The new game in town didn’t go down as an artistic success Saturday night.
But you can’t fault the finish.
The Spokane Empire introduced the Indoor Football League game to the city in wild fashion Saturday night, pulling out a stunning 66-65 victory over the Wichita Falls Nighthawks that the Empire looked to have thrown away twice.
Passing on a potential tying PAT kick, the Empire took the lead with 15 seconds remaining on a fake-pitch-and-pass from Charles Dowdell to running back Trevor Kennedy.
But the Empire’s Carl Sims had been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the previous touchdown play for flipping the football at Wichita defender Danny Jackson – a 15-yard penalty that put the Nighthawks in easy field goal range for Rockne Belmonte, who’d been near-perfect all night.
Belmonte nailed an 18-yarder as time expired – only to have it wiped out by a holding penalty. So he tried again from 21, and this time hooked the ball badly wide of the right upright – and the Empire players went into a wild celebration.
What was left of the IFL debut crowd of 6,325 joined them – a little dizzy at what they’d seen.
It was Spokane’s first taste of the IFL game since the local franchise left the Arena Football League at the end of last season – and had to let go of the old Shock nickname, which belonged to that league. The most notable missing element – the AFL’s trademarked rebound nets – were hardly missed.
They were replaced by a more diverse game with a legitimate running attack. Two of the night’s biggest roars were for long touchdowns on the ground by Dowdell (25 yards) and Kennedy (45) – at least until kicker Dan Klecker finally connected on Spokane’s first PAT in the fourth quarter.
And like often happened in the AFL days, that’s when all hell broke loose.
Spokane (2-0) had taken a 44-23 lead early in the third quarter before the Nighthawks started chipping away, three times closing to within a touchdown. The Empire tried to hold off the visitors with the long ball – Dowdell connecting with Jefferson Hayes on a 34-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth period – but the Nighthawks kept coming.
Five minutes remained when the visitors, in their season opener, pulled within a touchdown for the third time on a 9-yard pass from Charles McCullum – one of his six on the night – to Ja-Mes Logan.
On the ensuing kickoff, Hayes had to track the ball back to the end wall and was separated from it at the goal line, Jackson recovering for the tying touchdown.
Staggered, the Empire offense stalled and was forced to have Klecker kick out of the end zone. And one play later, the Nighthawks had a 65-58 lead when Jordan Jolly broke free to the left edge of the end zone and flagged down McCullum’s pass.
Dowdell and Justin Helwege hooked up on three first-half touchdown passes as the Empire took control early. But a number of issues – too many penalties, special teams problems and 11 points worth of failed PATs – helped Wichita back in the game.
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