PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) — Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way. It certainly didn’t in Orlando, which became the site of a very damaging loss for the Power.
When it bounced Jason Willis’ way in the first eight minutes of last week’s prime-time showdown in Cleveland, it looked like the playoff-hungry Power had a prayer. But turnovers and a poorly played fourth quarter led to yet another road loss so damaging it left the Power’s postseason prayers for 2011 unanswered.
Although some pieces of what head coach Chris Siegfried hopes is a championship puzzle have been found, doubts remain about the futures of others who were a part of the Power’s inaugural campaign.
The maiden voyage will come full circle Friday, as they try to get revenge on the team that crashed their opening-night party and end their first year on a high note, while Siegfried tries to identify those who can help bring the Power within reach of their dreams in 2012. As we prepare to end the first year of the AFL’s return to Pittsburgh, here’s what to look for:
KICKOFF: 7:05 P.M., Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
TV/RADIO: AFL Live on ArenaFootball.com; 93.7 The Fan (Troy Clardy on play-by-play, Darnell Dinkins on color)
LAST WEEK: The Power are coming off a 67-55 loss to the Cleveland Gladiators at Quicken Loans Arena last Friday night that gave the Gladiators the championship of the American Conference’s East Division for 2011, while simultaneously knocking the Power out of playoff contention. It was the Power’s fifth loss in six games overall, their third straight, not to mention their fourth consecutive road defeat after winning three of their first four road games. It also dropped the Power to 3-2 within the East Division. The Soul are coming off their second and final bye week of the 2011 regular campaign, which followed a nationally televised 49-21 win over the Gladiators in Philadelphia two Fridays ago.
WHERE THEY STAND: Last Friday’s heartbreaker in Cleveland, while dashing the Power’s playoff hopes, also locked them into second place in the East Division. The Soul have been eliminated from playoff contention as well, ending a streak of three straight postseason appearances that dates back to the original AFL and peaked with their ArenaBowl XXII victory in 2008, right before the league shut down to resolve economic issues. The Soul will aim to finish the 2011 season third in the East Division.
Elsewhere in the division, Cleveland wraps up the regular season at home against the Utah Blaze with a 7:30 kickoff Friday before entering the AFL playoffs as the American Conference’s No. 2 seed; the Gladiators will host either the Georgia Force or Orlando Predators in conference semifinal action next Sunday at 3:00. Finally, the fourth-place Milwaukee Mustangs (6-11) will visit the National Conference Central Division champion Chicago Rush Saturday night at 8:00 to close their season; although the Mustangs split their games versus Philadelphia, the Soul get third place because of their superior record against common opponents.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bill Stull, Pittsburgh: The former WPIAL champion (Seton-LaSalle) and Pitt starter was released by the Spokane Shock, with whom he backed up veteran Kyle Rowley, and acquired by the Power at the beginning of this month so he could be closer to his family, and with the playoffs out of reach, Siegfried wants to sit regular starter Bernard Morris and give Stull one good look before the season ends. A combination of injuries and fate have made him the sixth different man to line up at QB for the Power this year, and the fifth different one to start. Stull threw an interception on his first AFL pass attempt, but over the course of his three appearances he has also completed seven of 11 passes for 68 yards and three touchdowns, good for an 82.4 passer efficiency rating, in addition to two TD runs totaling 12 yards. Oddly enough, he was also credited with one special teams tackle when the Shock met the Power in Pittsburgh May 7.
Ryan Vena, Philadelphia: Head coach Mike Hohensee didn’t like what he saw from former Tulsa Talons QB Justin Allgood in Week 2, so he turned to Vena, a four-year AFL veteran, to rally the Soul’s struggling offense at the time, and neither have looked back. In Week 18 against Cleveland, the former three-time Patriot League Player of the Year at Colgate connected on 21 of 31 passes (67.7%) for 245 yards and three touchdowns, and was picked off once. Vena also scrambled five times for 30 yards and two scores that night. Through 15 appearances he has completed 62.1% of his attempts for 3,573 yards, 67 TD’s, and 21 INT’s–the third-most among AFL starters entering Friday–which is good for a passer rating of 108.2. Vena has run 51 times for 150 yards and 20 touchdowns, the third-most rush TD’s in the league.
