Just moments after their roller coaster season had come to a screeching halt like Space Mountain at Disneyland the Utah Blaze were having a hard time figuring out if their season had been a success or not.
It sort of depended on whom you talked to and even some of them were conflicted.
"If you look at the first few games (starting 0-9), how we finished was obviously a success," said Blaze All-Arena wide receiver Huey Whittaker after Colorado downed Utah, 49-44, on Saturday in the first-ever Blaze playoff game at home. "But it's not a success in that we lost in the first round of the playoffs. (The 6-1 end to the regular season) doesn't mean anything, because it's over."
Blaze coach Danny White agreed, calling it "a disappointing season."
But quarterback Joe Germaine and wide receiver Aaron Boone were more positive about what the 2008 Blaze accomplished.
"We need to hold our heads up high," said Germaine. "The easy thing for us to do this year when we started 0-9 was to fold our tents, to give up. That's the natural thing to do when the odds are stacked against you. But we didn't. We fought and made something out of our season."
Boone put it this way: "It was a pretty unbelievable season. To come back from 0-9 and find a way to fight back when so many people counted us out. I mean, 0-9. Who comes back from that?"
Indeed, the Blaze went from being lovable losers through the first nine games to perhaps the hottest team in the AFL during the final seven weeks of the regular season. In doing so, Utah became the first team in league history to make the playoffs after starting so poorly, going so far as earning a home game in the playoffs.
On Saturday, in front of 10,073 fans at EnergySolutions Arena and a national ESPN audience, the lovable losers returned.
"We felt like we were playing from behind all night and we were actually winning most of the night," said Boone. "We kind of went back to the first part of the season in our mentality, which wasn't a good mentality to have."
Utah never trailed in the first half and led most of the second. The Blaze were still up 37-35 with under four minutes remaining.
But Colorado quarterback John Dutton hit Wendall Williams on a four-yard strike, and the ensuing extra point gave the Crush a 42-37 lead with 3:37 to play.
Then came the back-breaker for the Blaze. The ensuing kickoff went off the net, bounced high in the air over Utah kick returner J'Sharlon Jones' head and the live ball was recovered by Colorado on the five-yard line.
"They got a lucky break at the end when the ball came off the net and (Jones) couldn't handle it," said Whittaker.
The Crush took advantage with another Dutton pass, to go up two scores, 49-37, at the one-minute warning.
Germaine found Whittaker in the end zone with 36 seconds remaining to cut the gap to 49-44. Utah's onside kick attempt was unsuccessful, however, and the Crush were able to run out the remaining seconds to advance to the second round. Colorado will play either at Chicago or San Jose next week.
"We just made too many mistakes," Whittaker said.
It looked the the red-hot Blaze might run away with the game early. Two Germaine touchdown passes one to Boone and one to J.J. McKelvey along with an interception by Damon Mason gave the Blaze a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Utah led 24-14, had the ball late in the second quarter, and it looked like the Blaze would take a two-score lead or more into the half. But the Colorado defense held on downs when the officials ruled that Boone's fourth-down catch had actually touched the ground. Colorado took advantage of the stop to score with 13 seconds remaining to trail just 24-21 at intermission.
Utah, which struggled all season in third quarters, tried to get off to a fast start by opening the second half with an onside kick attempt. The Blaze recovered, but a penalty was called and Colorado maintained possession.
Later in the third quarter it was ruled on the field that Mason had intercepted his second pass of the game, but the Colorado coaches challenged the ruling, saying the ball had touched the ground. It was the first use of instant replay ever in the AFL, which was just instigated prior to the playoffs. The play was overturned and it was ruled an incomplete pass rather than an interception.
Mason, the veteran defensive back that White used as a coach on the field, felt the Blaze defense had nothing to be ashamed of.
"I'm glad that the defense came out to play today," said Mason, one of a number of key soon-to-be free agents on the team. "I'm proud of the way we played the whole game on the defense."
The 49 points the Blaze surrendered were the fourth fewest of the season for Utah. But the 44 points the Blaze scored were the second fewest by the offense.
"We didn't execute on offense," McKelvey said, "and it cost us."
Germaine completed 23 of 36 passes for 252 yards and six scores but had a costly interception in the third quarter. McKelvey led Utah's record-setting wide receiving corps with 10 catches for 105 yards and three scores, while Whittaker caught seven passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns and Boone had five catches for 77 yards and a score.
Germaine is under contract for four more years, but all three of his receivers can become free agents, so it will be a busy off-season for the team's front office.
And now the strange-but-true 2008 Utah Blaze season is in the books."It's not the way we wanted to end it," summed up McKelvey. "Everybody wants to win the Arena Bowl. We came out of the blocks slow and finished strong and just wish we could have continued."
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