They said they’d run up and down the field with AJ Francis. Well, they might’ve been right. He picked up 104 yards, but forgot to score points. Week 1’s primetime billing was another iteration of the storied I-95 rivalry between the Tallahassee Pride and the Carolina Skyhawks, where we got to see both teams break out some new toys. For Carolina, the “Monstet” AJ Francis, and for the Pride, the star-studded defensive line.
In one of the most exciting first frames of SFL action this week, AJ Francis broke a large run on the first play of the game deep into Tallahassee territory and had virtually every SFL veteran shaking their heads, confirming their disappointment with the Tallahassee build and its exploitability. Carolina would continue to push forwards on that drive before Biddix decided to scramble up a wide open center of the field for the first score by either team.
Tallahassee got the chance to respond, immediately playing on their toes with risky play-calling and decision-making from Offensive Coordinator Alex Bond and Quarterback Christian Christiansen (Dub C is his new nickname for commentators, shout out to the Pres right here!). Around midfield, the drive stalled and Christiansen outplayed his hand, forcing a throw over the middle of the field to be picked off by safety Giovanni Bolt. Duke Wilson made the tackle on Bolt, breaking his arm and forcing him out for the rest of the game in a move that likely had severe consequences through the rest of the match. Alex Bond would put a stop to the ensuing tide of Skyhawk momentum with an interception off of Biddix due to a tapped pass.
Both sides traded stalled drives until Tallahassee received good field position with roughly two minutes left in the quarter. From there, the Pride offense strung together a nice mix of run and pass plays en route to a goalline fullback dive to the swiss army knife Caleb Connelly. With a little under a minute left, Carolina was not able to get much more offense going in the rest of the quarter with virtually all of their yardage coming on the opening drive with a lot of plays that went back to the line of scrimmage.
The quarter ended tied at 7 in what was largely dominated by Carolina. Francis ended the quarter with roughly 45 rushing yards, while both quarterbacks had a turnover that really costed their team to either get back in the game (Christiansen) or really put a stamp on it (Biddix).
The second quarter saw a lot offensive stagnation with Carolina seeing the bulk of positive movement between either team. This movement was primarily from AJ Francis runs, the occasional Mark Biddix scramble, and extremely effective screen passes to Francis. Despite this, the quarter only yielded three more points for Carolina, but they were in control for much of the time. Tallahassee’s offense resulted in mostly midfield stallouts.
This changed around the five minute mark in the quarter when the Pride began to exploit the Skyhawks’ Zero Blitz. Rookie receiver Duke Wilson found some wide open space with no one within 10 yards of him and Christiansen found him on the first of such blitzes, but he dropped it. In a display of true chemistry between the players, Christiansen went right back to him on third down the next play that was an out route caught for a first down. The drive really began to heat up with a few more positive yardage plays then Christiansen forced a pass over the middle of the field to best friend Kenny G, only to be picked off by the non-contract safety Eugene Barker.
A quick three and out, due to tight coverage deep in Carolina territory, forced a punt back to the Pride. This drive, with about three minutes remaining, Christiansen found some room in the passing game, working the middle of the field before taking advantage of another Zero Blitz on a bomb to Duke Wilson, who did not drop the ball in a game that had much to many of them for both teams, for a 45 yard score with no one around.
Carolina really found a groove on the next drive with the screen pass, where Francis consistently found room for 15 yard gains. After some basic plays, where Tallahassee’s generic corner came up with a clutch deflection and AJ Francis deciding he’d rather step out of bounds than get a potential 3rd and short, generic safety RJ Manley picked off Biddix for the second turnover of the night for Carolina.
After some gambles with fate, the clock expired on Tallahahassee in a 14-10 game in a game largely defined by the running game of Mark Biddix and AJ Francis and the occasional deep ball by Tallahassee.
Tallahassee began the second half with the ball and found lots of success throwing the ball on the outside to receivers Ken Gossett and Duke Wilson for large chunk gains. Just outside of the red zone, generic Tallahassee receiver slot man burned his defender only to drop a sure touchdown. The very next play, however, Duke Wilson found space on the right sideline and was hit with a perfect dime to score his second touchdown and put the Pride up by two possessions.
