The Spokane Empire picked up a victory by a fairly comfortable margin but they were left feeling half satisfied.
Their 30-point halftime lead was melting away before the defense delivered three straight stops to preserve a 45-23 victory Friday over the Tri-Cities Fever at the Arena.
The Empire (9-2) defeated Tri-Cities (3-9) for the fourth time this season and clinched a berth in the Indoor Football League playoffs.
“I think we just got ahead of ourselves,” receiver JJ Hayes said. “We had the lead and we slacked off a bit, but as long as we win that’s all that matters.
“If we didn’t have those defensive stops it might be a different story. Our defense played outstanding. We usually kind of work off each other in games but they really stepped up.”
The first half couldn’t have gone much smoother for the Empire, who scored on every possession and one of the Fever’s as well. Hayes and Carl Sims each had two touchdowns and Trevor Kennedy added another as the Empire went on top 33-9.
Tri-Cities stalled on a drive late in the half and attempted a field goal. Defensive lineman D.J. Yendrey blocked the kick and sent the ball rolling toward Spokane’s end zone. Lorenzo White Jr. scooped it up at 2 and went in for the score.
“That’s a scheme we planned out before the game and it worked,” Yendrey said. “It turned into a touchdown, which makes it even more special.”
Spokane moved the ball efficiently and the defense smothered the Fever offense for 30 minutes. Tri-Cities had only six first downs on six possessions, the last consisting of just one play before the end of the half.
It flip-flopped in the second half. Spokane had just one first down and gained 12 yards in a scoreless third quarter. The Empire finished the half with just 47 yards.
“We were off a little bit,” coach Adam Shackleford said. “We had a receiver go down and come back in, another receiver go down and come back in, and part of it was their scheme. We had guys pressing to make plays instead of moving the chains. We can’t do that.”
The Fever didn’t exactly march up and down the field but they managed to score two touchdowns to cut Spokane’s lead to 39-23 early in the fourth quarter. Tri-Cities had a couple of opportunities to pull closer. On the first, a potential touchdown pass slipped through Akeem Foster’s hands and the Fever eventually turned the ball over on downs.
After Spokane’s second straight four-and-out, Tri-Cities took over at the Empire 14-yard line. Defensive end Brett Bowers yanked the football away from quarterback Hunter Wanket and it was recovered by Josh Ferguson, who also had a third-quarter interception.
Spokane drove 37 yards, capped by Kennedy’s 8-yard touchdown run with 2:09 remaining for its only points in the second half.
“As soon as we see the film we’re going to be holding our heads down,” Hayes said, “but it’s mental mistakes and things we can easily fix.”
Spokane is eight games into a stretch of playing for 13 consecutive weeks. Shackleford gave Tri-Cities credit for its determined effort but added that he has a tired football team on his hands.
“The only guy that really ran around fresh was (Tyree) Robinson and he had last week off,” Shackleford said. “These guys are tired. The league gave us a schedule that honestly we have had to come up with something completely different to handle.”
The coach said players will take the weekend off and a pool workout Monday to lighten their workload.
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