PHOENIX – Earlier in the week, Spokane head coach Rob Keefe predicted his team would have to play nearly perfect football to upset top-ranked Arizona.
Spokane was well south of perfect and in the neighborhood of sloppy, but surprisingly still had its chances. Arizona, error-prone in the first half, cleaned up its act in the second half and pulled away for a 62-33 Arena Football League playoff victory in front of 7,105 Friday at US Airways Center.
Spokane (9-10) finished with a losing record for the first time in the organization’s six-year history, including two setbacks to Arizona after having never lost to the Rattlers. The first-round playoff exit equals its earliest departure. The 2007 Shock lost to Louisville in the first round. Spokane was coming off two straight championship seasons and hadn’t lost a playoff game since falling 56-55 to Tennessee Valley in the 2008 arenafootball2 championship game.
“It’s a metaphor for our season,” Keefe said. “There were a lot of missed opportunities. When you get opportunities, you have to capitalize on them.”
Arizona (17-2) will entertain Chicago (14-5) in the semifinals next Saturday.
This contest was full of turnovers (eight), penalties (23), errant passes (many), dropped passes (at least four), dropped interceptions (at least two) and missed opportunities (innumerable).
“We came out flat,” said Arizona’s Nick Davila, the former Shock quarterback. “I threw two picks and we had a fumble. Most of the time you’re going to get beat doing that, but our defense did a great job.”
Spokane controlled the clock with its ball-possession offense but couldn’t convert when it got close to the goal line. Spokane had three first-half turnovers, all between Arizona’s 5-yard line and the end zone. It would have been four turnovers, but Virgil Gray’s interception was erased by a Rattlers penalty.
Arizona was only slightly better. Receiver Kerry Reed fumbled on the Rattlers’ first play from scrimmage and Spokane converted on a Kyle Rowley-to-Randy Hymes touchdown pass to lead 7-0.
Gray returned the ensuing kickoff 54 yards for a touchdown. At the end of the first quarter, Spokane had run 21 offensive plays to Arizona’s 1.
Spokane blew two chances to reclaim the lead. Hymes lost control of the ball trying to stretch over the goal line and Arizona recovered. After a Davila interception, Spokane gave the ball right back when Rowley’s pass bounced off Brandon Thompkins’ hands and into Vince Hill’s arms.
Davila’s 2-yard TD pass to Glen Fox with 8 seconds left bumped Arizona’s lead to 21-13.
Taylor Rowan misfired on a 39-yard field-goal attempt on the last play of the half.
Two of the biggest plays of the half were near turnovers.
Davila tried a short pass to the sidelines that hit Ruschard Dodd-Masters in the hands with nothing but the end zone in front of him, but he couldn’t hang on to the ball.
Later, Davila bobbled a snap from center and a fortunate bounce gave him time to recover before a couple of Shock defenders arrived.
Linebacker Antwan Marsh picked off a Davila pass in the end zone to stop Arizona’s first drive of the third quarter. Spokane scored to pull within one, but Arizona responded with a touchdown and took possession again after four straight Rowley incompletions.
Odie Armstrong’s 5-yard run restored a two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter.
Former Spokane linebacker Kevin McCullough finished off his old team, snagging a Rowley pass that was deflected near the line of scrimmage and returning the interception 12 yards for a touchdown. Arizona led by 22 with just less than 7 minutes left.
“They baited me into that one,” said Rowley, who was 25 of 45 with three interceptions before being pulled in the fourth quarter. “They gave us the hitch so their (defensive) end could put his hands up at the last second. I shouldn’t have fallen for it.”
“Our defensive line did a great job all night of getting their hands up and making it hard for Kyle to see,” McCullough said. “Kyle is a little shorter, so we just played mirror and tried to get our hands up.”
Hymes and Greg Orton combined for 20 catches, 214 yards and five touchdowns.
“I haven’t lost in the first round in a long time, but I can’t be disappointed,” Keefe said. “For all the trials and tribulations we went through, I think it was a successful season.”
Davila finished 15 of 24 for 167 yards and four TD.
Arizona scored on a kick return, on two interception returns and on a pair of Armstrong runs. Rowley was just 6 of 19 in the second half.