Petre didn’t have NFL, CFL calls, but he has taken advantage of his first season with the Rattlers, leading the IFL in extra points. Richard Obert/azcentral sports
The Arizona Rattlers are playing in the Indoor Football League in 2017, their first season in the league.
Each week, azcentral sports will preview the matchup and recap the game on this page.
Rattlers 33, Empire 16
The Rattlers (10-4) clinched the Intense Conference title on Saturday with a 33-16 road win over the Spokane Empire. With the victory, the Rattlers secured home-field advantage in the first round of the Indoor Football League playoffs.
Conference championship preview
For a roster that was overhauled and rebuilt after breaking away from Arena Football League, the Rattlers are on the brink of clinching the Intense Conference title in their first year in the Indoor Football League.
All they have to do is beat the Empire (7-6) in Spokane on Saturday. The game is at 7 p.m. and will be on YouTube.
“They played for a championship last year (in the IFL),” coach Kevin Guy said about Spokane. “It’s that time of year we have to change things up.”
The Rattlers (9-4) and the Empire have split two games so far this season. Last week, they beat the Nebraska Danger (7-6) for the second time. A win over Spokane gives the Rattlers the tie-breaker over both teams in the Intense Conference.
There are only two games left after Saturday. The Rattlers end the regular season on June 16, but can clinch home field in the first round with a win Saturday.
The Rattlers won their meeting in Spokane, 49-35, on May 12. This time, Spokane has a different quarterback. Aaron Wilmer led the Empire to a 48-43 victory over Colorado last week, passing for 119 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 62 yards and two TDs.
Guy said that running back Darrell Monroe was “day to day” after missing last week’s game. Monroe leads the league in rushing, but Guy has confidence in his run game with Ketrich Harmon, who missed four games with an injury before returning last week. Harmon was held to under 40 yards by Nebraska.
“I feel like we can get our running game on track,” Harmon said. “The Nebraska D-line is really good and you’ve got to give them credit. But going back watching film, we didn’t do a lot of things well.”
The Rattlers have been a different team since midway through the season. They’ve won five in a row with the greatest improvement on defense, behind the play of linebacker Justin Shirk.
“This time of year, it’s about execution and match-ups,” Guy said.
Who: Rattlers vs. Cedar Rapids Titans
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix
When: 3 p.m.
TV: FSAZ Plus
Who: Rattlers at Colorado Crush
Where: Budweiser Events Center, Loveland, Colo.
When: 5 p.m.
Rattlers 43, Danger 33
Coach Kevin Guy called the win “ugly,” but his Rattlers came through with three second-half big plays to set them up for a conference-clinching showdown in Spokane next Saturday.
Jamal Miles returned a missed field goal 58 yards for a touchdown, Justin Shirk bolted through for a 12-yard sack and Dillion Winfrey went over the wall to intercept a pass and seal a 43-33 victory over the Nebraska Danger in front of 11,384 at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Sunday.
The Rattlers (9-4) can clinch the IFL Intense Conference title with a win over the Spokane Empire. With three games left, they hold a two-game lead over Nebraska (7-6) and a one-game lead over Spokane (8-5).
The Rattlers would own the tiebreaker over Spokane by winning on Saturday. They split with each other in two earlier meetings.
The Arizona Rattlers win their fifth-straight game on Sunday against Nebraska Danger, May 28, 2017. Richard Obert/azcentral sports
Enough big plays were made to offset not having the league’s top rusher, Darrell Monroe, who was out with an injury.
Deitrick Harmon returned from an injury and ran for 36 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Then again, the Rattlers were facing what Guy felt was the best defensive line in the league. He felt the Danger owned the line on the defensive side, but a few play-action passes resulted in touchdowns from Cody Sokol, who was 10 of 19 for 156 yards and three touchdowns.
“We’re never going to undermine a win,” Guy said. “It was an ugly win. Our last two days of practice weren’t very good. A lot of mental mistakes and I thought it carried into the game.”
But the defensive game plan worked, forcing the Danger to attempt six field goals.
Josh Gable connected on two of those, but one of his long attempts was short. That allowed former Arizona State standout Miles to catch it at the end-zone wall and return it for a touchdown that gave the Rattlers a 43-33 lead that they held for the remaining 9:56.
“I thought it was going to go over the wall, but I just put my hands up and the ball landed in my hands,” Miles said. “After that, I just had to make a play.”
The next big plays came on defense.
Shirk, a linebacker who had 4 1/2 sacks in his previous two games, sacked Drew Powell on third down for a 12-yard loss, putting the ball on the Rattlers’ 16. Gable’s field-goal try was wide, giving the Rattlers possession with 3:33 left.
Nebraska got the ball back with 1:15 to play. Powell, who ran for 84 yards on eight carries, moved the Danger to the Rattlers’ 11 with 39 seconds.
Winfrey then made the catch of the game, timing the ball as it was going out of bounds in the end zone and intercepting it as he hit the wall, tumbling over.
He was able to hang on, after hitting concrete on the other side.
“All concrete,” Winfrey said. “I felt every bit of it.”
Winfrey said this was the first game his mom came to see him play, so it was good to close it with what might have been the game’s top highlight.
“It looked higher when I jumped,” he said. “But when my hand touched it, I knew for a fact I was going to come down with it.”
Road warrior making impact
Justin Shirk was settling into a post-football life as a personal trainer in Pennsylvania, moving up the ranks, in charge of a gym’s personal training department.
