Sabres, Pioneers primed for title bout

Tel Aviv clubs take out previously perfect Lions, resurgent Underdogs in smashmouth semis.

IFL  370 (photo credit: IFL)
IFL 370
(photo credit: IFL)
Israel Bowl V will be a top-marquee Tel Aviv derby in the capital, thanks to enthralling victories by both the Clal Tel Aviv Pioneers and Bourbon Street TA/Jaffa Sabres this past weekend in the Kraft Family IFL semifinals.
While the Sabres overcame an early Saturday scare at Neve Golan to dispatch Nemo’s Haifa Underdogs 34-12, the Pioneers pulled off the shocker of the weekend on Thursday night, going on the road to knock off the top-seeded Big Blue Jerusalem Lions, who had come in with an unblemished 10-0 record.
It wasn’t just that the 66-22 outcome was such a surprise – which it was, especially considering the 44-20 Lions’ conquest in the regular-season meeting between the clubs – but moreover, the nationally televised blowout differential in their club’s favor was not something even the most ardent Pioneers’ fan had dared to dream of.
“I am still stunned as to how this happened,” exclaimed forlorn Lions’ coach Yonah Mishaan after his team suffered the second consecutive 44-point upset at Kraft in as many weeks.
“They only passed the ball five times all night, and no matter how many guys I put up on the line, we couldn’t do anything to stop their run. It was pathetic out there, we definitely didn’t deserve to win and they did.”
Indeed, the Pioneers rumbled for 254 rushing yards and seven scores on the ground, led by 188 yards and four TDs from slasher Elan Bielas in just his third game playing running back this season.
Tel Aviv field generals Itay Ashkenazi and Asaf Gelber combined to go just 3-5 passing for 52 yards, with Ashkenazi’s only toss coming on a successful two-point conversion to Bielas.
Lions’ QB Chaim Schiff threw more interceptions (3) than touchdowns (2) and completed only six of his 28 passes, many of which were desperation long bombs after Jerusalem was already furiously trying to mount a comeback.
Meanwhile, Saturday night’s Sabres-Underdogs showdown got off to a pulsating start, with the visitors holding TAJ to a turnover-on-downs on the opening possession before storming down the field with three first-downs to set up a Chris Clark one-yard TD burst for the first points of the game.
Things settled down after that, with each team punting on their next time with the ball, before a trade-off of interceptions led to the Sabres to taking a lead they would not relinquish.
The hosts forced another Underdog punt before orchestrating a chain-moving drive that resulted in another touchdown, this one a 19-yarder through the air from Hakami to Jon Tzipori.
Haifa was, however, able to stymie the points-after to keep the deficit at just one score (14- 6), where things remained heading into the break.
The teams waged a scoreless third frame, a quarter highlighted by a pair of crucial fourthdown attempts by the Underdogs, both stopped agonizingly close to the first-down marker and resulting in pivotal turnovers when the teams were separated by just eight points.
The Sabres capitalized on the near-miss, taking the ensuing drive 55-yards to cross into the fourth quarter with Adam Zinker notching his second TD of the day from 13 yards out for a 20-6 Sabres’ advantage.
Not to have a fork stuck in them just yet, the ’Dogs got a long 34-yard kickoff return from Barak Katzir, and scored a minute later on a 19-yard dart up the sidelines from Ran Shani to pull back to within a score with almost 10 minutes left.
However, Jonathan Curran took back a dagger-in-the-heart 54-yard kickoff return TD immediately thereafter, with Motti Krauze hauling in the two-point convert for a 28-12 lead that caused Haifa to press the panic button.
The Underdogs did get the ball back four more times, however no team is going to make much hay with three possessions ending in interceptions and one ending in a punt.
A blocked field-goal just after the two-minute warning gave Haifa one last-ditch effort for the miracle comeback, but the third of Yeshurun’s four picks on the day (he completed four times as many passes to Sabres players as he did to his own teammates) set up one last insurance TD for TAJ, with Cory Zinker pounding in a six-yarder to close out the scoring and send the Sabres to their third straight Israel Bowl.
...and then there were two! The field of 10 has been pared down to the final combatants, both looking to be the first club in the five-year history of the IFL to be a multiple-time champion, with the Sabres taking their first title in 2010, and the Pioneers reigning supreme the previous year.
TAJ swept the season-series, winning 24-6 and 38-12, but all that goes out the window in Friday’s championship duel.
The numbers, stats and storylines can be discussed ad nauseum. But now it’s game time, the moment to strap up the cleats, don the helmets, and leave it all on the field.
Pioneers-Sabres. Israel Bowl V. Noon on Friday at Kraft Stadium.
Believe me, Tel Avivians and IFL fans around the country – it’ll be well worth the trip to Jerusalem!