Wranglers turn away Storm, 60-59
The ball bounced Austin's way at the beginning of Saturday's pivotal Southern Division game against Tampa Bay. After the Wranglers lost a 13-point lead and couldn't seem to regain momentum in a game they desperately needed to win, the ball bounced back when it mattered most.
Trailing for much of the game, Austin drew within a point with five seconds left behind a juggling touchdown catch by offensive specialist Derrick Lewis on a perfectly thrown fade route by quarterback John Fitzgerald. Faced with the choice of going for the win or settling for a tie and overtime, Austin Head Coach Skip Foster went for the two-point conversion and the victory. Fitzgerald came through again, charging into the end zone on a quarterback sweep for the 60-59 victory in front of 10,394 fans at the Frank Erwin Center.
"It was up in the air, but after we met as a staff, we decided to go for it," Foster said. "It turned out to be a great play by Fitzgerald."
A 61-yard field goal attempt by Tampa Bay's Bill Gramatica fell short as time expired.
The winning play, which the Storm hadn't stopped on a previous two-point conversion and a touchdown, capped a wild final minute that featured four touchdowns. But every time the Storm seemed to put the game out of reach, Kevin Nickerson brought the Wranglers back.
Austin's wide receiver/defensive back made an unbelievable catch with his right hand as he fell backward into the wall and spun into the end zone to tie the game at 52 with just under a minute left. Nickerson finished the game with 13 catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns and was named the ADT Offensive Player of the Game.
"I gave it all I got," Nickerson said. "The makeup of our team is to play hard-nosed football. We really pulled together tonight, and it was a great example of what Austin is made of."
On the ensuing kickoff, a crazy bounce off the uprights sent the ball sailing toward the oncoming Austin defenders, but somehow Tampa Bay rookie Leroy Smith recovered in a mass of Wranglers. The Storm quickly drove down the field, and Jarrod Penright ran in untouched for a seven-point lead with 23 seconds remaining.
But the Wranglers never folded. A quick kickoff return out to midfield by Sedrick Robinson put the offense in striking distance, and Fitzgerald once again found Nickerson down to the goal line to set up Lewis' touchdown catch and Fitzgerald's two-point heroics.
Fitzgerald completed 25-of-30 passes for 283 yards and six touchdowns and scored another touchdown and two conversions with his legs.
"It was a huge win in the Southern Division," Foster said. "It was a home game we had to have. I knew the players would give us everything they had."
Austin jumped out to a 13-0 lead after only 1:43 thanks to a pair of special teams takeaways. The Wranglers started the game with a surprise onside kick, which was recovered by Nickerson. Austin scored in two plays on a 24-yard touchdown pass to former Longhorn Greg Brown, who received Ironman of the Game honors after recording 3.5 tackles.
The Wranglers kicked deep the second time, but the results were still the same. Tampa Bay couldn't corral the ball in the endzone, and Austin FB/LB Dane Krager somehow emerged from the scrum with the ball and the touchdown.
Both teams had big plays nullified by penalties. A Tampa Bay touchdown was called back for offensive pass interference, and a defensive pass interference flag disallowed an Austin interception in the fourth quarter.
The Austin Wranglers travel to San Jose to play the resurgent SaberCats next Saturday at 9:30 p.m. Fans can tune in to Time Warner Cable channel 77 at 10 a.m. on Sunday to watch the game tape-delayed.
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Arena Football League (1987-2008) Stories from April 15, 2006
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