Then, Rattlers coach and GM Kevin Guy called.
It was the third week of the Indoor Football League season, and the 6-foot, 240-pounder, who looks like a cross between Vin Diesel and Bruce Willis, felt he was ready to play football again.
Not only ready to play, but ready to drive cross country.
“It was a nice 35-hour drive out here,” Shirk said. “I left Friday night, and got here Sunday afternoon.
“I made a couple of pit stops.”
That desire to get somewhere is showing off on the field in the last two weeks.
The middle linebacker, who played his last college football season at NCAA Division II Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania in 2014 when he had 120 tackles and 11 sacks, has had 4 1/2 sacks in the last two games for the Rattlers.
“Whatever his story is, it is, but we’re glad he’s here,” Guy said. “He’s gotten better as the season went on. He’s starting to peak. He just needs to continue to buy in and learn the game plan and execute it. He’s doing a great job for us.”
Shirk played indoor football last year for the Lehigh Valley Steel Hawks, who are part of the National Arena League, which the Jacksonville Sharks joined this year after breaking away from the Arena Football League.
He said that league was more similar to the pass-heavy rules of the AFL.
He likes the IFL, which has more of an outdoor feel to it with defenders not so restricted and there is more of an emphasis on the run game.
“The defense here gives you more freedom,” Shirk said.
The Rattlers (8-4) replaced most of their roster from last year. Strong safety Adam Sauder also is new to the Rattlers this year. He leads the team with 69 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
Sauder, a 6-3, 225-pound strong safety from Taylor University with a long mane of hair, took part in NFL rookie camps in Cincinnati and Carolina after leaving college.
“I didn’t get signed up after that,” Sauder said. “I was in limbo and looking for something to do. My agent sent film out here to Coach Guy. He liked it and signed me.”
It’s took a while for these Rattlers to come together in a new league, but they’ve won their past four and have a one-game lead in the Intense Conference over their next opponent, the Nebraska Danger (7-5), who come to Phoenix to play the Rattlers on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The game will be televised by Fox Sports Arizona Plus.
“It’s new to a lot of us,” Sauder said. “We’re a young team, but we can’t keep making that excuse over and over again. I think it’s experience, seeing teams a couple of times. The coaches are figuring out what works, what doesn’t work.”
Sauder credits Shirk’s emergence for the defense now forcing turnovers and getting sacks. He calls him a bowling ball on the 50-yard field, knocking players down.
“He’s been explosive, able to get at the quarterback,” Sauder said.
Who: Rattlers vs. Nebraska Danger
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix.
When: 3 p.m.
TV: FSAZ Plus
Biggest crowd since 2004
The Rattlers held the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles scoreless in the third quarter and rolled to a 63-33 win, their fourth consecutive, Saturday night before 15,478 fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
In their first season in the Indoor Football League, without establishing any rivalries yet, the Rattlers (8-4) had their largest crowd since hosting the 2004 ArenaBowl, when 17,391 came out to see them against the rival San Jose SaberCats. This was their biggest regular-season crowd since a 2002 game against the SaberCats with 17,034 on hand.
“I appreciate our fan base tonight,” coach Kevin Guy said. “Rattler Nation was strong. I appreciate them sticking with us through the change. The Arizona Rattlers are committed to putting a great product on the field. It starts with our owner, Ron Shurts. He gives us everything we need to be successful.”
Saturday was the Rattlers’ second consecutive home win and improved their home record to 3-3.
They are 4-0 in the second half of the season, showing big improvements in every area since a 60-51 home loss to Spokane on April 22.
Most of the improvement has come on defense with the sudden emergence of linebacker Justin Shirk, a 6-foot, 245-pounder from a little college called Bloomsburg. He was was working as a personal trainer, before joining the Rattlers this year.
Shirk had 3 1/2 sacks Saturday night, after recording three sacks in last week’s win at Spokane.
“This is how I know how to play football,” Shirk said. “I struggled when I got here, catching onto the IFL rules and buying into what the coaches had to say. That’s the whole defense. We’re buying in, locking down on coverage with the front four finally putting pressure on the quarterback. We’re really selling out.”
The Screaming Eagles (3-9), who utilize fan interaction to call offensive plays, were outscored 21-0 in the third quarter, as Rattlers quarterback Cody Sokol threw two touchdown passes and Anthony Amos ran for a 3-yard score.
Rattlers running back Darrell Monroe, the IFL’s leading rusher, had 92 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown run, on nine carries through three quarters.
Sokol only had to throw 13 passes, but four of his eight completions went for touchdowns. He also ran for two scores.
The Rattlers scored on every possession.
“I think we’re 7-0 now when we run more than we throw,” Guy said. “Teams are really trying to come up and stop the run, which is opening up the passing game. I thought Cody had a pretty good night.
“If they’re going to come up and play the run, we’re going to have to hit the home runs. This is why I love this league. I love the strategy. It’s a chess match out there.”
The Rattlers’ biggest home game of the second half of the season comes next Sunday when they take on the Nebraska Danger (7-5), which is vying for a playoff spot from the Intense Conference. The Rattlers have a one-game lead in the conference with four game to go.
Monroe, Gordon emerging leaders
Tailback Darrell Monroe, who played college football only at Arizona Western College, is increasingly becoming the face of the Rattlers offense in the IFL.
