Just a routine Saturday night for Team Drama.
Would you believe another quarterback injured – this one red-hot replacement Erik Meyer? How about four second-half turnovers, normally the kiss of death in the Arena Football League? Or seeing a 22-point lead wilt to where a field goal would have sent things into overtime?
No matter. The Spokane Shock survived yet another encounter crucial to their playoff hopes, using a pair of late first-half defensive turnovers and hanging on for a 63-60 victory over the Chicago Rush in front of 9,499 fans at the Spokane Arena.
The victory ran the Shock’s record to 6-7 and allowed them to keep pace with Utah and Tulsa in the battle for the AFL National Conference’s second wild-card spot – those three teams two full games behind the other non-division leader, Dallas.
But it also suggested that the Shock may have tapped into a well of resiliency that could sustain them beyond this single win.
“Welcome to the soap opera,” said Shock coach Rob Keefe. “But, to be honest, it’s something we prepare for.”
Having already lost two starters at quarterback to injury a month ago, Spokane’s backup plans were tested again when Meyer threw a third-quarter interception and took a hard shot upending Chicago’s Perry Kyles on the return – saving a touchdown, but forcing Keefe to turn to untested Steven Sheffield.
The rookie from Texas Tech didn’t dazzle. His first two AFL passes were incomplete, and the third – late and slow – was intercepted. And he would later fuel Chicago’s comeback with a fumbled snap on fourth down. But he also threw a pair of touchdown passes that gave the Shock the margin for those errors.
“It was just about relaxing and knowing there isn’t that much difference between a game and practice,” said Sheffield. “I see DBs as good as that in practice. It’s just accepted that it’s not that big of a deal just because there’s a bunch of people here and the game’s on the line.”
The Rush (9-4) contributed to their demise. Kicker Bob Forstrom missed three PATs and a 2-pointer was foiled when Ruschard Dodd-Masters knocked down a pass – he would later do it again on a big fourth down after the Shock couldn’t recover an onside kick.
But if the game wasn’t decided in the last minute of the first half, it certainly turned there.
It started with Spokane’s Antwan Marsh jumping a Charles Dillon slant route for an interception, returning it 26 yards. Marsh was back at fullback a few plays later to run it in from a yard out.
On the next snap, Jon Williams sacked Chicago quarterback Russ Michna and the ball went skittering toward the back wall, Jonathan Williams falling on it to give the Shock a 42-27 halftime lead.
“If we’d been tied at half, who knows how it would have ended?” Keefe said. “To be honest, we were hanging on for dear life there.”
Michna did not return for the second half and Meyer found Greg Orton on a 37-yard post corner to push the gap to 22 points. Rush backup Dominic Randolph threw an ugly pick on his second snap and the Shock appeared to be ready to cruise – only to see Meyer, who completed 15 of 19 passes for 202 yards and five touchdowns, hurt on the next play.
“It’s unfortunate Erik went down,” Keefe said. “We’ll assess his injury, but I’m sure he’ll be OK judging from how he’s responding now.”
After the fumbles by Sheffield and fullback Clay Harrell opened the door for Chicago’s game-tightening scores, the Rush opted against an onside kick with 52 seconds left and tried to drop it behind return man Terrance Sanders – only to see Forstrom put it over the back wall instead. The Shock ran out the clock with sneaks, with help from an offsides penalty against old teammate Jeremy Geathers.
“This was such a big game and win for us,” Keefe said. “We still have to keep up with the Joneses, and that’s what we’re doing.”