ThunderHawks Claim First Ifl Road Victory
La Crosse, Wisconsin - West Michigan ThunderHawks games are not for the weak of heart. Friday night's 65-58 victory over the La Crosse Spartans in Indoor Football League action was another thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride that kept fans on the edge of their seats, players on their toes and coaches on the verge of nervous breakdowns. The road win was the first in nine tries abroad for the ThunderHawks, dating back to last season.
The see-saw affair saw plenty of momentum swings, but emotions finally reached a boiling point just after West Michigan (4-2) had taken a 64-58 lead with 23.8 seconds remaining. The ensuing kickoff skipped down the middle of the field until Darnell Terrell (Missouri) fell on the ball at his own 7-yard line. As he hesitated a moment, officials blew the play dead, although Terrell had not been touched by a defender.
Spartans Head Coach Gilbert Brown, of Green Bay Packers fame, argued vehemently that the play should have continued, allowing Terrell to regain his feet and return the kickoff until tackled. At one point, a flag was thrown amidst all the shouting as it appeared Brown and La Crosse (0-7) would be penalized for their escalating objections.
Instead, officials declared the play a "do-over", forcing the visitors to rekick the ball from their own goal line. To make things even more bizarre, 28.3 seconds were put back on the clock, instead of the original 23.8 left when the bickering began.
On the restart, kicker David Hendrix (Grand Valley State) squibbed a kick that rolled all the way to the back of the Spartans' end zone. La Crosse was unable to return the ball across their goal line so a single point, or Rouge, was awarded to West Michigan, giving them a 65-58 lead with 28.3 still on the clock.
La Crosse then got the ball at their own 5-yard line with a chance to tie or go-ahead with a last-second score. After a pair of incomplete passes and a loss of down for throwing beyond the line of scrimmage, Spartan quarterback Buddy Rivera's (Northern Michigan) final heave hit the La Crosse Center scoreboard. The loud thud silenced the raucous crowd, which had been desperately cheering for their team's first victory of the season.
The wild game featured 677 yards of combined offense, 15 touchdowns, 8 lead changes and 3 safeties. There were 9 scoring plays of 20 yards or more and the chain gang was busy as 35 first downs were recorded between the two United Conference combatants.
West Michigan's prodigious point-a-minute offense, ranked third in the 25-team IFL entering this weekend's games, scored over 50 points for the fifth time in six outings. Quarterback Brad Iciek (Grand Valley State) was again in top-notch form, firing the ball with a deft touch to a stable of spectacular, play-making receivers.
Emmanuel Spann (Marshall) was first to act, hauling in a 29-yard strike from Iciek less than a minute into the game as the fans were just settling into their seats.
Rivera, released this week by the ThunderHawks, was eager to punish his former team, but instead, found himself fumbling away the Spartans' first two possessions of the game. West Michigan failed to take advantage of the miscues, however, as they missed one field goal and had another blocked for a safety by La Crosse's Xzavie Jackson (Missouri).
La Crosse then coughed up the ball yet a third time, but a fortuitous bounce allowed Antonio Overstreet (Southern University) to recover teammate Mark Bonds' (Western Michigan) fumble in the ThunderHawks' end zone for a touchdown and a 9-7 lead.
The crowd was still celebrating when, one play later, Iciek hit a sprinting Nathan Fricke (Ferris State) in stride for a 30-yard touchdown pass and 14-9 advantage as the opening quarter expired.
Bonds made amends for his earlier blunder by bulling in from 2 yards out at the 13:53 mark, restoring the Spartans 2-point edge. Terrell then intercepted Iciek, but Rivera's rocky start continued on the following snap as he was chased from the pocket and tackled for a safety by Rondell Biggs (Michigan) to tie the score 16-16.
West Michigan twice drove deep into Spartans territory, but settled for a pair of field goals from Hendrix, both 17 yards in length, to stretch the lead to 22-16 two minutes before intermission.
Rivera then began to find his rhythm. After a pair of completions, he darted 10 yards on a quarterback draw to pull La Crosse even at 22-22 as Spartan kicker Joseph Mootz (UW-Oshkosh) missed the point-after try.
Iciek then hit his favorite target, Bryan Pray (Pittsburgh State), for a 21-yard score but Hendrix also sailed his kick wide, leaving the score at 28-22. Rivera wasn't quite ready to head to the locker room, spiraling a 40-yard bomb to Aaron Straiten (UNLV) as La Crosse, averaging just 20 points-per-game this season, headed off the field with an improbable 29-28 halftime lead.