He leads the 10-team league in average rushing yards at 60.7. He has 546 yards and 14 touchdowns in nine games played.
Monroe said coach and General Manager Kevin Guy found him through Monroe’s girlfriend.
“Basically, this was a blessing that he got a hold of me,” Monroe said.
Monroe has made the most of the opportunities.
RELATED: Indoor Football League standings
“I like that the offense runs through me because it opens up plays for others,” Monroe said. “If I can do anything to help out my teammates, I’ll do it to help the team out.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Josh Gordon is becoming the face of the Rattlers’ defense in his first season in the league. He has 11.5 tackles for losses and five sacks.
Gordon played his last season at Division II Minnesota State in 2015, when he had 22.5 tackles for losses and 14 sacks and was named the NSIC Defensive Player of the Year.
“I’m seeing things a lot faster,” Gordon said. “Reacting more than thinking, which I was doing earlier in the year.”
RB Darrell Monroe and DL Josh Gordon have had the greatest impacts in the Rattlers’ move to the IFL this season. Richard Obert/azcentral sports
Now in sole possession of first place in the Intense Conference, the Rattlers (7-4) still need to show they can take care of home field.
They’ll get that chance Saturday at 6 p.m. when they take on the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles (3-8) and their fans, who call the plays. The game will be shown live on YouTube.
The Rattlers have yet to draw fewer than 10,000 fans for any of their home games since joining the Indoor Football League this year. But they are 2-3 at home.
During the second half of the season, the Rattlers are 3-0, winning their last two on the road, including last week’s 49-35 at Spokane.
Spokane lost to Colorado on Thursday to drop to 7-5.
Arizona and Spokane have split with each other. The rubber match, possibly for the conference title and home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, is June 3 in Spokane.
“We control our own destiny,” Guy said. “We need to keep the focus on us. And keep trying to get better as a football team, and good things are going to happen.
“We can’t worry about anybody else. Our focus is on Salt Lake City right now. Their stock is rising. They’ve won the last two. They had a chance to beat Spokane three weeks ago. They’re an improving football team. They gave us all we wanted when we were in Salt Lake City. We’re not overlooking anybody.”
Rattlers 49, Empire 35
The Rattlers moved into a tie for first place in the Intense Conference with Spokane, as Darrel Monroe ran for 74 yards and three touchdowns in Spokane on Friday night. The Empire and the Rattlers are both 7-4 with five games to play. This was the third straight win by the Rattlers since losing at home to Spokane 60-51.
They meet one more time in Spokane on June 3 for what could end up being for the conference title and home field to open the playoffs.
Arizona plays at home the next two weeks, before closing out on the road for the final three games.
The Rattlers had a season-high six sacks against Spokane quarterback Charles Dowdell, and Sawyer Petre kicked two field goals.
Cody Sokol threw two of his three touchdown passes to Anthony Amos.
Biggest road game of the season
The Rattlers go from what coach Kevin Guy called “a matchbox” to one of the most difficult road environments his Arena Football League teams ever had to play in.
Friday night’s Indoor Football League game in Spokane against the Empire is the biggest road game of the season for the Rattlers (6-4), who can move into a first-place tie with the Empire (7-3) in the Intense Conference with a victory.
Even when the Rattlers rolled up three consecutive AFL titles from 2012-14, Spokane Arena was maybe the most difficult venue for the Rattlers to play in.
It earned the nickname “Deaf Valley” during its AFL days.
The Rattlers had to adjust to the tiny end zones at Cedar Rapids’ arena, which was mostly empty, during their 34-32 win last week, rallying from a 20-10 deficit. Now they’ll have to adjust to what might be the loudest road crowd they’ve faced since joining the IFL this year.
“We’re playing to get better, week to week,” Guy said. “We can’t blink. We don’t have time for mental mistakes. We have to be more physical than the other team. That’s where we’re at as a football team right now.”
Penalties stacked up in their last road game with 11 called on the Rattlers and 13 called on Cedar Rapids.
How is the first season in the Indoor Football League going for the Arizona Rattlers? Richard Obert takes a look. Video: azcentral sports
Quarterback Cody Sokol struggled, throwing two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. But running back Darrell Monroe had another big game, rushing for 65 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries.
“I think we’re fine on offense,” Guy said. “We played in a matchbox last week. The end zones are five yards long. I don’t even know how that’s regulation. It is what it is. We’ll see them later at our place when we have a bigger arena.
“That’s two games in the last three weeks that we had referees that didn’t know the rules. We can’t play two teams. We can’t play the team we’re playing. And we can’t play the referees. Everybody’s got a job to do and they’ve got to do their job.”
Guy said his team has to address their penalties to get better, especially against the Empire, which beat the Rattlers in Phoenix 60-51 three weeks ago.
“We need to be a more disciplined team,” Guy said.
Rattlers 34, Cedar Rapids 32
Darrell Monroe rushed for three touchdowns to lead the Rattlers (6-4) to a 34-32 win over the host Cedar Rapids Titans on Friday night in Iowa. Arizona quarterback Cody Sokol struggled, throwing two interceptions. Allen Chapman and Arkeith Brown each had an interception to even things out for the Rattlers.
More than halfway into a new era of indoor football, the Rattlers lead the league in attendance, and majority owner Ron Shurts doesn’t have to worry about footing the bill for floundering teams.
The only down side of being in the Indoor Football League so far is not dominating like they did in their final six seasons in the Arena Football League, reaching the championship game five times and winning it three times.
