Sometimes the difference in an Arena Football League game is minuscule. Good thing the Spokane Shock had a safety net to work with from midway through the first quarter.
The Shock benefited from an early safety, built a 19-point lead and held on for a 60-57 victory over the Milwaukee Iron to claim the National Conference championship in front of 8,151 Thursday at the Arena. The victory puts the top-ranked Shock (15-3) into the ArenaBowl next Friday at 5 in Spokane. The Shock will host the winner of Saturday’s Tampa Bay-Orlando game.
It’ll be Spokane’s fourth appearance in a championship game in the franchise’s five years. The previous three came when Spokane was a member of arenafootball2.
“I can’t wait for this,” Shock head coach Rob Keefe said. “This is everything we’ve wanted, but we’re not done. We can see the mountain top. We won’t rest until we do it.”
The Shock got early separation from the Iron, with a safety playing a key role. Huey Whittaker scored the first of his five touchdowns to put Spokane in front 14-7.
On the Iron’s first play from scrimmage – their initial touchdown came on Antoine Burns’ kick return – quarterback Chris Greisen was sacked near the goal line by Jerry Turner and Richard Clebert, with Clebert knocking the ball loose. The ball eventually hit the back wall for a safety. Greisen was only sacked once in 16 regular-season games.
“We’ve been focused on getting to the quarterback the whole week,” Clebert said. “We wanted to get there so bad, but we knew they weren’t going to lay down. This was the biggest game of our careers.”
Spokane scored again as Whittaker dragged a couple of defenders over the goal line to complete a 12-yard scoring play, boosting the lead to 23-7.
Milwaukee’s next series stalled at Spokane’s 10 and Robert Forstrom booted a 25-yard field goal. The Iron’s first touchdown generated by their offense came nearly 25 minutes into the game.
The teams traded touchdowns before Spokane took possession with 50.7 seconds left. The Shock appeared to produce their sixth touchdown of the half, but Markee White’s TD catch was nullified by off-setting penalties. The Shock settled for Taylor Rowan’s 22-yard field goal and a 39-23 lead at intermission.
The Iron quickly cut the deficit to 39-37. Greisen directed a 45-yard drive, capped by Tyre Young’s 1-yard run. Spokane then committed one of its few mistakes with a bungled quarterback-center exchange and the Iron recovered at the Shock 4. Greisen’s touchdown pass trimmed Spokane’s lead to two.
A penalty left Spokane at its 1 to start its next series. Rowley shook off the turnover, connecting on eight straight passes over the next two possessions as Spokane took a 53-44 lead.
Milwaukee answered with another Young TD run, but Rowley methodically guided Spokane downfield. The Shock chewed up nearly 6 minutes before Rowley improvised, faking a pass to his right before finding Whittaker in the left corner of the end zone. Rowley’s pass barely cleared the fingertips of Iron linebacker Marcus Everett.
“I was open at first but he didn’t see me, so I kept pushing toward the corner and finally cleared the ‘Jack’ (linebacker),” said Whittaker, who had 14 catches for 165 yards. “I threw my hand up just the slightest amount and Kyle saw me and gave me a chance.”
Rowley, who passed for 334 yards and seven touchdowns, didn’t have much choice.
“Huey did a great job to get open,” he said. “I put my trust in him to be in the right spot because I was about to get hit.”
Milwaukee closed within 60-57 with 43 seconds left but Spokane’s Alex Teems recovered an onside kick and the Shock ran out the remaining seconds.
“We don’t give up, we fight to the end and it wasn’t over until the end,” White said. “That turnover and safety was big. It sparked our offense and gave our whole team momentum.”