It will be Spokane’s last home game of the season, unless it isn’t. It will be the Empire’s last game against the Arizona Rattlers, unless it isn’t.
The third meeting between Spokane and Arizona on Saturday at the Arena will shape both Indoor Football League teams’ postseason plans.
A Spokane (8-5) victory pulls the Empire into a first-place tie with Arizona (9-4) and gives them the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a win in Arizona in April. It would position Spokane to host the Intense Conference title game, likely against the Rattlers.
An Arizona victory clinches hosting rights to the conference championship game and leaves the Empire in a dogfight with Nebraska (7-6) for the second and final playoff spot. Nebraska holds the tiebreaker over Spokane.
“This is a playoff game for us,” Empire coach Adam Shackleford said. “That’s the way we’re treating it.”
Spokane needs to treat it differently than the May 12th meeting when the visiting Rattlers owned the line of scrimmage in a 49-35 victory. The Empire’s lineup has changed significantly with rookie Aaron Wilmer taking over at quarterback, Andrew Pierce settling in at running back and Deveric Gallington handling the center position.
Pierce’s arrival two weeks ago allows versatile Trevor Kennedy to see time at running back, receiver and in the return game. Receiver Sam Charles is out after taking a hard spill over the dasherboards late in last week’s win over Colorado.
Shackleford pinpointed two keys. One, Wilmer’s ability to deliver against Arizona’s blitz. The Rattlers sacked former Empire quarterback Charles Dowdell six times in the last meeting.
“When we’re in an empty set you beat the blitz with the throw,” Shackleford said. “You can’t hold it. You’re not going to get away from (Rattlers linebacker) Justin Shirk very often.”
The second key is containing Arizona’s potent ground game. IFL rushing leader Darrell Monroe ran for 87 yards and three touchdowns in the May matchup.
“It’s all stopping the run against them,” Shackleford said. “They don’t like to throw. They haven’t had a reason to throw against several teams. When they’ve had success it’s when (quarterback Cody) Sokol has had to manage the game and not been forced to throw.”