08/21/2009 8:28 AM
One would assume that if Shock Head Coach Adam Shackleford was a betting man, he would place his money on Spokane.
As Shackleford and the rest of the Shock descend on Las Vegas for the tenth edition of the ArenaCup, he is cautiously optimistic about his chances against the #1-seeded Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pioneers.
“We’re excited to be in the game and we certainly feel as deserving as Wilkes-Barre Scranton probably does,” Shackleford explained. “Whenever you’re the number one-seed there is a lot of pressure on you to be there; you’re expected to be there. You don’t often see a number versus a number so this should be a great game on the af2’s biggest stage.”
Spokane fans got a sneak peak of Saturday night’s match-up earlier this season when the Shock defeated the Pioneers by only four points, 56-52. The game was not settled until the final drive and Shackleford added that he expects this game to be just as close.
Shackleford’s offense, that is averaging 57.3 points per game in the post-season, will be challenged by one of the most talented defenses in the af2. Pioneers’ DB Micheaux Robinson was selected as the af2’s Defensive Player of the Year after he posted some stellar numbers during the regular season. In addition to leading the league in pass break-ups (35), he also added 14 interceptions (second in the league), and 99.5 tackles (second in the league).
These numbers certainly caught the attention of former DB and current assistant coach Rob Keefe.
“Robinson makes the defense go,” explained Keefe. “He’s the best cover corner I’ve seen in the league.”
In their first match-up of the season, the Pioneers forced Spokane QB Nick Davila into throwing two interceptions – his highest single-game total of the season. Robinson accounted for one of those interceptions while the second one was picked off by DB Chris Royal.
But Wilkes-Barre Scranton’s talent on defense is not just limited to the secondary; their defensive line accounted for 38 sacks (one more than Spokane), the second highest total during the regular season. DL Justin Parrish, who did not play in the game against the Shock, and DL Royce Morgan tied for the team lead in sacks (11). In the post-season, the Pioneers lead the league in sacks with 11.
In the Pioneers’ regular season game against the Shock, their defensive line was shut out and did not record single sack against the Shock’s offensive line.
The Shock’s offensive line has continued to provide excellent protection for Davila who has been sacked only once in the post-season. Davila has also continued running an efficient offense in the post-season 14 passing touchdowns without a single interception. Last week, against the Talons, Davila threw six passing touchdowns – his highest total of the post-season.
The Shock’s receiving corps is led by WR Andy Olson who leads the team in receptions (23) and is second on team in touchdown receptions (4) during the post-season. Rookie WR Markee White has continued to improve during the post-season and leads the team in touchdown receptions (5), including last week’s game winner against the Talons.
Meanwhile, the Pioneers offense has also continued to improve and QB Ryan Vena seems to be hitting his stride coming into Saturday night’s ArenaCup.
In the first three games of the post-season, Vena has already improved his gaudy regular season numbers with a higher completion percentage (up 3.9 percent for a 71.1 completion percentage) and a higher QB rating (up 14.11 points to the league-leading 139.14 QB rating).
Shackleford noted that Vena’s improved play is one of the reasons for the Pioneers’ success in the post-season.
“I think Ryan Vena is playing a lot better right now than he did last time we played them.” Shackleford explained. “As a team they are much more consistent. They are a very well-coached team, and a very talented team, there is no denying that.”
Vena has a trio of offensive weapons in his receiving corps with rookie Irving Campbell, and veterans Rich Musinski and JJ Outlaw. Campbell led the team in receptions (99) while Outlaw led the team in touchdown receptions (33) during the regular season. But in their previous meeting against the Shock, it was Musinski who stole the show leading the team in receptions (7) and touchdown receptions (3).
Vena and his receivers will be challenged by Spokane’s stingy defense that has given up an average of 33.3 points/game in the post-season, the lowest total in the league. In the red-zone, Spokane’s secondary has accounted for three of its six interceptions in the post-season. DB Sergio Gilliam has led the charge with four total interceptions, second in the league, tied with the Pioneer’s Robinson.
Shackleford also plans to use his defensive line, which has accounted for four sacks in the post-season, to disrupt Vena’s rhythm. During the regular season, DL Ben McCombs led the league in sacks (15.5) but recently his efforts have been complimented by Frank Morton, and Caesar Rayford. In the post-season, Morton leads the team in sacks (two) while Rayford and McCombs have each added a sack of their own. In their first match-up Rayford recorded his first sack, and Spokane’s only sack, against the Pioneers earlier this season.
“I think this game is going to be a lot like last week’s game and a lot like the first time we faced them,” Shackleford explained. “I think whenever you have two good football teams the game isn’t decided until the end. Saturday shouldn’t be any different.”
Check your blood pressure and place your bets fans.