdowns to four different receivers.
The Arizona defense forced three more turnovers on the night, including two interceptions for Brown. The opportunistic Rattlers picked off a total of eight Utah passes in the two meetings this season.
Next up for the Rattlers is a road game at Chicago (4-4) next Sunday.