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Spokane Empire gets back on winning track, holds off Colorado 48-43

The Spokane Empire really needed this one. So did their coach.

Spokane held off Colorado 48-43 on Friday at the Arena, ending a three-game Indoor Football League losing streak.

“I’m a pretty humble guy but I’ve never lost three in a row,” coach Adam Shackleford said. “I think I needed it as much as the players, really to give myself confidence that I’m doing the right things and can still coach young people.”

The Empire (8-5) moved into second place alone in the Intense Conference heading into next week’s home showdown against Arizona (8-4). The Rattlers entertain Nebraska (7-5) on Sunday.

The top two teams advance to the Intense Conference championship game.

One of Shackleford’s toughest decisions – releasing starting quarterback Charles Dowdell earlier this week – paid off as rookie Aaron Wilmer had a successful debut with four touchdowns, two passing and two rushing.

Wilmer left plenty of room for improvement, but he didn’t throw an interception and he guided the Empire to 35 first-half points. Spokane had scored 36 points or less in six of its last seven games.

“I’d give him about a B-minus, but I’m pretty hard on my quarterbacks,” Shackleford said. “I’m proud of the way he came out and found ways to score and he didn’t throw the ball to the other team.”

The defense did its part, allowing just one touchdown as Spokane built a 15-point halftime lead. The unit contributed another key stop early in the fourth quarter, swarming Lovie Rose III three yards short on fourth-and-4.

The Empire capitalized with Brendon Garcia’s 28-yard field goal for a 48-31 lead with 10:21 remaining.

Colorado (3-10) rallied behind quarterback Liam Nadler, who replaced starter Sean Goldrich late in the third quarter. The Crush closed within 48-43 with 50.5 seconds left but the Empire’s Tyree Robinson recovered the ensuing on-side kick to seal the victory.

“We left seven, 14, maybe 17 points on the board,” Wilmer said, “but we got the W.”

Running back Andrew Pierce, signed earlier this week, contributed a pair of touchdowns.

“I could sense it on the plane ride here. Coach Shack told me what the deal was and we definitely needed to win this game,” Pierce said. “I stayed football ready. I’ve been working out and I had tryouts in the CFL.”

An entertaining first half, which ended with Spokane on top 35-20, had a little bit of everything. Penalties wiped out a Daniel Lindsey kick return for a touchdown and another Lindsey return inside the Empire 10-yard line.

Wilmer lost his grip on the ball while attempting a pass. He ended up catching the ball off the back of one of his lineman, running for three yards and Colorado was flagged for a face-mask penalty.

Spokane botched a center-quarterback exchange at Colorado’s 1-yard line and the Crush’s Azziz Higgins pounced on the ball. Everybody stopped, believing the play was over, but after several seconds Higgins got up and raced 49 yards for a touchdown.

Wilmer was solid in the first half, capping Spokane’s first series with a 2-yard touchdown run.

Andrew Jackson’s interception gave the Empire possession and Wilmer threaded a pass through traffic to Bryan Pray for an 11-yard touchdown.

Colorado pulled even at 14 on Higgins’ touchdown, but Spokane went up 28-14 on scoring runs by Pierce and Wilmer.

Miles Bergner kept Colorado somewhat close at the break with 53- and 35-yard field goals sandwiched around Pierce’s 6-yard touchdown reception.

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