LAS VEGAS – Hero, or goat? There is generally a fine line between these two adjectives in the world of sports. Thunder OL, John Martinez found that out the hard way in Sunday’s meeting between the Las Vegas Outlaws (5-8) and the Portland Thunder (3-10). With only 2:31 left in the game, Martinez drove across the goal line for his 4th rushing TD on the day giving his Thunder a 46-42 lead. “Hero.” Less than 2 minutes later, he gave away a sure victory with a fumble at his own 15 yard line while his team was trying to run out the clock. “Goat.”
Las Vegas came in Sunday with a 1 game lead on Portland, and tied with Spokane for the final 2 playoff spots in the National Conference. While 5 games still remain in the season, a win would give either team the edge going forward. Las Vegas would have to find offense without their two top QB’s, JJ Raterink and Sean Brackett, both still nursing injuries. Instead the Outlaws turned to QB Dennis Havrilla (signed last week) who was making the first start of his young AFL career.
Havrilla wasn’t worried about leading his team in a game with playoff implications.
“It felt great comin in on a quick week trying to learn these guys. We got great receivers, great lineman, so just trying to come in and really take advantage of all the excellent players we have here.”
Both teams struggled to find a rhythm in the 1st quarter. 12 minutes into the 1st quarter, Havrilla found Tysson Poots (7 rec, 70 yds, 3 TD’s) from 6 yards out for the Outlaws 1st score of the game. Havrilla (21-34, 214 yds, 4 TD’s, 2 rush TD’s, 2 int’s) put just enough on a little floater over the defense after having major trouble finding his touch early. He missed a wide open Gerald Young in the end zone on the teams first play, then badly underthrew Young in the end zone on the fourth play.
With 12 seconds left in the first half, John Martinez plunged in from the 2 for his 2nd TD of the game. The Outlaws had a chance to answer after late hit and unsportsmanlike penalties on the same play set them up at the Thunder 6 with just 3 seconds left. The Havrilla pass fell incomplete though, and Portland held their 20-14 lead at the half. A big opportunity missed by Vegas, but a lesson learned for later to be sure.
The 3rd quarter has not been kind to the Outlaws this season, a fact Head Coach Aaron Garcia knows all too well.
“We talked about doing like High School and not even letting the guys go in the locker room and just stay on the field trying to figure something out.”
“I think we focused on it. Coach Mayfield he’s our line coach, kind of our motivator and he pulled all the guys, he brought em all up before the half. We don’t usually do that. He said a few words to them and I think it ignited them and they played well.”
Even though Portland was able to score twice in the 3rd on only 3 total plays, the Outlaws kept pace with 2 TD drives of their own. Las Vegas came out +1 in the quarter though, as Thunder kicker Kevin Goessling missed his 2nd of 3 PAT’s in the game. Goessling had struggled all season with PAT’s coming into Sunday, having missed 10 of 43 this year.
The most impressive catch of the game came on the Outlaws 2nd TD of the 3rd quarter when Tysson Poots made the grab in the back of the end zone, and flipped over the back wall onto the concrete floor. Poots landed hard on his back, but managed to hold on. Every WR knows he’s going to get hit, but only arena football WR’s get hit by walls as well as defenders.
“You can’t think about the wall,” expressed Poots. “When you think about the wall, that’s when you drop it. I forgot who told me, but he said you’re gonna get hit anyways, and that was in the outdoor game, (so) you might as well catch it, it’s gonna hurt anyways. I’d rather go over the wall than into it cause it hurts a lot worse when you go into it than over it.”
Just over a minute into the 4th, Dennis Havrilla got his first rushing TD of the game and put Vegas out in front 35-33. But Martinez would answer right back on the ensuing drives 2nd play with a 1 yard rushing TD of his own. Goessling missed the PAT again, and instead of a 7 point margin the Thunder found themselves clinging to a 39-35 lead.
Jomo Wilson (6 rec, 55 yds, 1 rush TD) had his streak of 10 straight games with a TD snapped last week, but his 4 yard TD run started a new streak and gave Vegas a 42-39 lead with 6:46 to play. Martinez’s 4th TD put Portland up 46-42, but his late fumble set Vegas up for the game winner.
The fumble, initially ruled down by contact but overturned after review, put the Outlaws at the Thunder 15 with 49 seconds left. After a Jomo run to the 2, and another penalty (the 2nd half was littered with yellow), the Outlaws found themselves in a goal to go situation with just 3 seconds left….again. They had more options this time though, as the ball was at the 1 yard line. Coach Garcia knew exactly what he wanted to do from there.
“We wanted to run a QB sneak basically. On film Portland had been (doing) what we call pinching, and trying to take that away. And so we just gave him the option to either go straight ahead or take it outside. He (Havrilla) made the right call, the right choice and we got the victory.”
The win puts the Outlaws in the driver’s seat on the road to the playoffs. Of the 5 remaining games on the Outlaws schedule, 4 are against teams they have already beaten at least once (LA, ARI, SPO, PDX), and the other is against the 2-11 New Orleans Voodoo. They travel to Arizona in 2 weeks after the 4th of July break. Arizona has already clinched the West Division title, but would no doubt love to take the season series from Las Vegas.