Some would call it poetic justice; others would describe it as sweet revenge. Either way, Thursday night's 16-8 triumph by the Big Blue Jerusalem Lions over the Real Housing Haifa Underdogs was just the latest surprising twist in a Kraft Family IFL season that is playing out more like a Hollywood script than the second year of an upstart football league in the Middle East.
The previously undefeated Underdogs brought their 6-0 record, a busload of fans and a healthy supply of confidence with them to the capital to face a Big Blue team that was severely depleted and reeling from a pair of losses that saw it dip under .500 for the first time in franchise history. The defending champion Lions, however, were buoyed by the return of all-star Asher Meckler and rode an iron-willed performance from the entire defensive unit to pull out the upset and spoil their arch-rival's attempt at running-the-table.
Jerusalem quarterback Aryeh Bauman returned to form after a string of awful outings, Yonah Mishaan and Akiva Rindenow each scored converted touchdowns, and Big Blue overcame a courageous effort by Haifa's Omer Kedmi to even its record at 3-3 and clinch third place in the standings, with two regular-season games remaining.
The result was eerily reminiscent of last year, when Big Blue brought a 4-0 mark into Haifa before getting dropped for their only loss in an otherwise blemish-free season. Thursday night's victory to hand the Underdogs THEIR first defeat 12 months later was equally satisfying for a Lions squad which was also able to avenge a 38-0 debacle at the hands of Real Housing in January.
The loss extended Real Housing's drought against Big Blue at Kraft, where they have lost all four meetings between the clubs, and ensured that this Friday's season-ending clash in Yoqne'am with the Dancing Camel Modi'in Pioneers will be straight-up battle for first place.
(The loser of that affair can look forward to hosting a first-round playoff match against the Lions, while the winner will grab the top seed and earn a home date against either the Blue Sun Music Jerusalem Kings or the Mike's Place Tel Aviv Sabres, depending on how things shake out.) The Underdogs came into Thursday's contest fresh after a full month off and as favorites on the road. However, they scored 30 points lower than their season average coming in and looked out of sorts trying to move the ball all night. While QB Itai Ashkenazi finished with 130 yards through the air, he was only 11-29 passing, for a personal-low 38 percent completion rate. Just as telling, Real Housing, which had been averaging 114 yards rushing per game, was unable to establish any sort of ground attack in the face of the stifling Jerusalem defense and ended the day with a measly 46 yards.
While Jerusalem did turn the ball over three times, twice through lost fumbles and once through a Bauman interception, Haifa was unable to take advantage of the miscues and saw seven of its eight possessions end on either a punt or turnover-on-downs. The Lions, on the other hand, capitalized on the Underdogs' only turnover, when Arbel Rom muffed a second-quarter punt and gave the hosts a fresh set of downs, which they turned into the first points of the game just three plays later on Mishaan's eight-yard rumble into the endzone.
After Haifa evened the score, Big Blue took its ensuing possession and marched down the field into the Underdogs' red-zone. However, the drive stalled when Lavi lost a fumble to Erez Kaminski on what looked to be a momentum-changing play that would doom Jerusalem's upset bid, especially after a 33-yard hook-up from Ashkenazi to Kedmi gave Real Housing good position.
But the Jerusalem defense stood strong, as it had all day, and got the ball back without any damage done, to allow Bauman to orchestrate a game-winning drive. Less than a minute into the final quarter, Bauman found Rindenow for a 20-yard mini-rainbow that was taken to the house for the decisive score and, once Lavi converted again, a 16-8 lead that would hold up as final.
At the end of the day, Big Blue demonstrated that it still has a home-field hex on Haifa and got back to winning ways. While the two dates remaining on its schedule may not have any bearing on ITS place in the standings, its opponents, the Kings and Sabres, will be fighting for their postseason lives and the drama for both games will be at an all-time high. Besides, the Lions don't want to lose any of this newfound momentum that they have spent all season searching for, and so they, too, will be going all-out until the very end.
The Underdogs, as well, have their season-long supremacy at risk and have a lot of work to do before hosting the Pioneers next week in what is sure to be crazy regular-season finale for both clubs that could very well be a preview for the Israel Bowl just three weeks later.
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