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Spokane Empire, Sioux Falls Storm proved they belong in United Bowl

Spokane Empire head coach Adam Shackleford is counting on running back Andrew Pierce to boost the offense in United Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Empire head coach Adam Shackleford is counting on running back Andrew Pierce to boost the offense in United Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There is no question the two best teams in the Indoor Football League reached the United Bowl. There is little question Sioux Falls is the heavy favorite to secure its sixth straight title.

Nevertheless, Spokane coach Adam Shackleford has, well, a question.

“It’s a matchup of us playing the best team in the league,” Shackleford said. “And for them, can they beat the second-best team three times in a season?”

The answers will come Saturday when the visiting Empire (13-4) and Storm (16-1) clash at the Premier Center. Sioux Falls defeated the Empire 63-50 at home and 59-35 in Spokane.

The Storm have not only won the last five IFL titles, they’ve won nine championships in coach Kurtiss Riggs’ 14 seasons, dating pre-IFL to United Indoor Football. Sioux Falls hasn’t lost at home since 2010, spanning 61 games. The Storm are 47-2 over the last three seasons and 92-7 since falling in the 2010 title game.

Empire players are aware of the impressive streaks and stats, but insist Saturday is all that matters.

“We truly believe,” defensive end Benjamin Perry said. “We have the talent on this team. I’ve seen us play great games. We just have to put it all together for 60 minutes.”

Case in point was Spokane’s 55-44 victory over Nebraska last Sunday in the Intense Conference championship. The Empire dominated the first half and built a 45-17 lead. They sputtered through portions of the second half.

If Spokane plays the way it did in the first half?

“The Spokane Empire will be champs of the IFL,” defensive lineman Toby Jackson said.

If Spokane plays the way it did in the second half?

“It’s going to be a long game,” Jackson conceded.

Shackleford pinpointed several keys:

Run, and stop the run. Spokane has struggled since running back Trevor Kennedy’s season-ending injury, but Andrew Pierce generated 55 yards rushing in his debut.

“If he’s not up for game MVP, we probably don’t win this game,” Shackleford said.

Meanwhile, Sioux Falls is by far the IFL’s top running team. Quarterback Lorenzo Brown led the league in rushing and several speedy receivers contribute to the ground attack.

“Lorenzo is not a pocket passer,” Shackleford said. “He’s an athlete that can throw the ball, kind of like the guy (Charles Dowdell) we have. We need to stop his legs first.”

Change isn’t always good. Cedar Rapids ran into trouble when it started pressing in the second half against Sioux Falls in the United Conference championship.

“We turned the ball over and tried to gamble on defense rather than stay the course,” said Titans coach Mark Stoute, whose team lost 54-28.

“A lot of teams make a mistake and go in there and say, ‘Obviously what we do isn’t going to work,’ ” said Shackleford, 0-9 in his career vs. the Storm, including two United Bowl losses when he coached Tri-Cities. “We are who we are. It got us 13 wins and a conference championship.”

Limit turnovers and finish drives. Spokane committed nine turnovers, all interceptions, in the first two meetings. Spokane had four consecutive series stall in the red zone in the first contest. The Empire still had a chance to take the lead in the closing minutes, but linebacker Tyler Knight intercepted Dowdell.

“If we can’t run the ball in the red zone, we’re going to get beat again, bad,” Shackleford said.

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