Coach and general manager Kevin Guy says this season reminds him of his first in Arizona, in 2008, when he tore up the Rattlers roster and began a rebuilding process. That team went 8-8 before losing to Grand Rapids in a wild-card playoff game.
The IFL Rattlers are 5-4, and only picked up their second home win in five tries in last week’s 64-29 rout of the Green Bay Blizzard.
Guy’s worst record since 2010 was 13-5 and that 2012 team was the first of a string of three ArenaBowl championships.
Last year, the IFL put in a rule restricting rosters. Teams can only have seven players with three or more years of IFL and AFL experience. The lack of restrictions on what defenses can do in the IFL also has been a neutralizer.
“The difference to me when you look at it is the rules,” Guy said. “The rules put us in a situation where we’ve got more parity. In the Arena League, everybody built their teams the same way. The plays are very similar, the restrictions on defense.
“So it really came down to, you’ve got to win at recruiting. You’d think you’d win the recruiting, but the rules in this league allows the parity.
“I love the strategy. … It’s challenge for me. It’s a challenge for our players. We haven’t really been tested in several years anyway. You’ve got to embrace challenge when you get it.”
Shurts has no doubt the Rattlers will take off in the season’s second half under Guy.
He felt he had no choice but to break off from the AFL, which is now down to five teams – all in the East – with two of those expansion teams in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., both of which are run by Ted Leonis’ Monumental Sports & Entertainment that operates the NHL Washington Capitals and NBA Washington Wizards.
After the AFL came out of bankruptcy in 2010 to reboot the league, the economic model was restructured.
Owners buy a franchise, which is part of the AFL, giving each team a 20 percent stake in the league. Teams pay weekly dues to cover costs of the league’s expenses and players’ salaries. Meanwhile, teams pay rent for the arena, they pays their coaches and staff.
When a team’s dues aren’t met, other team owners have to pick up the slack for that team.
Since the 2010 AFL reboot, 21 teams have either suspended operations, folded or moved to another league.
The San Jose SaberCats folded after winning the AFL championship in 2015.
The only teams still in the AFL that had teams last year are the Tampa Bay Storm, Cleveland Gladiators and the Philadelphia Soul.
Each team in the IFL is independently owned and operated, meaning Shurts doesn’t have to worry about financially helping out with dues when another franchise can’t make payments.
“You take financial liability out of the equation,” said Shurts, who led the Rattlers’ ownership since partway through the 2011 season. “When partners are a corporation, the corporation can’t pay its bills, so it has the partners pay.
“Now you’re independent. You pay a small fee to be part of the league. That structure is different.
“That’s definitely part of the reason why we moved for sure. It gets a little monotonous (having to pick up the financial slack from other teams).”
IFL Commissioner Mike Allshouse keeps costs confidential.
“We try our best to facilitate a realistic economic model that sets our teams up for success,” he said.
Even with the move into a league that at one time was considered a minor league next to the AFL, attendance has been as strong as any time during the Rattlers’ last six years. They’re averaging more than 12,000 fans in five home games. And this league started a month earlier than the AFL.
Their only home game with fewer than 12,000 fans came on the night they were competing against the Final Four in Glendale, when a respectable 10,879 fans showed up to Talking Stick Resort Arena.
This is the biggest sports market among the 10 IFL teams. Tickets range from $8 to more than $100 for prime seats.
“I think we’ve done well,” Rattlers president Chris Presson said. “Four games into the home season, it’s what we thought it would be, good and healthy. It seems to me the fans have accepted it.”
Season-ticket holders Bill Skaug and Gary Royall were initially skeptical about the Rattlers’ move to the IFL, where there are no nets, two players are allowed to move in forward motion before the ball is snapped, running the ball is part of the game plan, and defenses aren’t limited by rules.
“I figured I would give it a season and see how it goes,” Royall said. “So far, I actually like it better than the AFL. I like that there are two guys in motion and more running plays. The game seems faster to me than the AFL. It took a little getting use to all the new players.”
One drawback: A lot of the marquee names are gone.
But Guy in the last five games has relied on local quarterback Cody Sokol to lead the offense. Sokol might be the team’s most popular player. He played at Phoenix Desert Vista High and Scottsdale Community College.
“I myself actually like the new IFL game as well or better than the AFL game,” Skaug said. “I thought I would miss the nets and high energy style of the AFL with all the passing. But in truth I really like the running and real football that the Rattlers have put together.”
Allshouse’s goal is to keep finding quality ownerships and grow the league with bigger markets such as the Rattlers coming on board. The IFL began in 2008 when the Intense and United indoor football leagues merged. The league also has had its share of attrition. It had as many as 25 team in 2010. There are 10 teams this year.
Shurts hopes to see the IFL stay on solid footing.
With close to 15,000 fans for successive home games in February and March, Shurts doesn’t see the Rattlers going anywhere.
“No question, the community loves the Rattlers,” Shurts said. “One of the minor struggles is all the players are new. But that’s OK. These guys will step up and be here for a while.”
To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at [email protected] or 602-316-8827. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.
Rattlers rout Green Bay
Nine games into their first season in the IFL, the Rattlers looked like the Arena Football League Rattlers from the past six years – dominating in every facet of the 50-yard game.
