In what is already a season of franchise firsts, the Utah Blaze will try to add two more to the list tomorrow night in Phoenix.
The first being a conference title, the second, an appearance at ArenaBowl XXV and a shot at the national crown.
Utah (13-6) will take on the Arizona Rattlers (14-5) at the US Airways Center with kickoff scheduled for 8 p.m. The winner advances to ArenaBowl XXV and will face the American Conference champion in New Orleans on Friday, Aug. 10th.
Utah is coming off a 35-34 upset of the No. 1 conference seed San Antonio Talons. Arizona moved on to the conference round by beating division-rival San Jose, 51-48.
Saturday’s matchup will be the third meeting between Utah and Arizona with each team logging wins during the regular season.
In their first meeting, Utah surrendered a season-high scoring total while losing to the Rattlers, 86-70. Rob Keefe took over duties as the defensive coordinator, and since that point the Blaze have allowed just 49.4 points per game while posting a 7-2 record (including postseason).
That streak included a Week 18 contest in which the Blaze traveled to Phoenix and handed the Rattlers a 62-49 loss.
In the two regular season games against Arizona, Blaze quarterback Tommy Grady combined to for 612 yards and 16 touchdowns while completing over 66 percent of his passing attempts.
Wideout Tysson Poots led the receiving corps in both matchups, hauling in 21 passes for 264 yards and six scores. Aaron Lesue also delivered strong performances, registering a total of 14 receptions for 211 yards and seven touchdowns.
Defensive lineman Marcus Pittman leads an Arizona defense that features a front line comprised of strong, physical players. Pittman’s logged 8.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles-for-loss.
A Blaze offensive line that surrendered four sacks in its midseason loss to the Rattlers will be tested in allowing Grady time to find an offensive rhythm.
“Pass protection is at a premium whenever you play Arizona,” said President and Head Coach Ron James. “They (Arizona) are one of the most physical defensive fronts in the League.”
Behind an opposing defensive line the Rattlers secondary includes DB Arkeith Brown, a strong defender who posted 10 interceptions during the regular season and led the AFL with 214 yards on interception returns.
Last week against San Jose, Brown picked off a pass by quarterback Mark Grieb and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. Defensive back’s Virgil Gray, Marquis Floyd and linebacker Kevin McCullough make up the rest of the unit and combined to register 16 interceptions in 2012 (including postseason).
In the quarterfinals playoff round against San Antonio, the Blaze defense put forth its most impressive performance to date holding Talons to a season-low 34 points while forcing five turnovers with one interception and four stops on fourth-down attempts.
“We played an outstanding defensive game against one of the AFL’s all-time great quarterbacks this past weekend,” James said. “The ability to play sound defense in the postseason can often be the difference between playing in the ArenaBowl and watching at home.”
Mortensen leads a Blaze front four that includes two 2011 All-Arena linemen in Michael Lewis and Caesar Rayford. The duo has combined for 19 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss in 2012.
Utah’s secondary will need another big game facing off against decorated Rattlers WR Maurice Purify. Purify combined for 326 yards and eight touchdowns on 17 catches in his previous two outings against Utah, and recorded 10 receptions for 134 yards and four scores last week against the SaberCats.
Arizona QB Nick Davila is protected by an offensive line that gave up just nine sacks during the regular season. The Blaze allowed Davila to throw for 372 yards and 11 touchdowns in their first meeting, but held the quarterback to 316 yards and four scores with two interceptions the second time around.
While James is confident in his team’s ability to play with any club in the league, he knows they’ll need another impeccable performance to get to New Orleans.
“The Arizona offense is a veteran bunch led by one of the best quarterbacks in the game,” he said. “They have been explosive throughout the regular season and we will have to play at a high level this weekend if we intend to move forward.”