Arizona Rattlers fall to Massachusetts Pirates in 2021 IFL United Bowl
It is and always will be the strangest stat in all of sports. Stan Musial had 3,630 hits in his Major League career — 1,815 of those hits came at home and 1,815 of those hits came on the road.
For Musial, the home and road splits meant nothing.
For the Arizona Rattlers head coach Kevin Guy, the location of the championship game matters greatly. Although Guy has a long way to go for his stat to be as strange, it is striking.
Kevin Guy has led the Arizona Rattlers to the Arena Bowl or the United Bowl an unprecedented eight times in his 12 seasons as head coach. Four of the eight championships have been at a neutral site or a true road game. Guy has won every one of those games.
On Sunday afternoon at the Footprint Center, the Arizona Rattlers dropped to 0-4 in championship games held in Maricopa County, losing to the newly crowned United Bowl champion Massachusetts Pirates in overtime, 37-34, in front of 6,385 fans on Sunday.
In Guy’s first chance at a home championship, the Jacksonville Sharks scored with two seconds remaining at U.S. Airways Center in 2011 to win by three in downtown Phoenix. After winning three straight Arena Bowl Championships away from home, the Arena Bowl was a “home” game for Arizona in 2016, but the Philadelphia Soul spoiled the fun winning in Glendale.
Before Sunday’s game downtown, the last United Bowl played was 2019 (there was no IFL season in 2020), in Glendale. The Rattlers lost their third “home” championship to the very team they had beaten in South Dakota two years before as Sioux Falls won that United Bowl.
Guy doesn’t look at it as 0-4 at home.
“We’ve only lost two at home. Our home has been downtown,” he said. “This is our second championship game loss in Phoenix.”
Turnovers and special teams did in the Rattlers in this year’s United Bowl.
“We turned the ball over and that’s not like us,” said an exacerbated Guy following the game.
There were five turnovers in the game. Arizona had three of them, including an overtime fumble. Kicking stats were the same. Both teams combined to miss five kicks. Unfortunately for the Rattlers, kicker Ernesto Lacayo missed three kicks for a loss of five potential points. However, one of the Pirates’ missed kicks was a fourth-quarter game-changer that gave new hope to Arizona.
Guy didn’t deny that quarterback Drew Powell and Lacayo had tough moments but wasn’t about to lay the blame for the loss at their feet.
“Hey, those two guys are why we’re here. Without them, we’re not in the United Bowl,” Guy said. “We’ll get over this hump and bring a fifth championship to Phoenix.”
Last week’s playoff win also made the United Bowl a little tougher. Talented receiver Jarrod Harrington is also the holder on field goals and extra points. After sustaining an injury, he wasn’t available in the United Bowl. It may have played a part in Lacayo’s second missed PAT as a high-snap made the hold extremely difficult.
Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Arizona scored a tying touchdown when Powell ran for three of his game-high 71 yards to punch a six-point ticket for Arizona only to have Lacayo miss his second extra-point, leaving the scored tied at 27. It took Massachusetts only three plays to reclaim a seven-point lead when quarterback and United Bowl MVP Alejandro Bennifield plowed behind his offensive line for a three-yard score for a 34-27 lead.
On the ensuing possession, Arizona marched to a 1st-and-10 at the Pirate 14 in only three plays. The Rattlers could only go two yards in the following four plays with second, third and fourth down all resulting three of Powell’s seven incompletions on the day.
With a touchdown lead and only 58 seconds remaining, it seemed as though Guy’s record in home championship games had no chance of being improved, but a series of strange coaching decisions by first-year head coach Patrick Pass dramatically changed the Rattlers’ fortunes.
On 2nd-and-11, Pass called for a slow-developing pitch to the right, which was stuffed for a two-yard loss. The “minus play” brings up a rule that the NFL is in dire need to incorporate. If the offense doesn’t earn positive yards while ahead in points in the final minute, the defensive team can choose to stop the clock without using a timeout. The rule is designed to prevent QB kneeldowns to kill the clock. In this case, if Pass runs a quick QB sneak for little yardage, albeit positive yardage, the clock keeps running. Confounding the confusion, Pass took a deep shot on third down, again stopping the clock with an incomplete pass.
On fourth down came the play that seemingly changed the game. In the outdoor game on fourth down, kicking a field goal with a seven point lead to ice the game is a no-brainer.
