The Greatest Game That Nobody Saw
by Randy Snow
Originally posted on OurSportsCentral.com, Saturday, July 14, 2007
The Great Lakes Division Championship game was played at the Perani Arena in Flint, Michigan last night in front of just 686 people. It featured the top two teams in the division, if not the entire Continental Indoor Football League.
The juggernaut that is the Michigan Pirates entered the game riding a 25-game winning streak dating back to last season. The expansion Kalamazoo Xplosion, on the other hand, came into the game with a respectable 11-2 record during their inaugural season.
The Pirates had scored an average of 60+ points per game this season, but they were held under 40 points for the first time this year as they edged out the Xplosion 37-29 to advance to a second straight League championship game.
Last week, the Xplosion defeated the Chicago Slaughter 51-40 in a second round playoff game in Kalamazoo. During that game, Xplosion wide receiver Brian Dolph injured his ribs in the first half when he was driven hard into the dasher boards going for a pass in the end zone. He sat out the rest of the game.
During warm ups before the game last night, it was obvious that Dolph was still sore from last week's game. But you wouldn't have known it after watching the first play from scrimmage. Dolph streaked down the field and caught a 37-yard touchdown pass, giving Kalamazoo an early 7-0 lead over the Pirates.
The two teams traded scores during the first half and Kalamazoo trailed 23-20 at halftime. Early in the third quarter, the Pirates were backed up deep in their own end of the field. Quarterback Shane Franzer mishandled the snap from center and both teams scrambled for the ball. It rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety and the Pirates lead was cut to 23-22.
On the ensuing Kalamazoo possession, quarterback Bill Skelton was intercepted by Pirates DB Corey Gonzalez, who returned the ball 25 yards for a touchdown. The PAT was no good, but the Pirates extended their lead to 29-22.
Dolph then caught a 22-yard touchdown pass for Kalamazoo, his second of the game, and with the PAT the score was tied 29-29 with 4:07 remaining in the third quarter. A Pirates fumble on their next possession gave the ball back to the Xplosion at their own 10-yard line at the end of the quarter.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Skelton was sacked in the end zone for a safety, giving the Pirates the lead once again, 31-29.
On the next series, Xplosion WR/DB Eric Gardner intercepted a Franzer pass, giving the ball back to Kalamazoo at the 17-yard line. A subsequent field goal attempt by Kalamazoo, which would have given them the lead, failed when the ball hit the ceiling rafters of the arena. The Pirates next drive also stalled and they, too, attempted a field goal. It was no good. The ball hit the scoreboard over the center of the field and bounced back onto the field.
After Kalamazoo got the ball back, they drove down field and were faced with a fourth down play. Skelton took the snap, scrambled to his right and it looked like he was going to try and run for the first down. Instead, he stopped and threw the ball across the field to running back Little John Flowers, who was wide open. He raced to the end zone for the apparent go ahead touchdown. However, a penalty on Kalamazoo nullified the play. The officials ruled that Skelton had crossed the line of scrimmage before he threw the pass and the Pirates took over on downs.
A few plays later, Pirates running back Robert Height caught a 26-yard touchdown pass to extend their lead over Kalamazoo. The PAT was no good, but the Pirates held an eight-point lead 37-29 with 1:25 remaining in the game.
With under a minute left to play, Pirates DB Robert Boyer intercepted a Skelton pass and it looked as if the game was all but over for the Xplosion. But a few plays later, the Pirates fumbled and Kalamazoo got the ball back with 33 seconds to play in the game.
Kalamazoo moved the ball down the field and it all came down to the final play of the game. Down by eight points with five seconds on the clock and the ball at the 22-yard line, Skelton threw a pass into the end zone. It was intended for Brian Dolph. However, the ball sailed high out of the back of the end zone as time expired and the Pirates hung on for the 37-29 win.
On paper, the Xplosion didn't look to have much of a chance against the Pirates. But Kalamazoo did what they have done all season long, they controlled the ball on offense and made big plays on defense. They also won the battle of time of possession, holding onto the ball for 33:19 compared to 26:41 for the Pirates. In the end, however, it was the Pirates who prevailed, but it was not the kind of blowout victory that they have become accustomed to for much of the last two seasons. Kalamazoo put up the fight of their lives and the game was a real nail-biter right up until the final play of the game.
For the Xplosion, quarterback Bill Skelton completed eight of 20 passes for 124 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran 11 times for 43 yards. His counterpart, Pirates quarterback Shane Franzer, completed five of 12 passes for 62 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Wide receiver Brian Dolph had four receptions for 74 yards and two touchdowns. He also recovered a fumble. Robert Height led the Pirates in receiving with three catches for 48 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran the ball eight times for 14 yards and a touchdown.
"Obviously, it's disappointing," Dolph said. "It's a tough way to finish the season, especially coming so close. We thought we had a good chance of pulling it off. We knew that (in order to win) we had to keep it close and keep their offense off the field. They were the ones with the 25-0 record and we're coming in here with nothing to lose. I definitely think the pressure was squarely on their shoulders."
Xplosion kicker Brad Selent connected on two field goals of 31 and 23 yards respectively in the loss. DB David Gator and Eric Gardner each had an interception for Kalamazoo.
"It's been a great season," Kubiak said. "I can't say enough about our coaching staff and our players, especially for a first year organization. We fell a little short out here, but we're pretty proud of what we've done (this season)."
The Pirates will now take on the winner of tonight's game between the Rochester Raider and the New England Surge in the League championship game later this month.
LOW ATTENDANCE, AGAIN
Pirates owner Pete Norager was not happy with the dropping attendance figures in Port Huron and moved the team to Flint for the playoffs after the regular season was over. It is not known at this time if the Pirates will make Flint their permanent home next season or not.
In two "home" playoff games in Flint, the Pirates have drawn a total of just 1,346 fans. (660 for the Marion Mayhem game last week and 686 for the Kalamazoo game last night) The Pirates defeated the Mayhem 70-20 last week.
If not for the close proximity of the opposing teams for those two games, the attendance numbers would have been significantly less. It's a shame that so few fans were there to see this game, because it was one of the best games in the two year history of the league. Those who were there will be talking about this one for a long time.
KALAMAZOO FAN SUPPORT
An enthusiastic group of Xplosion fans made the two and a half hour trip to Flint to support their team, and support them they did. They were very raucous, especially in the second half, drowning out the Pirates fans with chants of "Defense, Defense" and "Let's Go Offense."
Coach Kubiak could not have been more pleased with the support the Kalamazoo fans showed throughout the game. "I thought we were in Kalamazoo," Kubiak said after the game.