Little else happened through the bulk of the quarter, as Tallahassee tried to balance out their offensive attack with a largely inefficient rushing attack, primarily because Carolina began having the LB or DT slip their block to be ready for the Dive every time, and Carolina wasn’t able to find any room to work with the overwhelming Tallahassee ‘Yellow Fever’ line and a hyper aggressive secondary.
With less than three minutes left, rookie sensation and Player of the Week-candidate Duke Wilson woke up the stadium with a 71-yard strike on a 3rd and one post route that could’ve been very easily picked if the ball had been thrown any lower. This marked a critical point in the game, in which it seemed the Purple had blown the game wide open.
There was a notable shift in the momentum in this quarter and as the dropskies really took over the game, Christiansen and the Pride passing attack really found room, and the defense stopped virtually everything thrown at them. At the end of the third, the Pride had taken a commanding 28-10 lead.
Wilson got off to a quick start in the fourth quarter, finding space against an exhausted Carolina defense adding up to roughly 60 yards on 2 chain-moving grabs before the run game came in while the Pride were within striking distance to start working the clock. From that point forward, it was mostly stagnate drives by both teams, with the Pride working in a field goal, and with Carolina’s last ditch comeback effort foiled with roughly four minutes to go when Mark Biddix tossed his third pick of the day. It was also his second interception to Alex Bond, this one being particularly killer in the redzone. Tallahassee proceeded to run the clock down as far as they could before Carolina took over again. Carolina was able to work their way into the redzone again, eventually seeing a fourth down situation. Biddix checked down to Francis again in an attempt to power his way to the endzone, but was put on his back with a spear-tackle by Michael Sprous. As play-by-play caller Cam Irvine noted, the powerful hit onto the Monstet, Carolina’s most effective player and preseason star, really put the exclamation mark on the game.
FINAL: Tallahassee 31, Carolina 10
The game was a tale of two halves as the Skyhawks largely controlled the pace of the game through the first two quarters with a tough run game and passing attack designed to take advantage of an aggressive defensive line. The Pride were able to take control of the game in the second half with a vertical attack that really took advantage of an injured secondary.
Tallahassee had two things that really went well for them this game. The first was the passing game of Christian Christiansen, Ken Gossett, and Duke Wilson. Christiansen consistently saw time to make accurate throws to pick apart a Skyhawks defense that is well-equipped to handle high-octane attacks. Meanwhile, Gossett consistently found room to work as a chainmover all across the field, while Wilson set the league ablaze with his 6 catch-241 yard-3 touchdown performance. The second was how the Pride really controlled the line of scrimmage on defense, finishing with 2 sacks and consistent pressure, forcing Biddix to check down and pass underneath for the majority of the game, and closing up the rushing lanes for do-it-all running back AJ Francis through three and a half quarters. Hopefully, this game sent a message to the non-believing SFL elites that the Tallahassee defensive front should be feared.
That being said, Carolina really showed the league something today. They have a true franchise player in the Monstet to build around offensively who can be a threat in the run and pass game. He could make an interesting pair with the athletic Mark Biddix to be one of the most dangerous rushing teams in the league. Defensively, its hard to judge the Skyhawks on this game as they lost one of their starting safeties early in the game. Ultimately, if this is team commits to a “Francis-first” offensive identity in the mold of what Mexico City did last year with Ray Bentley, they could really pick up steam down the stretch this season and we could see a much different game in the Week 12 rematch. This is a team that did not quit and really shut down the Tallahassee run game.
Tallahassee Pride Players of the Week: WR Duke Wilson and DT Fats Johnson
Duke Wilson found the deep ball more than a few times this week and was the offensive engine that basically decided this game. Fats Johnson consistently pressured the inside of the Carolina backfield lead to several pressures throughout the game and 4 tackles for loss.
Carolina Skyhawks Players of the Week: RB AJ Francis and FS Sir Chappel
Francis found upwards of a buck fifty all-purpose yards in a game where he had to be used in a million different ways. He might not have scored, but he was the engine of the Skyhawk offense. Chappel did a good job locking down his side of the field, forcing Christiansen to throw the other direction.[event_details 7379] [event_results 7379] [event_performance 7379]