Indoor football is a different game. The goal posts are only half the width of the outdoor game and mistakes are much more common. Pass elected to kick the field goal anyway with disastrous results. The Rattlers’ Lamar Mady exploded through the line and blocked Garrett Hartley’s attempt.
Defensive lineman Nikolaus D’Avanzo, who was already the leading tackler, picked up the blocked kick at midfield and immediately looked for a teammate to lateral the ball. With his half-second search coming up unproductive, he took matters into his own hands. Not looking like a 265-pound lineman, the Baltimore native made a beeline for the end zone. The officials ruled that he was pushed out at the Pirate 3-yard line. What was a hopeless situation became a Rattlers touchdown just two plays later.
Then came the nail-biter: the extra point. Down 34-33, Lacayo nailed the point-after. Tie game, but 10 seconds were still remaining on the clock.
Massachusetts took the kickoff back right down the throat of Arizona. With four seconds remaining, Hartley missed his second field goal of the quarter wide left and there was overtime in the desert.
United Football overtime is similar to college football. Each team gets a possession at the opposing 20 yard line. The Pirates chose to go on defense after winning the overtime coin flip. It was a great decision by Pass.
It appeared that the Rattlers would have their way with a gassed Pirate defense. After five plays to set-up 2nd-and-goal from the Pirate 5-yard line, Powell was forced into his third turnover. Two interceptions were already on his record for the day, and a two-yard gain on second down wasn’t enough as he tried in vain to reach out the ball to cross the goal line. The ball came free and a mad-scramble ensued. The Pirates recovered to end the possession.
On the Pirates’ only possession of overtime, the Arizona defense held strong and did not allow a first down. Massachusetts didn’t need one. Rectifying the damage of his blocked and missed fourth-quarter kicks, Hartley confidently struck a 31-yard attempt to win the United Bowl, 37-34.
In a phone conversation Tuesday with Guy before the game, his respect for the Pirates was unbridled.
“Sure, it was a tough trip and we had a receiver out but they beat us. No excuses,” he said. “This will be tough but we’ll be ready Sunday.”
Despite an impressive 14-2 regular season record, one of those two Rattler losses were to the Pirates in Massachusetts back on July 18. Guy was right.
The Rattlers gave the impression of being ready when Arizona took the opening kickoff close to Pirate territory. Add to that the first play from scrimmage was the first of former Sun Devil Jamal Miles’ seven receptions, and Arizona was looking at 1st-and-10 from the Pirate 11.
Powell was then victimized by a tremendous defensive play when Pirate defensive back Santos Ramirez intercepted a tipped pass at the goal line. Powell, who was awarded the Indoor Football League MVP on Friday, had a productive day, but his two other turnovers spelled doom for Arizona.
In between his interception on the first drive of the game and his OT fumble, Powell made a poor decision in the middle of the second quarter.
Dillion Winfrey had won Indoor Football League’s defensive player of the year earlier in the week. The Rattlers defensive back had just made the first of his two United Bowl interceptions. With a massive change in momentum, the Ratters were just two yards from midfield and the potential but unpromised next touchdown could erase the first Powell interception and erase the 7-6 Rattler deficit.
Arizona receiver Troy Pelletier was open for a moment but Powell hesitated. Throwing to the end zone along the sideline to his right, Powell’s hesitation allowed Pirate defensive back Aarion Maxey-Penton to recover and intercept Powell’s pass. Sudden deflation was made worse with a 10-play Pirate touchdown drive that included a third- and a fourth-down Massachusetts conversion.
Arizona did respond with a touchdown drive and two-point conversion. The score was tied 14-14 but did not remain that way for long. The Pirates returned the next kickoff 28 yards and into Rattlers territory. Never knowing how the game would end, the Pirates lined up for a 31-yard field goal attempt to end the half. Hartley was successful and the half ended with a Pirate 17-14 lead as both teams went to the locker room. At the time, no one knew overtime would end on the same foot as the first half.
Guy was resolute and somber as he looked back.
“I don’t think anyone realizes what the last two years have been like,” he said. “It’s like two seasons in one just to get to this game and lose … it just sucks. Listen, total respect and sympathy to what anyone has lost due to COVID, but speaking only about football, these guys have been fighting for two years to win this one game.
“We didn’t get it done. We will. We owe it to these fans.”
After the game, Rattlers owner Ron Shurts backed his coach and backed his fans.
“The fans were tremendous,” Shurts said. “It sounded like a packed house. I hate losing but our fans and our coach did everything I would expect to win. We’ll be back.”