Jerusalem Lions 311.
(photo credit: Mindy McKinny)
After months of hype and awe-inspiring competition, the Kraft Family IFL semifinals certainly delivered some entertaining football over the weekend, with the Big Blue Jerusalem Lions and Mike’s Place Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres claiming resounding victories to book their spots in a mouth-watering championship game that will be played before a nationally televised audience.
On Friday in the capital, before a crowd chock-full of dignitaries, the Lions got a dazzling six-touchdown performance from Itai Ashkenazi and a dominant defensive display from the entire unit to bombard the second-seeded Papagaio Jerusalem Kings 50-6 and storm into the title game for a third consecutive season, as many years as the league has been in existence.
The next night, the Sabres continued the blowout theme and overwhelmed the Judean Rebels from the outset of their Saturday rendezvous in Holon to capture a 70-30 triumph and earn the franchise’s first trip to the Israel Bowl.
Evan Reshef was transcendent for Mike’s Place in his return from an extended injury with three touchdowns – including a gorgeous 58-yard punt return – to headline the full-package attack that has characterized the first-place club all season.
Hammude Kassas added a pair of TDs, while five other Sabres visited the endzone on a night that demonstrated exactly why Jon Sharon’s men have marched through their 11 games virtually unscathed and why they opened as a narrow favorite for Friday’s season finale, despite it being played in the Lions’ stomping grounds.
The Kings, who had beaten the Lions in both previous meeting between the clubs, found out just how dangerous Big Blue can be on both sides of the ball in falling to their first loss in four games.
Not only did Papagaio cough up the ball four times, but its opponents played turnover-free football for the second straight game to grab the bull by the horns and coast to a relatively easy conquest.
In the presence of Gabi Ashkenazi, Natan Sharansky and Elisha Peleg, among others, Big Blue came out like a team possessed, taking a 14-6 lead out of the first quarter and not looking back. They tacked on a pair of scores in the second, another in the third and two more in the fourth to put an end to a sterling run by Papagaio that ultimately fell short of its intended finish-line.
The same could be said of the Rebels’ dismal denouement to what was, by most accounts, a wildly successful inaugural season. While the Judeans were clearly outclassed by a red-hot Sabres club on Saturday night, they bowed out with their heads help up high, knowing that they were beaten by the better team.
And, just like Friday’s table-setter, it was really no contest from the get-go, despite the pre-game predictions that called for a nail-biter. Tel Aviv-Jaffa scored on its first possession, and then on its second, third and fourth as well, with Adi Hakami perfectly piloting his troops to a commanding 38-8 half-time advantage that was just built upon further by a wire-to-wire demolition.
The Rebels and Kings will now have a chance to duke it out for third place in the consolation game on Friday at 9:30 a.m. in the capital.
And then comes the big one!
One thing is almost certain –
neither final team should expect as easy a time in Friday’s
championship at Kraft Stadium (12:30 p.m. kickoff) as they had in the
semis. While the Lions took the only regular season encounter between
the clubs, that one came down to the final possession and, in any case,
the playoffs are a totally different beast. The Sabres have won 10 of
their 11, look stronger than ever and are sure to roll into Jerusalem
with an entourage that will give them the ninth-man boost to counter
Big Blue’s home-field advantage.
If history is any indication,
both previous Israel Bowls went to overtime. No one would be shocked to
see that feat three-peated. Lions-Sabres. Tel Aviv-Jerusalem. A better
matchup in the Kraft Family IFL couldn’t be drawn up. The entire
country will be watching. Will you?