The hosts maintained their momentum in the second half as Bonds bowled his way through the ThunderHawks' defense for a 12-yard scoring run that upped the lead to 36-28.
With all the scoring going on, and yet to come, it would be easy to overlook the importance of West Michigan's next drive. The possession was crucial, however, to keep from falling further behind and not adding more fuel to the frenetic fans' fervor.
Facing a 2nd-and-33 from their own 3 yard line, Iciek zipped a pass to Pray for 22 yards to midfield. On 3rd-and-11, Iciek again looked to Pray, who made a diving, finger-tip catch over the middle to pick up a first down. Two plays later, Iciek completed the 9-play drive with a perfect 10-yard floater to Spann in the corner of the end zone and the ThunderHawks were within one.
The drive, which ate 6:06 off the clock, also inspired the West Michigan defense, which promptly came out and got after their former teammate Rivera. On first down, Joel Reaves (South Carolina) and Anthony Adams (Grand Valley State) combined for a sack and on second down, it was a jarring hit from Doug Emery (Ferris State) that separated Rivera from the ball, which rolled into the Spartans' own end zone. La Crosse's Christopher Headd made the recovery but couldn't advance the ball as Adams made the tackle for a safety and West Michigan had restored front-runner status at 37-36.
The guests ran their string of points to 16 when Iciek and Fricke combined for a 23-yard scoring pass with 4:15 left in the third quarter. Now seeing Visitors 44, Home 36, the once boisterous crowd now sat stunned.
Bonds scored his third touchdown of the night on a 5-yard scamper to close out the third quarter scoring with the Spartans trailing 44-43.
West Michigan reeled off the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to take a semi-commanding 54-43 lead as Hendrix notched a 30-yard field goal and Iciek lofted a 25-yard strike to Pray, who finished the night with 11 catches, 152 yards and three scores.
But the Spartans, sensing this might be their best chance to get into the win column, charged back as Rivera hit Headd with a 20-yard TD toss to cut the gap to 54-50 with 7:26 remaining in the game.
Hendrix made his fourth field goal of the night, a 34-yarder, on the ensuing drive, as the two teams traded blows down the stretch.
It appeared the Spartans might finally prove to be the team of destiny on this night when Bonds pounded his way across the goal line from 2 yards out with just 34 seconds left on the clock. Coach Brown, without hesitation, ordered the team to go for two points and the lead. Bonds, who finished with 96 yards on 15 carries, plowed through the line for a 58-57 lead.
Ideally, the ThunderHawks were hoping to run the clock down and take their chances with a Hendrix boot, but Iciek and Pray had other plans. Their 24-yard connection took just 10 seconds off the clock and paved the way for the strange and peculiar ending to an incredibly entertaining evening of indoor football.
Iciek, already the IFL's runaway leader in passing yards per game, tallied another 313 yards passing on 28-of-38 accuracy. His 7 touchdown tosses give him 28 in just 5 starts. Spann logged seven catches for 88 yards and 2 scores while Fricke also added a pair of scores as part of his 61-yard, three-reception performance.
Defensively, West Michigan got nine tackles each from Emery and James Skodak (Ferris State), who also intercepted Rivera. Adams chipped in 6 stops, including 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. Hendrix, leading the IFL in P.A.T. percentage, drilled 6-of-7 point-afters and four field goals for 18 points.
Rivera's combination of heart and athleticism was just what the Spartans ordered. He finished the night 13-of-20 for 202 yards with 2 scores and one pick. He also scrambled for 61 more yards on 16 carries and a score. Straiten, also signed this week, made five grabs for 76 yards and a score while Headd added 93 yards on his four catches with a score. Bonds' 15 hauls produced 96 yards and four scores.
Jackson paced the Spartans defense with 10 stops (3 for loss, 1 sack and a blocked kick) while Jamil Abdullah (Western Kentucky) and Walner Belleus (Iowa) each were credited with 8 tackles.
West Michigan will now get a chance to avenge an earlier 45-39 setback at the hands of Atlantic East rival Richmond, when the Revolution pay their first visit to DeltaPlex Arena on Saturday, June 1st. La Crosse will continue to chase their first victory when they host the Chicago Slaughter on Friday, April 30th.
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