Quarterback Cody Sokol threw five touchdown passes, Darrell Monroe ran for 138 yards and the defense had two sacks and two interceptions in a 64-29 rout of the Green Bay Blizzard on Saturday night before 13,006 fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Kicker Sawyer Petre connected on every extra point. And backup quarterback Jon Wolf got a chance to show off his dynamic abilities. A holder on extra points, he ran in a 2-point conversion and was explosive in mop-up duty, completing his only pass for 20 yards and scoring on a 3-yard run.
“You always got to win at least two phases,” said Sokol, who was 11 of 18 for 113 yards and didn’t throw an interception, while completing passes into some tight windows. “That’s what happens when you win all three.”
The Rattlers (5-4) are back on the road for the next two games, but coach Kevin Guy feels good about the progress after losing three of their first home games.
He said he mixed in more zone on defense than any time since the team broke off from the AFL. Aside from giving up two one-play scoring drives, Guy was happy with the defense.
“I quit being too hard-headed and started calling some zone and mixing it up a little bit,” Guy said. “I’ve got too much Alabama in me. I want to rush the passer and play man. But overall I’m pleased with the guys. We have to build on it.”
Arkeith Brown and Allen Chapman, part of the Rattlers’ AFL glory years, both had interceptions in the fourth quarter when the Rattlers kept pressuring the 2-8 Blizzard.
“That was the past,” Brown said of the Rattlers’ run of five championship appearances in the last six years in the AFL. “We’ve got to live in the future. We have to come together with the new team, with the new guys and just build.”
Rattlers will stay with Sokol as season’s 2nd half begins
Coach Kevin Guy said he has decided to stick with quarterback Cody Sokol as the Rattlers (4-4) begin the second half of the season at home on Saturday at 6 p.m. against the Green Bay Blizzard.
The game will be televised on FSAZ Plus.
Guy gave Darron Thomas the first four games and Sokol the second four games to determine who would be his quarterback in the post-Nick Davila era.
Thomas’ last game came at Green Bay, a 30-29 Rattlers victory. Thomas was 8 of 16 for 85 yards and a TD and an interception.
Since then, the Rattlers have gone 2-2 with Sokol running the offense. Sokol is 60 of 102 passing for 743 yards and 15 TDs with three interceptions. He has a 103.19 rating. Thomas’ QB rating was 100.68. He threw for 500 yards and 13 TDs with four interceptions. Thomas ran for 128 yards on 26 carries; Sokol 58 on 17 carries.
The Blizzard (2-7) has lost five games in a row, starting with the loss to the Rattlers.
Empire 60, Rattlers 51
It’s the midway point in the Rattlers’ first season in the Indoor Football League, and more flaws than strengths were on display in a 60-51 loss to the Spokane Empire in front of 12,725 on Saturday night that dropped them to 1-3 at home.
The Rattlers didn’t lose inside Talking Stick Resort Arena last year in their final season playing in the Arena Football League. Their only loss in the Valley was in the ArenaBowl to the Philadelphia Soul, but that game was moved to Glendale because the Mercury needed the Phoenix arena for a WNBA game.
“We’re one and three at home,” coach Kevin Guy said. “I didn’t think the Rattlers would ever be in that situation. We also have played some of the best teams at home. But there’s no excuse for it. We’ve got to win at home.”
The Rattlers (4-4), for the most part, owned Spokane at home in their history. But that was when the team was called the Shock and was playing in the AFL.
Now the Empire (6-2), Spokane had a one-year head start into the net-less IFL, while the Rattlers (4-4) basically overhauled their roster after their 24th season in the AFL with new quarterbacks, running backs, linemen and mostly new receivers.
But defensive backs Arkeith Brown and Allen “Bubba” Chapman are veterans of the AFL game with the Rattlers, and they weren’t able to make plays against Charles Dowdell, who threw six touchdown passes, two each to Bryan Pray and Devonn Brown, on Saturday.
“We could not make a play on a ball to save our life,” Guy said. “We’ve got to get mentally tougher. I’m sure when I look at the film, it’s going to be technique. We went in with a game plan, felt good about it. If you look at first couple of drives, we were stopping them. You’ve to give Coach Shak (Adam Shackleford) credit. He had his team ready to play.”
After making a stop to start the game, the Rattlers were penalized on their first pass, a big play that was returned and put them at their 3. Quarterback Cody Sokol, making his fourth straight start, was stopped in the end zone for a safety on a read-option run. That turned into a nine-point turnaround after the Empire then scored a touchdown on their next possession.
That put the Rattlers into catch-up mode the rest of the game. Sokol threw a career-high six touchdown passes and gave Arizona the lead a couple of times before the Empire went from man-coverage to zone. The Rattlers only made one stop in the second half, and that came when the Empire were trying to run out the clock in the final minute with a nine-point lead.
Sokol, who was 22 of 34 for 252 yards, misfired on his last eight throws, his last one intercepted.
“There are plays you wish you could get back,” Sokol said. “Every game, you wish you could get back a couple of plays. But you can’t whine about it. You’ve got to keep fighting.”
Guy has a decision to make now. Does he stick with Sokol or go back to Darron Thomas at quarterback?
He gave both quarterbacks four games to see who the right guy is to replace Nick Davila, who set numerous Rattlers passing records and led them to three consecutive ArenaBowl titles, before retiring and becoming a Rattlers assistant once the team made the move into the IFL.
