By Jeff Melinyshyn and Ryan Karpinski 

Mexico City Aztecs @ Tallahassee Pride

This match up featured two top running backs and two top quarterbacks; Ray Bentley v. Jaye Eniola – Matt Wilson v. Christian Christiansen. The first possession for Tallahassee saw them drive down the field for the opening touchdown. It looked like Mexico City would be in for a rough night, but that was not the case. Mexico City’s defense came to play. Mexico City would take the Pride crowd out of the game for a little bit as they would score 10 unanswered points to take a 10-7 lead going into the third quarter. It would be the only lead Mexico City would have as the Tallahassee kicker would drill two field goals to give the win to the Pride 13-10.

Tallahassee quarterback Christian Christiansen had his worst statistical game of the season and probably of his career. Mexico City held him to under 50 percent completion percentage, under 120 yards passing, and forced 3 interceptions. Aztecs corner Fran Ogawa had two interceptions of Christiansen and fellow corner King Wallis had the other. This was a defensive battle until the final whistle. No defense was giving in to anything the opposing offense was trying to do. Tallahassee would seem to gain momentum then Mexico City would stop it as soon as it started. Mexico City would gain momentum and Tallahassee’s defense would step up.

Although the stats may say otherwise, this was a great defensive game on both sides. Speaking of Tallahassee’s defense, that defensive line is a human unstoppable force. Defensive End Taqwuan Hale recorded three sacks, fellow end Kevin Bane recorded one, tackle Hunter Norwood recorded three sacks, and fellow tackle E.J. DeCue recorded one. Play after play after play, all four seemed to have the snap count memorized and there was nothing Matt Wilson could do.

As for that running back battle, Ray Bentley tied the score on a beautiful second quarter run. Bentley would finish the night with 107 yards and a score. Eniola went bonkers again, but we should not be surprised. He finished with 192 yards and a score as well. Mexico City quarterback Matt Wilson would  struggle throughout the game. He finished with under 100 yards passing, no touchdowns and throwing one interception.

Tallahassee’s locker room after the game was one of relief and jubilation. Even with two losses on the season, this was the hardest fought game of the year by far. At the press conference after the game you could see how relived Head Coach Frank Goodin was. He thanked first Mexico City and Ramos Lynn for a great game and game plan against his team.

“They played awesome, came in here and took our crowd out of it, really great job from them. We were searching for something in the first half to get our offense going and we just could not find anything”. On second half adjustments, “Yeah, getting into the locker room and talking to the coordinators and getting their take on things, we had to find something and luckily we found just enough to get out with a 3-point victory against a really solid team”.

On how he thinks his defensive line played, “Boy, 9 sacks on a Hall of Fame quarterback is something that should not be taken lightly. I’ve seen these guys work in practice each and every day, they are a special group of guys.” On how long they will celebrate this victory, “Of course we will celebrate tonight. We do not know yet who we are playing, so we will go to work on that come tomorrow. Our guys will probably have the game on to see who their opponent will be.”

Christian Christiansen, when asked who he would rather face, “At this point in the season with two teams left (Houston and Alaska), it doesn’t matter who we face really. I believe in the coaching staff and the rest of the guys in here to get prepared for whoever we face whether it’s Houston or Alaska and give them a run for that title, this was our goal and we will go down swinging for that title and bring it home to Tallahassee.”

Being in the locker room there is a sense that Pride players want to face Alaska. They lost last season and there is some bitter taste from that game they want to get out of their mouths. But no matter who they face, the Pride coaching staff will have the players prepared once they find out who they will be playing.

Houston Hyenas @ Alaska Storm

One more win. One more win and you are in the final game of the season. The game that every team strives to reach each season. All the hard work, all the blood, sweat and tears attempting to culminate on the final goal. For Alaska, it was an attempt to get back to the Championship game to defend their title from Season 10. For Houston, it was an attempt to get back to the game that had eluded them since Season 6. Both teams put everything on the line, hammering each other with heavy hits, well placed throws and a slight bit of mind games thrown in as well.

The Alaska Storm played host to the Houston Hyenas in “The Eye” in Anchorage, Alaska in one of the semifinal matches, a birth into the Championship game on the line for both teams. Alaska, along with trying to get back into the Championship game to defend their title, were trying to keep the unbeaten streak alive, having not lost a game in over 6 months. Houston was trying to do what seemed impossible, beat the unbeaten and have a chance to take on the Tallahassee Pride in the Championship game.

