The Spokane Shock didn’t play their best football Thursday night but they did when the game was on the line.
Spokane scored on all of its second-half possessions and Ruschard Dodd-Masters returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the final two minutes and change, leading the Shock to a hard-earned 69-47 victory over Chicago in front of 6,916 at the Arena in the first round of the AFL National Conference playoffs.
Third-seeded Spokane (15-4) will play for the National Conference championship next week against No. 1 Arizona or No. 4 San Jose. Those two meet Sunday in Phoenix.
“We really finished that game,” coach Andy Olson said. “The defense finished that game for us.”
Don’t let the final score fool you. This one was in doubt deep into the fourth quarter as Chicago, led by seldom-used quarterback Luke Drone, put up a spirited effort.
Spokane took a 48-41 lead on Adron Tennell’s third touchdown reception with 12:12 remaining. Chicago answered on J.J. Payne’s TD run, but kicker Dan Frantz, signed earlier Thursday after an injury to Jose Martinez, missed the PAT wide left, leaving Chicago down 48-47. Frantz appeared to be hobbled as well but still managed to hit 5 of 7 PATs
Spokane scored on Erik Meyer’s 3-yard run to boost its lead to 55-47.
On the next possession Drone, fading in the pocket with Spokane’s pass rush closing in, threw in the right flat. Dodd-Masters stepped in front of the receiver and raced 7 yards for the touchdown.
Two plays later, he hauled in an errant Drone pass and scored on a 24-yard return.
“I didn’t have a plan. I was just trying to make a play on the run so I jumped up as high as I could and I was able to tip it to myself,” Dodd-Masters said of the first interception. “On the second one, (receiver) Reggie (Gray) flinched – he thought I was coming to hit him – and he got gator arms and it just fell right into my arms.”
Spokane’s defense collected four interceptions, three in the last 2:02.
“When your defense is playing like this, that’s what wins championships,” Olson said. “When you can pull out two stops a half, sometimes three … it’s nice to take a little pressure off the offense.”
Spokane’s offense overcame a sluggish first half for the second straight game. Meyer eluded a defender but was sacked from behind by Anthony Hoke and the ball came loose. Chicago recovered and eventually scored to take a 13-7 lead. Another Shock possession ended with an incompletion on fourth-and-21.
Still, Spokane worked the clock smartly to end the half, scoring on Meyer’s 1-yard run with 5.5 seconds left to take a 27-20 lead.
The Shock scored on their last eight possessions before running out the remaining seconds of the fourth quarter with the game in hand. Meyer finished with five touchdown passes and two rushing TDs. Tennell had 11 catches for 123 yards.
“It’s common now, I’m not happy about that,” Olson said of the offense’s first-half struggles. “We weren’t as bad this time, but we scored last before half and that was really key. The second half we were lights out.”
Drone guided Chicago (10-9) to touchdowns on its first four series of the second half before throwing three late interceptions. He finished with six touchdown passes.
“We have to take our hat off to Chicago,” Dodd-Masters said. “They showed up. It’s a possession game. Thankfully we were able to make a couple plays at the end.”
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