Saturday, August 03, 2013

Soul edge Predators, reach conference championship game

By John McMullen

PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia Soul defense, which had not been able to stop Aaron Garcia and the high-powered Orlando offense for most of the game, rose up late in the fourth quarter to fuel a hard fought 59-55 win over Orlando, earning the Soul a spot in the American Conference Championship Game next weekend.

Philadelphia stopped Garcia and Company on two occasions in the final 2 1/2 minutes, culminating with a strip sack that forced Garcia to cough up the football with 30 seconds left. Rookie defensive lineman Tyron Hurst recorded the sack, forced the fumble and snatched up the ball to seal the game.

"This was a great bounce-back game," said Soul head coach Clint Dolezel.  "It wasn't easy, but fortunately our defense made huge stops for us.  Orlando played great football tonight.  We kept trying to stop the ball, but Garcia played some great ball tonight himself.  Our goal was to win this game, and that's just what we did.  I'm proud of these guys."

The Soul will now travel to Jacksonville, which roared back to beat Tampa Bay on Saturday, next weekend for a berth in Arena Bowl XXVI.

Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh completed 24-of-34 passes for 325 yards with six touchdowns and one interception in the game, while Andrae Thurman had 12 receptions for 131 yards and three TDs. Emery Sammons caught two touchdowns and Larry Brackins snared one, while fullback Derrick Ross ran for two scores.

The 42-year-old Garcia was brilliant for most of the night, completing 18-of-28 passes for 296 yards with six TDs and one pick for the Predators.

The game shaped up as a mismatch on paper. The Preds finished the regular season four games under the .500 mark and the Soul were six games over, sweeping Orlando in the regular season. Despite Orlando's lackluster 7-11 record, though, the team boasted the top passing attack in the AFL coming in behind 18-year veteran Garcia, who was named the AFL's third best player in history during the league's silver
anniversary season in 2012. Meanwhile, perhaps no team knows Philadelphia better because Orlando head coach Doug Plank led the Soul to an Arena Bowl XXV berth last season.

The Predators played frontrunner for the entire first half and the Soul were unable to grab their first lead of the game until the first offensive play of the third quarter.

Sammons used forward-motion to get loose from the slot and get behind the Orlando defense for a 34-yard TD. The advantage was short-lived, however, as Garcia used a quick hitch to find Jarvis Williams, who raced through the Soul defense for a 29-yard score.

The see-saw continued from there as Raudabaugh found Thurman on a corner route for a 17-yard TD and Garcia quickly answered with a 8-yard scoring pass to T.T Toliver.

Philadelphia entered the final frame with a 52-48 lead after Larry Brackins took a quick hitch 20 yards for a TD but Garcia refused to go away again and connected with Maurice Williams on a 10-yard score early in the fourth quarter.

Thurman's third TD of the game, an 8-yard outlet from Raudabaugh put the Soul back in front 59-55 with 8:01 left in the game and proved to be the game-winner.

Garcia, with the aid of a Bryan Robinson offsides penalty, did a brilliant job of milking the clock until the Predators were stopped on downs inside the Philadelphia 5-yard line with 2 1/2 minutes left after Orlando fullback Mykel Benson was strung out by the Soul defense.

The Preds' defense gave Garcia one last chance but Hurst, a rookie from Delaware State, made sure things would end in the Soul's favor.

You can generally take Philadelphia's temperature as a team by charting turnovers and Raudabaugh committed a career-high five in the team's regular season finale on July 27, an ugly 42-28 setback at San Antonio. A huge Raudabaugh first quarter miscue had the Soul scuffling in the first half.

Garcia struck on the game's first offensive play, hitting Prechae Rodriguez in stride for a 45-yard touchdown. The Soul's LaRico Stevenson seemed to be expecting help over the top and dropped coverage on the play making it an easy pitch-and-catch for Garcia. Raudabaugh had no intention of allowing the Preds to capture early momentum, though, and answered on his first play, connecting with Sammons down the left sideline for a 43-yard score. Orlando DB bit on a Raudabaugh pump fake and Sammons simple raced by him.

After Garcia kept things going by finding Toliver in front of Rayshaun Kizer for a 22-yard TD, momentum turned on what turned out to be Raudabaugh's only big mistake. The Miami-Ohio product forced one to Thurman at midfield that Tanner Varner undercut and intercepted. Moments later Benson plunged in from the one and Orlando had a two TD lead.

"It's a great bounce-back game for him after last week," said Dolezel. "That's just who he is. He's got a great heart, he shrugs things off, and he deals with me yelling at him 24/7. Anybody who can do that is strong enough to come back from interceptions like he had last week. I wasn't worriedl."

An 8-yard Thurman TD reception brought Philadelphia to within 21-14 at the end of the first quarter.

The Soul defense still needed a stop to get back into it , however, and Garcia had other ideas, using a slip screen to hit 310-pound Matt Spanos for a 7-yard TD to start the second quarter scoring. Orlando then went for the kill with an onside kick but Philadelphia was able to cover and convert when fullback Ross ran it in from the 1-yard line.

Garcia kept the pressure on by going over the top for Williams for a 46-yard gain inside the Soul one. Benson quickly converted his second TD of the game although Robinson was able to block the conversion and the Preds had a 13-point cushion.

Ross' second TD of the quarter set up the Soul's first attempt at an onside kick but Orlando easily recovered the Carlos Martinez squib. Garcia, however, finally proved he was mortal, underthrowing a fade to in the back of the end zone that the lengthy James Romain was able to pick off.

Philadelphia didn't have enough time to cash in, though, and was forced to settle for a 25-yard Martinez field goal, entering intermission staring at a 34-31 deficit.

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