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Sneed throws 7 TDs as Rattlers hold off NAZ 56-49

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GLENDALE — A few weeks ago, a home playoff game for the Arizona Rattlers seemed like only a pipe dream. After winning seven of their last eight games, that dream is getting close to becoming a reality.

The Rattlers’ late-season surge continued Saturday as quarterback Dalton Sneed tossed seven touchdowns in a nail-biting 56-49 victory over in-state rival Northern Arizona at Desert Diamond Arena.

“We are going through the gauntlet of our schedule right now,” Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy said after the game. “But we control our own destiny at this point. For us, it was all about being patient and getting healthy. No doubt this was a big win but tomorrow we will look at the film and start getting ready for Vegas.”

Arizona was once 1-3 and searching for answers. Now 8-4, the Rattlers have ascended to third place in the IFL’s Western Conference. They are ½ half game behind Vegas for second and sit ½ game ahead of fourth-place NAZ (7-4) with four Rattlers games remaining. 

Although the Rattlers swept the Wranglers in two games this season, the IFL’s first tiebreaker for teams seeded 2-4 in each conference is conference record and not head-to-head record. The top two teams in each conference host a playoff game in the opening round of the eight-team IFL postseason.

Arizona quarterback Dalton Sneed had his best game since becoming a Rattler on Saturday, throwing for 195 yards and 7 TDs on just 13 completions with no interceptions.

“It definitely feels good to get back on track,” said Sneed, who threw three INTs in a win at San Diego the previous game. “I pride myself on not turning the ball over. Perfection isn’t necessarily attainable but it is what I strive for and it was great to get that win tonight.”

Rattlers RB Shannon Brooks and WR Corey Reed Jr. (5 catches, 100 yards) caught three touchdowns each in the game.

“We have playmakers all over the field,” Sneed added. “They stepped up for us tonight.”

The game started on a tough note early for the home team as the Rattlers thought they had scored but had a touchdown overturned on a NAZ challenge. A fourth-down sack of Sneed meant the Wranglers got a stop on the initial drive of the contest.

The Wranglers took immediate advantage as QB Joshua Jones found WR John Maldonado with a 20-yard TD pass. Maldonado flipped over the boards but managed to hold onto the ball. Axel Perez tried a drop kick for 2 points but missed and NAZ led 6-0 seven minutes into the game.

Reed Jr. then started his big first half about a minute later by hauling in a 33-yard TD strike from Sneed on a post pattern. Dawson Evitts hit the PAT to give the Rattlers a 7-6 lead.

The teams then traded scores — Arsiah McCorker caught a 46-yard TD bomb from Jones countered by a 17-yard scoring strike from Sneed to Reed Jr. Arizona led 14-13 at the 2:33 mark of the first quarter.

The Rattlers’ defense, improving over the past month, made several big plays in the second quarter to turn the tide. It started on 4th down to start the second stanza as NAZ was gang tackled just short of the line to gain inside their own 15.

“Momentum is a huge thing and our defense really seized it in the second quarter,” Sneed said. “They set the tone. We are now starting to put together a full game in all phases — offense, defense and special teams.”

With the ball and a chance to extend their one-point lead, Brooks took an option pitch to the left and scored from 2 yards out. Evitts’ kick made it 21-13.

Arizona’s momentum continued on the Wranglers’ next drive as Jones was picked off by the Rattlers’ Dillion Winfrey in the end zone to squelch the NAZ drive.

The Rattlers moved methodically down the field and Sneed found a wide-open Brooks with a 7-yard TD pass. Evitts was good again to make it 28-13 with 7:28 left before halftime. 

Arizona’s 21-0 scoring run was halted when Maldonado caught a Jones pass on the right side, avoided the boards and got over the goal line for an 11-yard touchdown. Perez brought NAZ within 28-20 at the 5:33 mark of the second.

Reed Jr. then capped his monster half with another score — this time on a 26-yard pass from Sneed at the 3:50 mark. The Rattlers led 35-20 and had all the momentum.

“Going into the game, we knew NAZ played a lot of man-to-man defense,” Reed Jr. said. “I liked the matchup I had tonight.”

With a chance to get three stops in one quarter, the Rattlers defense got the job done. On the final play of the first half from the Arizona 4, Jones attempted to find Maldonado on a fade pattern to the right side. The ball was batted into the stands, Guy raised his arms in jubilation and the crowd of 8,803 roared as the Rattlers left the field with a 15-point lead at the break.

“I liked our defense in the first half,” Guy explained. “We weren’t as effective in the second but we will get that corrected.”

NAZ got back within a score as the second half began. Jones scored untouched on an 8-yard scramble and Perez added a 2-point drop kick to bring the Wranglers within 35-28 at the 10:29 mark of the third.

Sneed came up clutch on the next drive. On third and long, he lofted a pass over the NAZ defensive line into the waiting hands of Brooks. The 9-yard TD pass lifted Arizona to a 42-28 advantage.

”We saw some things on film and took advantage of that,” Guy said.

The back-and-forth continued as NAZ converted a key fourth down then RB Kobey White cashed in with a 7-yard TD rush to the right side. Perez’s PAT brought the Wranglers within 42-35 with 41 seconds left in the third.

Potential disaster was averted on the Rattlers’ next drive as Jamal Miles snagged a crucial fourth-down catch to keep the possession going.

Brooks got in the receiving act again, scoring his third TD of the night through the air on a 5-yard pass from Sneed on third down and goal.

Arizona led 49-35 with eight minutes left.

The Wranglers refused to go away. White caught a 12-yard TD pass from Jones but Perez missed the PAT at the 6:48 mark. NAZ still trailed 49-41.

Sneed continued his best game as a Rattler by tossing his 7th touchdown of the game, this one a 7-yarder to Nih-Jer Jackson. Evitts’ PAT gave Arizona a 56-41 lead with 4:19 left in regulation.

Again, the Wranglers responded quickly as McCorker hit paydirt on a 6-yard sweep to the right side. Perez made the drop kick and NAZ was within 56-49 with 1:49 left.

Perez then banked an onside kick attempt off the left side wall but two Rattlers quickly fell on the loose ball.

Arizona ran out the clock with Sneed tossing the ball well into the stands as the final buzzer sounded. 

Jones led the NAZ attack with 5 total TDs (4 passing, 1 rushing). Maldonado caught a pair of touchdowns from Jones.

Another huge matchup is on the horizon as the Rattlers hit the road to Sin City to face the Vegas Knight Hawks next weekend. Kickoff is set for 6:05 p.m. and the game can be seen live on the IFL’s YouTube channel.

“We never hit the panic button. We knew we had a good chance to play our way out of the slump we were in,” Guy said. “I like the direction we are going but we need to lock in for this next road game at Vegas because it’s definitely a big one.”