Halfway point: Three things to know
The season hits the halfway point on Saturday when the Rattlers (4-3) play host to the Spokane Empire (5-2) at 6 p.m., at Talking Stick Resort Arena with first place in the Intense Conference at stake.
The game is being televised by FSAZ Plus.
Here are three things about the Rattlers this week:
Who runs the offense?
Will it be Cody Sokol or Darren Thomas?
Thomas, the mobile quarterback who became a big name in college leading Oregon, started the first four games. Sokol, the local guy who played at Phoenix Desert Vista High and Scottsdale Community College, will be making his fourth start Saturday.
Coach Kevin Guy said he wanted to give each quarterback four starts before settling on one for the rest of the season.
Is there a need for a jumbo receiver?
Guy’s three-year championship run was marked with tall, strong receivers, guys like Maurice Purify, Rod Windsor, Tysson Poots and Kerry Reed.
This is a smaller group of receivers than what the Rattlers rolled out the last seven years with Anthony Amos now the main target.
Part of the reason Guy hasn’t had to rely on that big receiver to take over, making big plays after catches, is because of the success of the run game. The Rattlers average 107 yards rushing per game, second only to six-time defending IFL champion Sioux Falls Storm (118.3). The Rattlers’ 116 carries are second in the league to Sioux Falls and their 21 rushing TDs are also second.
Sokol only threw 10 passes, completing six, one for a TD, last week when the Rattlers scored 73 points against Salt Lake City, with Darrell Monroe and receiver Jamal Miles combining for eight rushing scores.
When does Borel return?
The Rattlers quickly figured out this is no longer a 99 percent passing league. It’s almost 50-50 pass-run, and the Rattlers still are adjusting to stopping the run. They rank eighth out of 10 teams on rush defense, giving up 86.6 yards a game. They’re seventh in sacks with just eight, and eighth in turnover margin at minus-2.
Guy always takes pride in being more physical and winning the turnover battle. But that may not get turned around until defensive end Damien Borel is medically cleared to play. Borel was the Rattlers’ best pass rusher last year before a knee injury took him out early in last year’s ArenaBowl loss to Philadelphia. Borel is a game-changer, possibly the one guy who takes the Rattlers over the edge and gives them hope of ending Sioux Falls’ IFL dynasty.
The Rattlers need him to return.
Rattlers 73, Screaming Eagles 60
Darrell Monroe ran for five touchdowns, Jamal Miles added three more rushing scores, and the Rattlers (4-3) secured to a 73-60 win over the host Salt Lake Screaming Eagles on Friday night. Rattlers quarterback Cody Sokol was 6-of-10 passing for 102 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Arkeith Brown and Allen Chapman each had an interception to help Arizona hold on to the win.
Harmon and Monroe
Rattlers coach Kevin Guy likes to call them “Thunder” and “Lightning.”
Ketrich Harmon, the bigger of the two backs, has a better name:
“Thunder Storm,” he says.
Harmon and fellow running back Darrell Monroe have been a wrecking crew in the first six games of the Rattlers’ first foray into the run-friendly Indoor Football League, where quarterbacks often have to be ready to run and running backs are looked at as the same way they are in the outdoor game. They’re not just there as the last means of protection for the quarterback in this 50-yard game.
“We’re fighting for that No.1 rushing spot,” Harmon said. “We’re in the top four in the league right now.”
Harmon leads the IFL in average rushing yards a game with 50 in the four games he has played. He has 200 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 45 carries. Monroe is fourth in the league with an average of 44 yards in his four games played. He has rushed for 176 yards and two TDs on 36 carries.
Last week, in a 39-36 win at Nebraska, Guy, for the first time, rotated both backs. Monroe ran for 39 yards on nine carries, Harmon for 34 yards on nine carries.
“We’re going to do a little Thunder and Lightning action there,” Guy said. “We have two good backs. We want to give them opportunities to play. That’s an adjustment I’m going through. … They’re both weapons. They’re both going to see plenty of playing time.”
The Rattlers (3-3) return to the road to play the Salt Lake City Screaming Eagles (1-4) on Friday night at 6 p.m., at the Maverik Center. The Screaming Eagles receive play-calling input from fans. They’re coached by former Arena Football League coach Matt Sauk, who had a stint as a quarterback in Guy’s first season with the Rattlers in 2008. The game is streamed live on YouTube.
Rattlers 39, Danger 36
Sawyer Petre made a 20-yard field goal with two seconds remaining to lift the Rattlers to a 39-36 win over the Nebraska Danger in Grand Island, Neb.
Arizona quarterback Cody Sokol completed 17 of 30 passes for 165 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Rattlers.
Up next: Rattlers (3-3) at Salt Lake Screaming Eagles (1-5), Friday, 6 p.m. | Season schedule
Stick with Sokol
The Rattlers (2-3) will stick with Cody Sokol at quarterback as they try to get to .500 in Nebraska on Friday night against the Danger (4-2) in an Intense Conference matchup. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. and will be streamed live on YouTube
Sokol, who hadn’t started a football game since leading Louisiana Tech to a 2014 bowl win over Illinois, improved during his debut last week in a 60-53 home loss to Wichita Falls. He threw four touchdown passes, bouncing back after getting intercepted early in the game.
“Now I know how to really prepare going into the game,” said Sokol, who played at Phoenix Desert Vista High and Scottsdale Community College. “I’m excited to get back out there.”
