The Arena Football League is all about offense, often leaving those who play defense short on self-esteem.
Sunday, the defense was the only reason the Arizona Rattlers managed to avoid their first 0-2 start since 1993.
From their first touchdown to an end-zone stop on the last play of the game, the Rattlers’ defenders were the stars as Arizona squeezed past the Las Vegas Gladiators, 46-42, at America West Arena.
“It’s an offensive game,” said receiver/defensive back Randy Gatewood, who started the scoring with an interception return for a touchdown and later caught the game-winning touchdown. “It’s tough to stop guys from throwing touchdowns, point blank. But tonight, our defense made up their minds they were going to win this game, no matter what it took.”
Gatewood’s 3-yard touchdown catch gave the Rattlers (1-1) the lead late. By the time the Gladiators (0-2) took over on offense, there was only one minute left and Las Vegas was only 23 yards from the Arizona end zone.
Three of the next four plays were runs, designed to make the Rattlers take timeouts and run the clock down. After Frank Carter bulled ahead for a yard, bringing the Gladiators to a third-and-4 situation on the Rattlers 5, 16 seconds remained and the clock was running.
The Gladiators assumed Arizona would take its final timeout. The Rattlers didn’t.
“That’s what happens when you don’t have veteran leadership out there,” Rattlers linebacker/receiver Hunkie Cooper said. “Those guys expected us to call timeout. . . . (Instead), they had one shot, one kill.”
By the time Las Vegas coach Frank Haege realized the Rattlers weren’t going to stop the clock — the Gladiators insisted someone on the Rattlers had done so — only four seconds remained. The Gladiators should have had two cracks at the end zone and suddenly were only going to get one.
“I totally screwed up at the end of the game,” Haege admitted afterward.
Gladiators quarterback Jay McDonagh was pressured on the play, and his pass was high to George Williams and challenged by Cooper. Williams deflected it into the hands of Arizona defensive specialist Mark Ricks, the Rattlers’ fourth interception of the game and fifth turnover.
“I’ve seen coaches do that before, make it come down to one play,” said Gatewood, who also had a second interception that became a field goal and a 30-yard reception that set up a Rattlers touchdown. “It didn’t really surprise me. That’s what the coach chose to do. They have to live with that.”
The only Rattlers to have experienced an 0-2 start in Arizona are Cooper and quarterback Sherdrick Bonner, both of whom were rookies when it happened last. It seemed like the list was going to be a lot longer after this game the way the offense started.
Bonner, on the shelf for two games with a separated shoulder, was a spectator as backup Chris Hixson came out and got sacked on three of his first four pass plays. The fourth play was a screen that lost two yards.
“When we dropped back, even on three-step (drop), I got hit in the first half every play and then some,” Hixson said.
Rattlers coach Danny White said there were still too many mistakes, especially during “simple” blocking assignments. That didn’t help Hixson.
The second half was better. Hixson found more time and ended up completing 18-of-26 passes for 168 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception — a ball caught by Maurice Bryant and then stolen by a Las Vegas defender during the tackle.
And the Arizona defense got better as the game went on, pressuring McDonagh and eventually making the game-saving play to end it. “This was one we just needed to find a way to win,” White said. “It wasn’t pretty, and we knew at halftime it wasn’t going to be one of the prettier games we had ever played.”
EXTRA POINTS: Sunday was White’s 51st birthday, the first time ever he had coached a game on his birthday.
Gatewood’s 58 yards in interception returns was a franchise record.
Attendance was announced at 11,826.