The Mike's Place Tel Aviv Sabres knew what they had to get done on Saturday and nothing - not a 0-6 record coming in, not a well-prepared opponent with a controlling 1-0 series edge, not even a minor monsoon - could prevent them from accomplishing their goal in a memorable night of rain-soaked football in the Kraft Family IFL.
When it was all said and done, the Sabres notched their first win of the season in a 32-14 instant-classic over the Blue Sun Music Jerusalem Kings at Kiryat Shalom, a result that blows things wide open in the league's playoff race heading into the final month.
Mike's Place co-players of the game Hammude Kassas and Liran Hovav each had a pair of touchdowns, including a diving TD grab by Hovav on the final play to secure a desperately-needed six extra points, to spur the Sabres to triumph for the first time in 2009.
And what a triumph it was!
As torrential rain pelted the field and lightning flashed across the sky, Tel Aviv rode an inspired performance from its entire defense, combined with an offensive unit that somehow strung together five separate scoring drives in horrible conditions, to come out on top of a game that it simply had to win, and had to win big to now become a postseason probable participant.
The 18-point margin of victory for the Sabres on Saturday night ensured that the now 1-1 series tie between them and Kings is also knotted in terms of the next level of the tie-breaker system, that being point differential among each other.* Looking at the next category in line (PD among the other teams in the league), it emerges that Tel Aviv, with their victory, leapfrogged the expansion Kings and, for now, holds a slim eight-point advantage in the race for the final postseason spot.
*the IFL caps this number at 14, a total margin that both the Sabres and Kings covered in their wins against each other, thus nullifying the use of this level of tie-breaker between these two teams.
With both the Kings and the Sabres now sitting at 1-6, and each with one game remaining against the 2-3 Big Blue Jerusalem Lions (who, by a quirk in the schedule, still have three games left), the possibilities are quite extensive in terms of which two of the three clubs will qualify for the playoffs.
The maiden victory for Tel Aviv was the culmination of at least 2-3 games of solid forward progress for the suddenly-intriguing club. Without making too much of just one win, the Sabres have now jumped the biggest hurdle on any team's early road to success and they could emerge as a surprising force to be reckoned with.
They are playing as well right now as they have at any point in their two-year history and the players' confidence certainly matches that of the members of the two top teams in the league, the Real Housing Haifa Underdogs and the Dancing Camel Modi'in Pioneers. The coaching staff on both sides of the field had their teams ready for Saturday night's meeting, which kicked off under a light but steady drizzle. Tel Aviv seemed to come out a little more driven than Jerusalem, understandable as the Sabres' season was on the line and they weren't going down without a fight. The game plan for both teams from the start was not to put the ball in the air and just two passes total were attempted in the first quarter, both incompletions by the Kings' Joseph Marticius.
Ariel Back got the nod for Jerusalem as the primary option in the running department while Kassas was the focal point of the Sabres' ground game. While Back couldn't seem to get much going on the slippery playing surface, the powerful Tel Aviv ball carrier, Kassas, managed to power his way forward all night, breaking tackles and barreling into the hole for extra yards after initial contact with the Jerusalem defenders and finishing with 115 yards on the ground on 19 attempts. While he didn't score the first touchdown of the game, he set it up, picking up a first-and-goal for the Sabres that Dror Snapir finished off with a six-yard plow into the endzone for a 6-0 Sabres lead.
Just over two minutes into the second quarter, Kassas would stake the Sabres to a two-score lead when he punctuated a Tamir Elterman 15-yard run with a similar length dash of his own for his second touchdown of the year. He would add to that total before the half was done by putting the finishing touches on a masterful, clock-eating, 14-play, five first-down drive orchestrated by Elterman and bull-dozing into the endzone for six more yards and a 20-0 Sabres advantage at the interval.
The second half brought with it a downpour of seismic proportions, but the players' will and determination on both sides was undeterred by the rain. The Kings still believed they could pull out the game, while also knowing that a slim loss was vastly better than a blowout, and the Sabres didn't want to let up one bit.
However, an Elterman interception in the red zone of the Kings on the first drive of the third quarter swung some momentum back in Jerusalem's favor. It would pounce on the opportunity and march down the field on a 12- play, six-minute drive for its first points of the day on a Marticius five-yard keeper to make the score 20-6, where it would stay until the fourth.
With the winds howling and the water falling in sheets, making visibility quite difficult, the final frame began with the teams trading possessions back and forth, amid a Kassus lost fumble for the Sabres and six incomplete Marticius passes for the Kings. The Jerusalem QB would not have a great day in the air, going 3-14 for a paltry 15 yards, although even Dan Marino himself couldn't have thrown the ball much better in Kiryat Shalom on Saturday night.
With just over two minutes left, the Sabres sparked what would be a final flurry of late-game action when a Hovav reverse on a second-and-goal put Tel Aviv back on top by 20. It looked like that would be the end, but the Kings wisely used their timeouts and the sideline to fly down the field and score on a Back two-yard plunge, followed by a Big Mike patented two-point fall-into-the-endzone conversion, and it appeared that the Kings would lose, although maintain the tie-breaker advantage, with under 30 seconds left However, Elterman and Hovav would have the last laugh. After a decent kickoff return by the speedy Tel Aviv receiver/punt/kick specialist set up the Sabres at half time, a last second desperation heave into the endzone was hauled in by the veteran for his second TD of the game and seventh of the season, to give his team the requisite spread and swing the playoff pendulum back to the Sabres' direction.
For Tel Aviv, in addition to the offensive stars of the game, Hovav and Kassas (as well as the typically stellar Elterman), the defensive trio of Daniel Nisman, Yaniv Yaron and Josh Klein were at their hell-breaking best to anchor the unit into making crucial stands throughout the contest. Each participated in double-digit tackles for the game. For the Kings, even in a losing effort, Eli Boymelgreen stood out for his outstanding play. Not only did the diminutive playmaker return two punts and a kickoff for 36 yards, but he also got the game's only interception and took part in an eye-opening nine tackles. He undoubtedly would trade in his impressive numbers for the win, however.
It now comes down to one final game for each of the lower-tiered teams in the regular season, both against the Lions. First, though, the Lions host the first-place Underdogs in a rematch of last year's Israel Bowl when the IFL next kicks off this Thursday at 7 p.m. at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem.
One thing is for sure. There is plenty of football left to be played, and with all the teams still in the mix, the fun is just getting started!
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