The Storm won the opening coin toss and decided to receive the opening kickoff, showing the utmost faith in one of the most high powered offenses in the league. Their opening drive started at their own 30 yard line as quarterback Ron Cockren came onto the field. Alaska used a lot of the short out routes, with quick passes across the middle as well to pick apart the Hyenas defense, something that would become a theme as the game would continue, and they methodically marched down the field on a drive that would ultimately end with short touchdown run by Storm fullback Jason Williams, from 2 yards out. Alaska leading, 7-0. Houston took over on the ensuing drive from their own 24 yard line. The Hyenas looked to continue their rushing game attack that propelled them over the Chicago Wildcats in the Quarterfinal matchup, but the Storm were prepared on the first play of the drive as they dropped Warren Murray for a 1 yard loss. After several first downs, the Hyenas first drive of the game stalled out at their own 42 yard line and were forced to punt it back over to the Storm. The remainder of the 1st quarter resulted in both teams punting the ball back and forth as both defenses put the squeeze on each offense.

The 2nd quarter started with the Hyenas in control of the ball at the Alaska 32 yard line on a continuation of a drive from the 1st quarter. The Hyenas continued to work their way down the field and the drive culminated in a 6 yard touchdown run from running back Warren Murray – all tied up at 7-7. Alaska returned fire after marching down the field and quarterback Ron Cockren found a crossing Robert Merrill in the back of the end zone to give the Storm the lead once more, 14-7. On the next drive, the Hyenas looked to answer back once more with another long sustained drive that unfortunately stalled out at the Alaska 2 yard line and resulted in a field goal, 10-14 Alaska. With 1:50 left in the 1st half, Alaska took over at their 28 yard line. The Houston Hyenas caught a break with 2 incomplete passes and only 1 completion and were able to get the ball back with 52 seconds left in the half on their own 32 yard line. A route across the middle to tight end Yasin Clifton brought them down to the Alaska 46 yard line. After two short plays, a deep pass to Badr Ajlouni set Houston up at the Alaska 16 yard line. A quick timeout and a field goal attempt later and the Hyenas went into the half only down 13-14 to the Alaska Storm.

The 2nd half came with the Hyenas starting at their own 24 yard line. 2 runs totalling -2 yards and an incomplete pass over the right side and Houston was forced into a 3 and out. Alaska took over and once again marched down the field to the Houston 22 yard line. Houston defensive tackle, Chad Takkul, put a hit on Ron Cockren as he let the ball loose on a pass towards the end zone and Hyenas safety, Eddie “2 Scoops” Gauge, was able to get under the lofted pass and pick it off in the Houston end zone for a touchback and save the Hyenas from going down by a potential 21-13 score. Houston gained momentum off the turnover and drove down the field to the Alaska 10 yard line. The drive would stall there and result in a field goal but would give the Hyenas the lead, 16-14.

The 4th quarter would start with that same score, with the Hyenas hoping to do the unthinkable and hold off the Storm to reach the Championship game once more. Alaska would force the Hyenas into a punt and attempt to pull off some of that 4th quarter magic that they had been able to pull from all season long to keep the unbeaten streak alive. The Alaska drive would be stopped at the Hyenas 4 yard line and keep them to a field goal, Alaska retook the lead 17-16. Houston’s next drive resulted in a punt and gave Alaska the ball back with a chance to run the clock down with 5 minutes left in the game. On the drive, Alaska was able to drive down to the Houston 10 yard line before needing to kick a field goal while winding the clock all the way down to 1:45 left in the game. Alaska would convert and increase their lead to 20-16. With 1:37 left and 1 timeout for the Hyenas, they would need to muster all their strength and courage to drive down the field and take the game away from the Storm.

The first play of the drive was an incomplete pass towards Hall of Fame receiver, D.R. Sim. Second play, an out route to a non contract receiver to the Houston 37 yard line – 1:28 left and clock ticking. Third play, an out route to Josh Fedd to their own 48 yard line, 1:15 left. Fourth play, a wide open pass, dropped by non contract receiver Norris. Fifth play, a deep pass to Badr Ajlouni to the Alaska 34 yard line over the middle. Sixth and seventh plays, check downs to Warren Murray totalling -1 yard and the need for Houston to use their final timeout – 38 seconds left on the Alaska 35. Eighth play, a pass threaded thru the needle to D.R. Sim to the Alaska 17 yard line. Ninth play, snapped at 24 seconds remaining, pass deep right to Badr Ajlouni to the end zone Alaska cornerback Ryan Davidson nearly picked off the pass and sealed the game. Tenth play, check down to Warren Murray. Eleventh play, spike by Kentez Johnson to stop clock at 5 seconds left in the game.

Final play of the game. Houston comes out in a 4 wide set, 3 receivers to the right and 1 to the left. Warren Murray to the right of quarterback Kentez Johnson in the shotgun. Alaska answers with 3 down linemen, 2 linebackers and 6 defensive backs. Ball is snapped and Kentez drops back, he fires a bullet of a pass towards the end zone, just over where the left hash marks would be, towards his Hall of Fame wide receiver D.R. Sim. Alaska defenders draped all over him. Alaska cornerback Evan Carroll reaches out and knocks the ball away from its intended target and it falls harmlessly to the ground. Heartbreak for the Houston Hyenas and elation for the Alaska Storm. The perfect season continues, 20-16.