The Danger are coming off a 42-36 win over the Spokane Empire, another former Arena Football League team. Patrick McCain completed 12 of 17 passes for 52 yards and three TDs and ran for 27 yards and a score on 13 carries.
Wichita Falls 60, Rattlers 53
Cody Sokol hadn’t played a full football game since he led Louisiana Tech to a bowl victory in 2014.
Sokol needed a half to get used to the quicker Indoor Football League pace Saturday, and by the time he found himself in a groove, he had the Rattlers leading one of the top teams by eight points in the final quarter.
But Wichita Falls quarterback Charles McCullum continued to shred a flat defense and maneuvered the Nighthawks to a late touchdown and a 60-53 victory before 10,879 fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The loss spoiled a franchise-record rushing effort by Ketrich Harmon, who ran for 123 yards on 20 carries. He had two scoring runs and had a 39-yard scoring run called back by a penalty.
After quarterback Darron Thomas struggled in last week’s 30-29 win in Green Bay, coach Kevin Guy decided this week to go with the local kid, Sokol, who starred at Phoenix Desert Vista High and Scottsdale Community College.
Sokol bounced around in the Arena Football League, getting very little playing time, before catching on this year with the Rattlers.
He showed rust, especially early when the 25-second play clock wound down and the Rattlers were hit with a delay penalty and had to burn a timeout.
“I think the pace definitely is a lot quicker,” said Sokol, who completed 15 of 28 passes for 224 yards and four touchdowns with one interception in his Rattlers debut. “When you’re sitting there watching it, you don’t realize how fast it is going. A lot of it has to do with that 25-second play clock. I had to get my feet wet and bounce back.”
Guy said he will have to look at the tape first to determine whether Sokol is the quarterback he goes with moving forward.
But the Rattlers are sitting at 2-3 and now head to Nebraska for a game next week.
Wichita Falls (5-1) bounced back from its first loss to six-time defending IFL champion Sioux Falls, showing off the offense that made it the highest-scoring team in the league before being held to fewer than 30 points to the Storm.
McCullum, the top-rated quarterback in the league, was 20 of 27 for 256 yards and seven TDs. He also had 18 yards on two runs.
Guy blamed this loss more on the defense that didn’t make a stop in the second half.
“I’m very disappointed with how we played defensively,” Guy said. “We’ve played better defense here. For whatever reasons, we weren’t getting it done. We’ll look at the tape. But the bottom line, it just looked like we struggled covering their receivers. Their receivers were better than our coverage.”
Nobody caught more than six passes, but McCullum spread it out among Jolly Jordan (three TD catches), Phillip Barnett, Tyron Laughinghouse and Angelo Pease for TDs.
After the Nighthawks sacked Sokol and forced the Rattlers to try a long field goal that was wide, they went 45 yards, using up 1 minute, 30 seconds, before McCullum found Jolly for his third TD from 6 yards out with three second left to break a 53-53 tie.
Jamal Miles returned the kickoff to midfield before he was stopped as time ran out.
Guy said he wanted to evaluate Sokol at this point in the season. Thomas ended up not dressing out.
“We needed to see what he brings to the table,” Guy said. “We missed some passes last game in Green Bay. I felt we should have been two or three touchdowns out in front of them. He’s got to go through his growing pains. He’ll have to see the tape and get better. I thought he was a competitor tonight and he did some good things. At the same time, we’re going to have to settle him down a little bit and see the field better.”
Rattlers 30, Blizzard 29
The Rattlers (2-2) won their first road IFL game 30-29 over the Green Bay Blizzard at the Resch Center in Green Bay, Wis., on Sunday, March 26.
Rattlers running back Ketrich Harmon rushed 13 times for 50 yards and two touchdowns, while quarterback Darron Thomas threw for 85 yards and a touchdown, to go along with a rushing touchdown.
The Rattlers defense held the Blizzard to minus-8 yards rushing and recorded five tackles for loss, including two sacks, one by Chris McAllister and the other by Justin Martin and Josh Gordon. Arkeith Brown also intercepted Green Bay QB Matt Behrendt.
Rattlers 71, Crush 27
Darrell Monroe rushed for 93 yards, quarterback Darron Thomas threw three touchdowns and the Rattlers (1-2) rolled to their first win in the Indoor Football League, burying the Colorado Crush 71-27 on Saturday, March 11, at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Adam Sauder led Arizona with 15 total tackles and recovered a fumble, while Chris McCallister racked up two sacks and five tackles for loss.
The Rattlers now enter a bye week before returning to action March 26th against the Green Bay Blizzard.
Interactive football taking IFL by storm
The Rattlers host the Colorado Crush on Saturday, one of two Indoor Football League teams that have fans involved in the play-calling.
Project FANchise ownership group acquired the Crush in October. It also owns the Salt Lake City Screaming Eagles, which had a storm-the-field moment in the season opener after the team’s first touchdown called by the fans, who pay a $9.99/month premium fee to be involved in in-game decisions.
Fans hopped the sideline boards and celebrated as if their team had just won the championship, even though the team was trailing by a touchdown even after the score. They were doing selfies with players, before order was restored and the game resumed.
Through an Eagles app, fans go to their iPad or iPhone and download the play in which they want run. It’s not just Salt Lake City fans. Fans from 99 countries can sign up for it. Fans even voted on the team’s colors, uniforms, logo.
This is ground-breaking stuff.
But can it work?
