The Utah Blaze scored a go-ahead touchdown with barely a minute remaining in the game against the Chicago Rush at EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday night. That's when Danny White made a play call no traditional football coach in his right mind would make.
Leading 48-41 with 1:08 on the clock, the Blaze coach ordered an onside kick. It was unsuccessful and, thanks to an offsides penalty by Utah, the Rush took over at the six-yard line. Two plays later, Chicago scored the game-tying touchdown.
Which is just the way White had planned it.
"It worked out about as well as it could have," said White.
By kicking the onside kick with 68 seconds on the clock, White knew his team would likely have the ball last. That is exactly what happened. The game was tied when the Blaze took control of the ball with 43 seconds left. They then ran the ball three straight times to run the clock down to one second before calling a timeout. That set up a field goal by Blaze kicker Steve Videtich on the final play of the game, giving Utah a 51-48 victory.
Had the Blaze kicked the ball deep after taking the 48-41 lead, Chicago would have tried a slow, steady drive down the field that is only 50-yards long, trying to score with as few seconds on the clock as possible. The best-case scenario in that case would be to score on the final play of regulation. They then could have kicked an extra point to send the game into overtime or gone for two and the win.
"When the score is tied it's a different deal," said White of the onside kick with 1:08 left. "But when you are up a touchdown, all you want to do is do what we did have the ball at the end."
So the Blaze knew the Rush would likely score and score quickly if the onside kick was unsuccessful. But Chicago wouldn't be able to milk the clock and would have to give the ball back to Utah, who would then be able to have the ball last.
In other words, White's onside kick strategy was what almost all AFL coaches would do in that situation. Still, for fans used to the outdoor game, it can be confusing. You would never see that strategy in the 100-yard version of football with that little amount of time left.
One vocal Blaze fan, in fact, walked right up to the Utah bench after the onside kick and screamed at the coach. "If we lose this game, it's your fault.""I had a few fans screaming at me," said White, now in his 16th season as an AFL head coach. "They don't understand arena football."
PLAYOFF PICTURE: The Blaze, at 3-10, still have the worst record of the eight teams in the American Conference. But Utah, winners of three of their last four games, are just one-half game behind both Kansas City and Grand Rapids, which are both 3-9 and tied for the sixth and final playoff spot in the conference.
Utah beat Kansas City on May 3, giving the Blaze the head-to-head tie-breaker advantage over the Brigade. And the Blaze can get the tie-breaker edge over Grand Rapids this Sunday if they can earn a victory over the Rampage on the road.
In fact, with three games remaining for Utah, there is still an outside chance the Blaze can actually host a playoff game.
Chicago (9-3) has already clinched the Central Division title and a first-round bye. San Jose (8-5) has clinched a playoff berth and is the likely Western Division champ, which would give it a first-round bye as well. Arizona (6-6) is in good shape to finish third in the conference, giving them a first-round home game against the No. 6 seed.
The fourth place team also gets a home game, as it will host the No. 5 seed. Right now Los Angeles and Colorado are tied for the fourth spot in the conference at 4-8.
But if Utah wins out to finish the year 6-10, there is a decent chance they will pass L.A., Colorado, Kansas City and Grand Rapids and get that fourth spot and a home playoff game, believe it or not.Following Sunday's game at Grand Rapids, the Blaze will finish the year with an ESPN2 game at home against L.A. on June 9. They will then have a bye week before finishing the regular season June 21 at Arizona.
STAT UPDATE: Blaze quarterback Joe Germaine leads the 17-team league in several categories, including touchdown passes (81) and passing yardage (3,995). Utah also boasts three of the top 10 AFL receivers. Huey Whittaker and Aaron Boone both have 114 catches, which is tied for the league lead. Whittaker's 1,367 yards is third best in the AFL, while Boone is sixth with 1,249 yards. J.J. McKelvey, meanwhile, leads the Blaze in touchdown catches with 33. He also has 100 catches overall for 1,166, which is eighth best in the league.
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