SALT LAKE CITY — During a season already full of shattered records, the 2012 Utah Blaze can notch another big milestone and a home field advantage in next week’s playoff game with a win tonight against arguably the best team in the Arena Football League.
A win against the Philadelphia Soul (14-3) would clinch the first division title in franchise history as Utah, now sporting the same overall record as the Arizona Rattlers (12-5), hold the tie-breaker thanks to a superior Western Division record.
Adding to the list of accolades, earlier this week three Blaze standouts earned honors in the AFL’s top 25 players of the 2012 regular season with quarterback Tommy Grady taking the top overall spot.
Grady (6-7, 245, Utah) has already set single-season AFL records for passing touchdowns and completions. The 6-foot-7 former University of Utah shot caller needs just 173 passing yards and three passing attempts to log all-time marks in those categories as well.
Overall Grady has gained 5,579 yards with 137 touchdowns and 20 interceptions on 483-of-701 passing (68.9 percent), adding another 62 yards and seven scores on 38 carries. He sits atop the list for the Russell Athletic Offensive Player of the Year and National Guard MVP of the Year.
The Blaze QB knows is confident they can handle Philadelphia if they can hang on to the ball.
“Every time we win we have less turnovers than the other team,” Grady said. “You’re going to have them every once in a while but we’re moving the ball good so if we can keep them to a minimum we’ll be in good shape.”
Grady’s favorite target this season has been Utah State alumnus Aaron Lesue who has lit up opposing defenses all season long.
Lesue set a new single-season franchise record for touchdown receptions and for the year has compiled 149 receptions for 1,725 yards and 53 touchdowns. He’s also a candidate for the Russell Athletic Offensive Player of the Year award and the Cutters Receiver of the Year award.
Tysson Poots is another receiver that has burst onto the scene in his rookie season, quickly proving himself a receiving threat.
Despite playing in just 10 games, Poots has already logged 98 receptions for 1,072 yards and 28 touchdowns. He ranks second in the AFL in receptions per game (9.80), fifth in receiving yards per game (107.2) and seventh in scoring (17.6 ppg) and is a strong contender for the NET10 Rookie of the Year award.
Poots knows if Utah can play their game, there aren’t many teams in the league that stand a chance.
“We just have to keep working in practice,” he said. “We practice like we play. It’s fast paced and like a game every time. It’s what we need to keep doing to keep getting better and have confidence in what we’re doing.”
Utah will have their hands full with Philly QB Dan Raudabaugh, who operates a potent Soul offense that ranks first in the Arena Football League in scoring with an average of 68.2 points per game.
Raudabaugh has thrown for 4,678 total yards with 110 touchdowns and 18 interceptions on 352-of-525 passing (67.1%) while adding two more rushing scores. Philadelphia has allowed the fewest sacks in the League, giving up just five on the season.
Philadelphia also boasts a strong running game led by FB Derrick Ross. Ross leads the AFL in nearly every rushing category with 564 yards and 30 touchdowns on 133 attempts. As a team, Philly places atop the League charts with an average of 42.0 yards per game on the ground.
Utah will have to continue the dominating defensive play they’ve demonstrated during the last half of the season, especially in limiting the productivity of opposing quarterbacks.
Over the past five contests, opposing passers have managed an average of just 264 yards and 3.6 touchdowns per game, completing only 57.8 percent of their attempts. The performance marks a major defensive shift that took place when the Blaze hired defensive coordinator Rob Keefe after a three-game losing skid where the Blaze allowed 220 points and gave up 980 yards through the month of May.
Middle linebacker Michael Lewis’ team record 12.5 season sacks (third best in the league) has been a big influence in forcing opposing quarterbacks into difficult decisions and the Blaze also sit in third with the most team sacks in the league (17).
Today’s matchup should prove a good test of a Utah team that, according to team president and coach Ron James “is firing on all cylinders.”
And will prove pivitol heading into the playoffs next weekend.
“We’re optimistic going into the playoffs knowing we’re know that we’re already in,” he said. “We just need to make sure we clean up our home field advantage and have that for at least one game.”