After pounding the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Soul last week, ArenaBowl XXXI was the Brigade’s battle to lose — and they sure lost it.
The Washington Valor were supposed to be an easy meal — the team went 2-10 in the regular season, the kind of mark that, had there been more than four teams in the Arena Football League, would have quashed their playoff hopes.
But a string of dropped balls and picked-off passes killed the Brigade on Saturday night. It was the Valor, not Baltimore, hoisting the Foster Trophy at game’s end with a 69-55 victory.
Washington claimed its first championship. Quarterback Arvell Nelson, who entered the game ranked second in the league in rushing yards, ran for five touchdowns and passed for three.
“We know how dangerous Arvell Nelson is,” Brigade head coach Omarr Smith said. “We didn’t execute keeping him in the pocket, he made good use of his legs and extended plays, and when he does that, they play very, very well and are tough to beat.”
Regular-season woes became the definition of “old news” for Washington. After upsetting the top-seeded Albany Empire in Game 2 of the home-and-home aggregate semifinals, 47-40, the scrappy squad demonstrated it was capable of outsmarting the Baltimore defense.
From the start, Nelson had to outwit the Brigade to make his way downfield, carrying 1 yard for the first touchdown — a trick that would soon become a first-half pattern for the quarterback.
“All credit to the Brigade defense,” Nelson said. “They did a good job covering us and that pass game was relentless.”
To respond, Brigade quarterback Randy Hippeard’s pass to wide receiver Quentin Sims carried Baltimore to Washington’s territory, followed by an 18-yard pass to Brandon Collins for the equalizer.
Again, Nelson tried to get creative, flicking a pass to receiver Josh Reese in the end zone — but this time, it was deemed an illegal forward pass, keeping things even.
A low-scoring first quarter gave way to a high-scoring second. To start, Valor defensive lineman Svante Davenport stripped a pass from Hippeard in the end zone and galloped away into Baltimore territory. After a few fruitless passes, Nelson rushed 6 yards for a second Washington touchdown.
Then Hippeard stepped back on the field. The five-season AFL veteran rocketed a pass from end to end, landing in the hands of Brandon Thompkins, tying the Valor again, 14-14, in just two moves.
Then Washington began to run away with the game.
Nelson, again, trading his arm for legs after he couldn’t connect with teammates in the end zone, ran the football in with about two minutes on the clock. Moments later, Washington’s Chris Duvalt snatched the ball and tore up 33 yards to score another touchdown to put the Valor up 28-14. Hippeard found Sims to add six points, but kicker Mark Lewis never had the chance to convert the extra point as the ball skittered away, scooped up by Washington.
Near the end of the half, the Valor put together a 38-second drive to go up 35-20.
Baltimore’s turnovers and silly mistakes continued in the second half. Under siege in the pocket, Hippeard threw a desperation toss to the end zone that was intercepted by Davenport, who returned the ball upfield. That led to another Valor touchdown.
“Today’s game was somewhat a microcosm of our whole season, so to speak,” Smith said. “We didn’t take care of the little things and we didn’t execute.”
The Brigade responded by scoring on an unusual play of their own. Thompkins ripped downfield on a kick return, then stumbled and fumbled, drawing a horde of Valor players to the ball. Baltimore defensive back Michael Knight scooped it and ran into the end zone.
But like every Baltimore gain, it was quickly diminished by a Valor response. Before long, Nelson was firing another pass for a score to amass 56 points going into the fourth quarter against Baltimore’s 34.
“They’re a strong team. That score, and the way they fought — Brandon Thompkins running on the kick — you don’t do that kind of stuff by mistake,” said Valor interim head coach Benji McDowell, who took the team’s reins in May. “I take my hat off to Omarr. He’s a good dude. Like I told somebody, these were two teams that were bottom of the barrel last year, played in the championship this year and you don’t get that way with luck. You get that way by the things that you do.”
The Brigade and Valor traded seven points apiece at the beginning of the fourth quarter. AFL veteran fullback Rory Nixon, whose postseason action had thus far been mostly behind the scenes, thrust into the spotlight, rushing 2 yards to shrink Washington’s lead to 15 points. Hippeard found Brandon Collins for another seven points.
Baltimore needed to score another eight points, but never would.
Nelson snaked around the Brigade backfield to score one more touchdown for the Valor.
Hippeard tried for Collins again, but the pass was incomplete when a forceful block knocked the receiver to the ground. And then, he didn’t get back up.
Training staff flocked to the still body and Valor players knelt until, about two minutes later, Collins stood and gingerly walked back to the bench.
“It was touch and go. We were very concerned about him. But to see him walk off was a positive sign, but I’ve still got to have some conversations with training staff regarding [him],” Smith said.
Hippeard’s last-ditch toss into the end zone misfired, hitting the Washington-white confetti that had already been released as it hit the ground.
“I’m really proud of how our team played this season, I’m proud of our guys. We didn’t win today. We didn’t do what it took to win today,” Smith said. “We’ll watch the film, and the sun’s going to come up tomorrow and we got to find a way to get better.”
Regardless of the outcome, the loss didn’t mean the Brigade had fallen for good.
“I’m locked in. It’s a team game. We’ll be back,” Nixon said.