William McCarthy lasted just two games with the Screaming Eagles, before he was let go after a 42-41 win over Colorado. He has since been replaced by former Arena Football League coach Matt Sauk this week.
In a Screaming Eagles release on the IFL website, team President Thom Carter said, “philosophical differences pertaining to the management of the team have led us to the decision to part ways with Coach McCarthy.”
Rattlers coach and general manager Kevin Guy said he didn’t know too much about the virtual coach concept those teams are doing.
“I don’t know how it works, to be honest with you,” Guy said.
Last month, Project FANchise and the IFL launched Virtual Front Office in a partnership with all 10 IFL teams. Fans can sign up for the premium package for Virtual Coach, Virtual GM, or Virtual Scouting. It allows them have inside access to the team they choose.
“It’s steps to get more fans involved,” IFL Commissioner Mike Allshouse said. “Every team is going to have its own comfortability level. Each team in the league goes at its own pace. See what’s working. It’s a business model. There is nothing wrong with more input and involvement with the teams. It pays great dividends.”
Asked about it, Guy said, “I have no idea.”
“If it doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t deal with it,” he added.
Rattlers receiver Demarius Washington, who played for Colorado last season when he was the IFL Offensive Player of the Year when he had 1,223 receiving yards, said it would be difficult to run plays called by fans.
“To come in, if you were the coach, you want to call the plays to be successful,” Washington said. “To have the fans call the plays, I think that can be a little bit intriguing.”
Allshouse said it’s too early “to put a feather in our cap” about it, but “the early results are very encouraging.”
“The sample size is not big enough,” he said. “The league as a whole has followed the lead (of the Crush and the Screaming Eagles). We were behind the technology. I think you’re seeing the league and other member teams get more interactive with video or social media.”
So far the biggest hit with the fans, Allshouse said, has been the YouTube live streaming of all games at no cost.
Barnstormers 51, Rattlers 47
Two weeks into a new Rattlers era, coach Kevin Guy said he’ll have a lot of evaluating to do following a 51-47 loss to the Iowa Barnstormers, Sunday, Feb. 26.
The Rattlers, among the elite for much of their 24 years in the Arena Football League where they won five championships, are now 0-2 in what many had considered a lesser league, the Indoor Football League.
A respectable crowd of 11,438 showed up for the Rattlers’ home opener at Talking Stick Resort Arena, where it seemed the Rattlers would take apart the team they beat 20 years ago at home in the ArenaBowl.
Even newly inducted Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, who was on the losing end as the Barnstormers quarterback in that 1997 ArenaBowl, came out to be part of the pregame coin flip.
But after taking a 14-6 first-quarter lead on two Darron Thomas touchdown passes, the Rattlers were held scoreless until five seconds remained in the third quarter when Thomas found Anthony Amos for a 7-yard scoring pass.
By then, the Rattlers were scrambling back to try to catch the Barnstormers (1-1).
“We have to execute better,” said Thomas, who ran for 61 yards on seven carries. “It just comes with hard work.”
Amos is one of the only two holdovers from last year’s AFL Rattlers that reached the title game, and he served as a complementary piece.
“We’ve got all new players,” Guy said. “It’s not necessarily the rules and the game. You’ve got all new players and you’re learning what they can and can’t do. We’ve only had a few weeks with them. We’re trying to figure out who can do what.
“Right now we need some leaders. We need some guys to step up. Right now I feel like we’ve got too many individuals. It’s too quiet. Not enough energy on the sidelines, and guys stepping up like we’ve had in the past. That’s part of development. We’ve got to develop that right now as a team.”
After Guy felt good about his defense in the 40-29 loss at six-time defending IFL champion Sioux Falls in the opener, he now has to reevaluate that part of the team after the way the Barnstormers ran on his team Sunday.
Quarterback Travis Partridge completed 15 of 19 for 153 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran seven times for 25 yards and a score. Ryan Balentine, a wide receiver, ran nine times for 19 yards and two scores.
Guy didn’t want to see 36 passes thrown, but that is what Thomas did, completing 20 for 189 yards and six touchdowns. But he had two passes intercepted with the last one coming with 24 seconds left.
Thomas showed flashes of what made him such a standout college player at Oregon with his legs. He took off for a 20-yard score, then found running back Ketrich Harmon for a 21-yard score in the final quarter when the Rattlers executed two onside kicks to overcome a two-touchdown deficit and regain the lead 47-44 with 5:51 left.
But a long kick return led to a 9-yard scoring pass from Partridge to Brady Roland with 3:53 left for Iowa’s winning score.
Harmon, starting at running back for the first time, fumbled two handoffs from Thomas. The Rattlers lost one of those fumbles.
“We need to look at our defenses and see if we’re putting them in the right positions,” Guy said. “The first thing I’m going to do is look at myself, critique myself, then we’ll move to the players. At the end of the day, it falls at my desk and I’ve got to get it corrected.”
Storm 40, Rattlers 29
At Sioux Falls, SD on Friday, Feb. 17
Rattlers on offense: Quarterback Darron Thomas was 14-of 28 passing for 156 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, which was returned 50 yards for a Sioux Falls touchdown that turned the game in the second half and led to the Storm’s 63rd consecutive home win. Anthony Amos had five receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Darnell Monroe lost a fumble.
Rattlers on defense: Allen Chapman led Arizona with nine tackles, including one for a loss. Storm quarterback Lorenzo Brown was held to 59 yards passing with one touchdown.