As the New England Bobcats made their way to Pennsylvania to take on the defending champion Southern Steam for the Elite Indoor Football League crown this past Saturday, fundamental questions lingered about this first-year team despite the passing of nearly a full season.
Could they win outside the Chelmsford Forum? A fair question considering they played only one road game all year, a loss in Maryland back on April 21. Another fair question: how would they hold up against a team with a full roster? Opponents who trekked up to Massachusetts this season often did so with a skeleton crew that played both sides of the ball all night, half the time out of their natural positions. And even more relevant, how would these inexperienced Bobcats match up with the Steam, many of whose players were on last year’s championship team?
Answers to those questions would come fast and often furiously on Saturday. Augmenting their finely-tuned offense and athletic secondary that would seemingly brand them a skills team, the Bobcats proved a brawny bunch as well, going medieval in a 44-40 victory over the Steam to earn their first-ever championship.
New England opened the game with a five-play scoring drive to take an early lead, then linebacker Ruben Encarnacion obliterated the Steam’s Jarvis Alston on the ensuing kickoff to set the tone that would become the game’s blueprint. With relentless play pursuit and punitive tackling, the Bobcats made it a long day for QB George Grant and the Steam offense, which scored on only four of eight possessions.
Encarnacion, playing the mack, and Antonio Young at jack, were a collective pain in the ass for Coach Bobby Dammarell and any running game he tried to establish. Encarnacion’s omnipresence was particularly disruptive, with blitzes that gave an early shot of adrenaline to a Bobcats pass rush that couldn’t pressure Grant, and open-field tackling that left Steam ball carriers pounding the ground in frustration over thoughts of what could have been.
In perhaps the game’s most pivotal sequence of plays, the Steam opened the fourth quarter with a third-and-goal on the Bobcats’ 6-yard line with a chance to take the lead. Defensive Coordinator Mark Stevens took advantage of the short field and employed Encarcion and Young as part of a five-across package. That coverage forced Kameron Bryant, at quarterback in place of an injured Grant, to scramble twice, eventually getting stopped on fourth down at the goal line. It was a seminal stand at the time, allowing the Bobcats to cling to their slim lead.
The biggest problem for Stevens’ defense would prove to be the off-the-chart athleticism of Steam wideout Kelvin Irving, for whom there really was no answer. Irving caught three of Grant’s passes for touchdowns, including one with 26 seconds remaining in the first half that he plucked from the rafters of the PPL Center. He then scored on a fourth down catch to open the second half, getting the Steam back to within two and setting up a dramatic finish in which the lead would change four times. But the Steam would learn as so many others have that you can’t contain the Bobcats for long.
New England would trail on three occasions Saturday – including twice in the second half – but regained the lead each time on their very next touch. Most impressively, they kept their identity, maintaining their standard pass-run mix with QB Najee Hillman, the league’s only true pocket passer, never panicking. Even after uncharacteristically turning the ball over three times – two on interceptions – Hillman did what he does best, standing in the pocket and passing. In the first half, he found Bill Lane to recoup his first lost lead. In the fourth quarter it was Markey DesRuisseaux, who reigned in Hillman’s fifth touchdown pass to give the Bobcats the lead for good with six minutes remaining.
Turns out, there’s good reason for such poise. Center Mike Walter and tackles Robert Orell and Joe Thomas proved why they were the elite of the Elite’s offensive lines this season. Against the Steam pass rush, they provided Hillman a wall of protection that would make Donald Trump proud. Walter manhandled nose tackle Alex Punsky throughout the game, while Orell and Thomas created a pocket wide enough in which to land Air Force One.
Exacerbating his battle in the trenches, Dammarell found himself one carload of players short when the game got underway, and his options upfront were limited. He didn’t dial up a blitz until four minutes remained in the first half. It was a well Dammarell went to often in the second half with a full complement of players on hand, but to little avail. On the day, the Steam defense registered only two hurries and one sack, the latter due to a high shotgun snap, as a rotation of four blitzing macks each met a similar fate on the blunt end of fullback Darryl Cyprien, who picked them up one after another.
Dammarell’s only real success came early in the fourth quarter. On a designed run to Cyprien from the Bobcats 6-yard line, Hillman bobbled a snap in the face of the unchecked blitzing mack Kevin Cuffee, who recovered the ball in the end zone to give the Steam a momentary 40-38 lead. On the next series, Hillman hit DesRuisseaux for the game-winner.
But this deal could not be closed until the Bobcats defense held the Steam one more time and their offense ran out the final two minutes. Here again, the Bobcats’ stronger will was manifest. On the game’s final play, Cyprien took a handoff on fourth-and-two and was immediately hit in the backfield by Punsky. If he went down, the Steam would have time for one last shot at the championship from 22 yards out. But Cyprien didn’t go down. Instead, he extended the play another five yards, ending the game.
As of now, the future of the EIFL remains uncertain, and so do those of Saturday’s players. This is, after all, an A4 league and many displayed talent worthy of the next tier. But those are tomorrow’s questions. Today, we have our answers concerning the Bobcats’ legitimacy, and that’s enough for now.