Last Saturday night in Milwaukee, the Utah Blaze found themselves down 58-55 in the final minute of their road game. One of the Mustangs’ rookie wideouts had found his way past a banged-up secondary to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Defensive end Caesar Rayford felt confident when he saw 28 seconds left on the board.
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Sure enough, 28 seconds of game clock later, the Blaze emerged with a 61-58 victory. In Rayford’s mind, Milwaukee had just about given the game away.
"They left too much time on the clock," he said. "In Arena Football, 28 seconds is a lot of time. We never would have done that."
Ranked the No. 3 team in the AFL this week, Utah has some very obvious factors that have contributed to its 5-2 start. Quarterback Tommy Grady leads the league in passing touchdowns, and receiver Aaron Lesue leads in touchdown receptions. On defense, the team has 21 sacks, which is second-best in the AFL. On the road, Utah has ceased its struggles, going 3-1 so far.
But although the Blaze have one of the best records in the AFL, they haven’t necessarily dominated. Twice at home, Utah won by a single point.
So what has been the Blaze’s secret? Playing smarter.
To coach Ron James and his staff, situational awareness has been the big key to the team’s success. The Blaze study and drill relentlessly on key game scenarios more than ever: one-minute drills, onside kicks before the half, playing with the lead.
"We’ve made it more of a point of emphasis to bring that boxer mentality to our game planning," James said. "We want everyone to know what the other team is going to do. When they punch, we want to counter-punch."
It might seem to be a common-sense notion, but the way the Blaze manage tough situations has made them stand out. Down 28-14 in the second quarter against the Mustangs, the Blaze recovered a Milwaukee onside kick, scored, recovered their own onside kick and scored again to tie up the game seconds before halftime.
Against Iowa at home, the Blaze won when they recovered their own onside kick and ran the clock out. Against San Jose, the defense allowed the Sabercats to score the go-ahead points so the Blaze would have time to mount a drive of their own.
"It’s funny how just with a few plays we could be 7-0, or 2-5," Lesue says. "It’s just little things that seem to make the difference. The biggest thing is that we’ve been really educated on those things."
What’s more impressive is the team has made a 3-0 run just as it has lost a chunk of its starting receivers, defensive backs and linebackers.
Even with a patchwork crew, the Blaze have prospered. When team signs a backup, it prefers it be a wily vet such as Maurice Bryant, who caught two touchdowns last week.
"We don’t look at it as we’ve got to play without this guy — we look at who we have," James says. "Our backups this year have done a really good job of understand their roles."
But similarly, the team knows a fresh start can ultimately go south. The Blaze aim to continue to keep its streak alive with three straight division games ahead, starting Friday against Spokane.
"It’s good that some of the coaches are giving us respect now, but other guys still don’t think we belong," Rayford says. "We don’t get every stop, but we’re gonna make the plays that matter. We know how to handle those situations. And if we keep doing that, we’ll keep winning."
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