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Spokane Empire

Shock defense prides itself on late-game stands

When Tennessee Valley backup quarterback Tony Colston scrambled through Spokane’s defense on a successful two-point conversion that clinched the Vipers’ 56-55 overtime win in the 2008 ArenaCup, he handed the Shock a painful loss and unwittingly gave the 2009 Shock defense a rallying cry.

“When you look back at that last play, the defense didn’t finish,” Shock defensive coordinator Alex Sirianni said. “That’s one thing we talked about in training camp this year – finishing, playing four quarters. Last week, we struggled the first three quarters (against Tulsa), but it came down to the last four plays and they didn’t gain a yard.”

The Shock (18-1) outlasted Tulsa 51-44 in the National Conference title game, the fourth time Spokane’s defense has made late stands to preserve single-digit victories. The Shock’s other 14 wins have been by at least 11 points.

Against Boise in early May, Sergio Gilliam’s interception with 41 seconds left helped preserve Spokane’s 64-62 win.

Against Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton last month, Gilliam picked off Ryan Vena’s desperation pass on the final play as Spokane held on 56-52.

Against Boise in the regular-season finale, Kevin McCullough intercepted Mark Thorson’s pass with one minute remaining in the Shock’s 56-51 victory.

And last week, Tulsa drove to Spokane’s 10 but stalled with four straight incomplete passes as Spokane earned a date against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Saturday’s ArenaCup.

“It’s just our will and desire,” McCullough said. “During that last series, we huddled up, said a few quick words, got a break and we knew what we had to do. When we’re put in those situations, we find a way to get things done.”

Spokane’s defense has made its mark in the offensive-minded arenafootball2, where rules favor the offense and point-fests are common. The Shock led af2 in points allowed (37.6 per game) and tied for first in turnovers forced (54) and red-zone defense during the regular season. They finished second in pass efficiency (78.4) and total defense (251.7 yards) and third in sacks (38).

They limited five straight opponents to point totals in the 20s at midseason. In three playoff wins, they’ve yielded an average of 33.3 points. In Spokane’s only loss, Iowa scored 27 points in the fourth quarter en route to a 54-48 victory. One touchdown came on a return of a failed onside kick, one came on a 12-yard drive after a Shock turnover and the last TD came on a 9-yard drive after another failed onside kick.

“It starts with Coach Sirianni’s play-calling and trickles down,” nose tackle Frank Morton said. “Our defensive backs do a great job covering and making the quarterback hold on to the ball longer so we can do our jobs. We have competitions on the line to see who can get the most sacks.”

McCullough, Gilliam, Justin Warren, Stanley Franks and Ben McCombs, who had an af2-best 15.5 sacks, have been mainstays. They’ve played in all 19 games. Elsewhere, the Shock have thrived despite significant change at each level of the defense.

Lee Foliaki’s departure triggered the move of Warren from defensive end to linebacker, his position in college at Texas A&M. Morton joined the team at midseason after Jeff Van Orsow’s injury and he’s provided a steady pass rush. Ex-Washington Huskies Caesar Rayford and Johnie Kirton were key late additions.

“Kirton has the flexibility to play all over (lineman, linebacker and fullback),” Sirianni said. “When an offensive lineman and a fullback see the same guys every play, they can get comfortable. When he sees three different guys in eight plays, they don’t see the same tendencies.”

In the secondary, Aaron Williams was sidelined for an extended period with a knee injury, opening up time for Jimmie Sutton and Damon Jenkins. Virgil Gray entered the picture later in the regular season and became a starter. He also helps on kick returns, giving work-horse receiver Raul Vijil an occasional break.

“The players that have been brought in have helped us overcome adversity,” Gilliam said. “They’ve been a big part of our success.”

Spokane has played more man-to-man coverage than last year because it fits their personnel. The Shock are stingy in the red zone when the field is compressed and their pass rush forces quarterbacks to make snap decisions.

Sirianni said he stresses “living to fight another day. We feel like if we can make a team go six or eight plays to go down the field they’ll make a mistake before we do.”

“Football games are won up front and if we get consistent pressure it forces the quarterback to make bad throws or it throws off the timing,” Sirianni said. “That’s where the DBs come in. Now they can go make plays. It all works together and they all have to take care of their jobs.”

Spokane’s defense is better statistically than last year’s and the 2006 unit that won an ArenaCup in the franchise’s first season. The 2008 defense yielded 44.6 points per game and forced 46 turnovers. In 2006, Spokane gave up 47.4 ppg and had 35 takeaways.

“It’s an offensive game,” head coach Adam Shackleford said, “but when defense is the backbone of your team you’re going to win a lot of games.”

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