THREE KEY MATCHUPS:
*Power secondary vs. Donovan Morgan/Larry Brackins: When the Soul escaped CONSOL Energy Center with a 58-52 overtime win in the Power’s inaugural game Mar. 11, a game that set an attendance record for the reincorporated league, a lot of it had to do with Morgan, who more or less tortured the Power’s secondary. He earned Offensive Player of the Week honors with a staggering 14 catches for 189 yards, and accounted for all five TD passes by Justin Allgood, while adding a two-yard scoring run. Morgan is fourth in the AFL with 1,845 yards receiving on 115 catches, and his 36 TD’s tie him for fifth in the league. Although Siegfried probably wishes Morgan had taken his invitation to play in the UFL, he argues that Brackins is just as dangerous. He caught five balls for 49 yards that night and has racked up 12 TD’s on 36 catches totaling 426 yards. Pittsburgh’s top DB’s have either matriculated to the UFL or been lost to injury, and the overall effectiveness of their defense has taken a turn for the worse as a result. The Power rank 11th with 54.4 points allowed per game, and just 15th in the 18-team AFL with 276.7 pass yards allowed per contest. With further health issues abound, and with certain guys possibly fighting for jobs next season, expect to see more changes to the look of this group on Friday.
*Stull vs. himself/Soul defense: The Pittsburgh native believes his window of opportunity to make an NFL roster may be closing, so with the lockout halfway toward a resolution, he’ll be particularly fired up to make an impression on any scout who watches…and any scout who doesn’t. Like first-stringer Morris, Stull has mobility and a certain aura of fearlessness, and he’d like to think accuracy is one of his biggest strengths. On Friday his objective will be to maintain that accuracy and avoid the kind of turnovers, particularly the self-inflicted ones, that have undermined the Power’s season, though all that may be easier said than done. The Soul own the No. 4 pass defense in the league, allowing 252.6 yards per game, with the one bright spot being that defensive back Tanner Varner, who has contributed 40 solo tackles and five interceptions, two of them for scores, is not expected to dress. Stull needs to look out for defensive lineman Darrell Campbell, who is tied for fifth in the AFL with 9.5 sacks.
*Mike Washington vs. Mike Brown: Washington led the Power in their opener with nine catches for 111 yards, including his first-ever AFL touchdown, and on Friday he’ll try to cap an excellent rookie season that has seen the Aliquippa native lead the team with 1,212 yards, 103 receptions, and 26 TD’s. “Joystick” has emerged as the team’s top playmaker and as a verbose, enthusiastic team leader, so he’ll probably be Philadelphia’s primary target on defense. Brown, a defensive back and six-year veteran, seems like a likely choice to cover Washington, especially with Varner out. Brown made the 2006 All-Ironman Team and, in his second tour of duty with the Soul, has racked up 58 tackles (48 solo) and a team-leading eight interceptions, including a pick-six in OT that won the first meeting between these teams for Philly. If Washington is too well covered, hopefully that opens up some space for fellow receiver Jason Willis, who has caught 101 passes for 18 TD’s and 1,144 yards, including a game-high nine catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns last week.
It’s times like these that can be trying for a coach, especially Chris Siegfried, who has grown accustomed to winning just about anywhere he goes. However, times like these can also be educational, as he may get a clearer picture of which players have the most heart and the greatest compete level, and which ones he might be inclined to work with next season. As Siegfried said after last Friday’s game, next year begins Friday for the Power, and a .500 record, though not exactly what this franchise wanted in its first year, would set a positive tone for next year, and put a positive spin on what has been a lucrative but difficult inaugural season.
By Matt Popchock