PHOENIX — As the visiting Massachusetts Pirates lifted the Indoor Football League’s United Bowl Championship trophy at the Footprint Center on Sunday night, the Arizona Rattlers were long gone to their locker room asking just what it will take to win another title in front of their loyal fans.
Three turnovers doomed the Rattlers in the 2021 United Bowl on Sunday, as Garrett Hartley’s 31-yard field goal in overtime lifted the Pirates to a gut-wrenching 37-34 victory and Arizona’s fifth straight loss in title games at home — each seemingly more devastating than the last — between play both in the Arena Football League and the IFL.
“We fought hard and we battled. But you can’t win the game when you are turning the ball over,” said Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy, who saw his team’s 16-game home winning streak and overall 7-game winning streak snapped in another difficult finish to the season. “At the end of the night, we didn’t do enough.”
The ending brought back painful memories for longtime Rattler fans — whether it be a Sherdrick Bonner incompletion at the goal line in 2004, an Aaron Garcia miracle fadeaway TD pass for Jacksonville in 2011, a fumbled kickoff against Philadelphia in 2016 or the officiating debacle in Glendale in 2019.
Before Sunday, Arizona’s last loss downtown occurred June 23, 2018 — a 69-68 overtime defeat to the Sioux Falls Storm in the semifinal round. The team’s lone chance to celebrate a title at home with Rattler Nation took place way back in 1997.
“We didn’t execute tonight the way we have been,” Guy said. “We aren’t going to point any fingers. We win and lose as a team.”
After turning the ball over on downs with about a minute left, the Rattlers looked to be in big trouble trailing 34-27. The Pirates needed just two first downs to ice the game. On third down, quarterback Alejandro Bennifield lofted a pass to a wide-open Justin Stockton along the right sideboards. Needing only to catch the ball to secure the game, Stockton bobbled it to set up fourth down.
The Pirates called on former NFL kicker Garrett Hartley to clinch the title but Arizona’s Lamar Mady had other ideas, blasting through the line to block the attempt. Nik D’Avanzo scooped up the ball and rumbled inside the Pirates’ 5 as the crowd went crazy.
“We were never out of this,” Guy said. “You just can’t turn the ball over and expect to win a championship.”
Looking to atone for earlier mistakes, Rattlers QB Drew Powell eventually knifed in from 3 yards out to bring Arizona within 34-33 with 10 seconds left:
Guy elected to send on kicker Ernesto Lacayo, who had already missed three kicks on the day, but he calmly booted the ball through to make it 34-34.
A final 42-yard attempt by Hartley in regulation sailed wide left and it was off to overtime.
The Rattlers took possession first and disaster struck five plays later as Powell fumbled near the goal line in an attempt to score. Massachusetts recovered Powell’s third turnover of the game.
“I was trying to score, giving a little extra effort and I just lost the ball,” Powell explained. “I gave them the ball three times today and that’s on me. It hurts — I didn’t make the plays.”
Needing just a field goal to win the championship, veteran Hartley did the honors from 31 yards out as the Pirates spilled onto the field to celebrate their first IFL title:
After Powell fumbled near the goal line, Hartley kicks a 31-yard FG to win the championship. Rattlers’ fifth straight title loss at home, each one more devastating than the last.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) September 13, 2021
(2) @mass_pirates 37
(1) @ArizonaRattlers 34
FINAL - OT
2021 @IndoorFL United Bowl@AzNewsmedia pic.twitter.com/sWz0wpir0Z
The game started on a sour note for top-seeded Arizona as newly-crowned league MVP Powell was intercepted by Massachusetts on the second play of the game. The Rattlers quarterback tried to find Braxton Haley in the end zone but the ball was deflected and picked off by the Pirates’ Santos Ramirez.
From there, Stockton took a pitch to the right side for a 2-yard score. Hartley tacked on the PAT for a 7-0 Pirates’ lead midway through the first quarter.
The second-seeded Pirates got another stop on the next Rattlers’ series with Lacayo pulling a 40-yard field goal wide left.
Rattlers DB and IFL Defensive Player of the Year Dillion Winfrey pumped some life into the crowd by nabbing an interception of Bennifield on the next series. Bennifield tried a long bomb but Winfrey was in the right place at the right time to easily corral the ball.
Looking to get on the board, Arizona completed their first scoring drive on a 23-yard pass from Powell to Haley. As the first quarter ended, the normally sure-footed Lacayo shanked the PAT and the Rattlers trailed 7-6 after one.
Winfrey again picked off Bennifield to steal some momentum but Powell gave the ball right back to Massachusetts, forcing a throw into double coverage that was easily intercepted by Aaron Maxey-Benton.
“You could say I forced that one — I probably should have run it,” Powell said.
The low-scoring game remained 7-6 midway through the second quarter.
Arizona’s defense was doing all it could to hold the Pirates out of the end zone but Bennifield found Thomas Owens with a 12-yard TD pass 3:42 before halftime. Hartley added the PAT and the visitors held a 14-6 lead.
The Rattlers needed a spark and they called on Powell to provide it. On fourth and goal at the Pirates’ 1, Powell used second and third effort and some help from his line to push across the goal line. With the crowd of 6,385 in a frenzy, the Rattlers used some trickery to tie the game.
They called the “Philly Special” with Haley lofting a pass to a wide-open Powell for 2 points to tie the game at 14-14 with :55 left in the half.
The Pirates nearly coughed up the football on the ensuing kickoff but they recovered the loose ball.
After some clock mismanagement, Hartley connected on a 31-yard field goal at the buzzer to give Massachusetts a 17-14 halftime lead.
“Despite the miscues, we were still right in the game,” said Guy.
Massachusetts took a two-score lead when Bennifield rushed in from 6 yards out to start the second half. Hartley made the PAT and the Pirates had also killed half the third-quarter clock. Massachusetts led 24-14 at the 7:10 mark of the third quarter.
Arizona answered with a 38-yard TD strike from Powell to Jamal Miles. Lacayo’s PAT brought the Rattlers within 24-21 with 5:39 left in the third.
After a failed Rattlers onside kick, Hartley made a 25-yard field goal. The Rattlers got a half-stop and Massachusetts led 27-21 after three quarters.
Arizona thought they might take their first lead at the 8:56 mark of the fourth quarter when Powell scored a rushing TD from 3 yards out. But Lacayo again missed a crucial PAT and the game remained 27-27.
Arizona’s defense had no answer as Bennifield moved his squad down the field, culminating in a 2-yard rushing score by the quarterback. Hartley made the PAT, giving Massachusetts a 34-27 lead with 5:51 left in the game.
Powell had a fourth-down pass fall incomplete on the next series, setting the stage for the wild finish.
After the game, things got unpleasant down on the field as some Pirates’ players got into it with Rattlers fans, prompting Footprint Center security officials to step in and calm things down. About the only people left in the stands to see the trophy presentation were the few that made the trip out west to support the visitors.
Powell finished the game with 5 total TDs (3 rushing, 2 passing) but three costly giveaways. Miles caught seven passes for 103 yards and a score. Bennifield, named the game's Most Valuable Player, paced the Pirates with 3 TDs (2 rushing, 1 passing) and two INTs.
Both teams end the season with identical 14-3 records, but it is Massachusetts leaving the Valley with an 11-game winning streak and the silver hardware. Two of the Rattlers’ three losses on the season were at the hands of the Pirates. Arizona is now 6-7 all-time in championship games.
“We had our chances — we just didn’t finish,” Guy said.