SALT LAKE CITY -- With a third of the season behind them, the Utah Blaze (3-3) have struggled to find consistency early on, but a pair of consecutive wins -- including a crucial division victory over Spokane last weekend -- has fans excited that their team is poised to make another run at the postseason, and an Arena Bowl Championship.
At the moment however, the Blaze find themselves a game behind San Jose for last place in the National Conference West Division. Next on the slate is the heavy task of going on the road to face defending Arena Bowl champs, the Arizona Rattlers, on Saturday.
Arizona dominated the Blaze during the second week of the season at EnergySolutions Arena, handing Utah a 77-49 walloping during their home opener. It was also the Rattlers who last season dashed Utah's hopes of an Arena Bowl berth in the National Conference title game.
Coach Ron James says while the team struggled to find a rhythm through the first four games of the season, he's starting to see glimpses of the record-setting Utah team of 2012.
"I really thought coming off our bye was the turning point," James said of the two weeks the team had off through mid-April. "We really started to play more like ourselves. These last two wins have really been good...but the next six games are vital for us to set the table for the last half of the season."
Utah's offense thus far has been a frustrating dichotomy of explosive scoring coupled with flurries of turnovers and penalties.
Utah leads the league in total offense averaging 323.2 yards per game with 46 touchdowns. Defending MVP quarterback Tommy Grady has also positioned the Blaze with a league-leading passing offense that, over six games, has gone 151-of-247 for 1828 passing yards and 39 scores.
The problem? Turnovers, penalties, and consistently undisciplined play.
"We're still creating a lot of our own misfortune," James said after Saturday's narrow 52-48 win. "We're making it harder than it needs to be."
Penalties have accounted for plenty of Utah's early woes as the Blaze have racked up 57 infractions for 379 yards -- their 63.2 penalty yards per game average is the worst in league.
Grady is third in the league in passing averaging 283.5 yards per game, but last in the league in terms of efficiency with a 96.1 rating, largely due to his league leading 15 interceptions.
Grady's favorite target continues to be Utah State alumnus Aaron Lesue who, despite missing the first two games of the season, is fourth in the league for receiving, averaging 9.5 catches per game and 13.5 yards per catch. He's also third in the league in scoring with 12 touchdowns and an average of 19 points per game.
"We need to be a little more efficient on offense and start taking care of those turnovers," Lesue said. "Last year we got to a point where we were literally unstoppable on offense. I think with a few little things we'll get back to that."
On the defensive side, Utah isn't getting quite the same production from their pass-rush compared with this time last season, but have still managed to rack up 10 sacks for 49 yards during the first six games.
That being said, opponents are still converting nearly 30 percent of fourth down attempts, and the pass defense is allowing 244.7 yards per game
The Blaze secondary has picked up over the last two games however, anchored by defensive backs Maurice Leggett and David Hyland. On Tuesday, Highland was named the Riddell Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the team's win over the Spokane.
"David has gotten better and better every week and I can't say enough about what he's done for the ball club over the last two weeks," James said.
Against the Shock, Hyland (6-0, 190, Morehead State) led all defenders with 6.5 total tackles while adding four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. In addition, Hyland also handled kickoff return duties for Utah, gaining 51 yards on four attempts.
In his second season with the Blaze, Hyland has delivered 31 total tackles with three interceptions, nine pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in six games.
"It's just growing as a team," Hyland said of the early season struggles. "We've really come together this past week though and started playing as one."
Leggett leads the team with 33 tackles, averaging 5.5 a game. He's also forced a pair of fumbles from his defensive back position.
This week the Blaze also added former NFL offensive lineman George "Duke" Robinson, adding another level of protection for Grady.
Robinson enjoyed a four-year career in the National Football League after being selected in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
"Duke is an outstanding addition to our offensive front," James said. "He has the size and strength to be an effective offensive lineman in the Arena Football League. He knows Tommy (Grady) well from their days at Oklahoma, so he's a natural fit in the offense and in the locker room."
Utah travels to Phoenix on Saturday to take on the division-leading Arizona Rattlers, before returning home on May 18 to host the Iowa Barnstormers.
* PLAYER NOTES: The Blaze have acquired defensive end Julian Miller and defensive back Josh Ferguson from the Spokane Shock in exchange wide receiver Brandon Thompkins, the franchise announced today.
In addition to finalizing the trade, Utah also agreed to terms with free agent wide receiver Anthony Jackson.
After participating in training camp with the Blaze, Ferguson (5-8, 180, UTEP) spent the first seven weeks of the season on injured reserve before being released last week.
Ferguson started 19 games over the past two seasons for the Shock, posting 104 tackles (89 solo) with two tackles for loss, two interceptions, 18 pass breakups and one fumble recovery.
Miller (6-4, 265, West Virginia) played in a school record of 52 games at West Virginia U., where he ranks second in school history with 27.5 career sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss. Miller signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and now enters his rookie season in the Arena Football League.
Jackson (6-5, 230) played in five games as a rookie with the Pittsburgh Power last season, seeing action at wide receiver and Jack linebacker.
Thompkins (5-10, 190, Arkansas State) heads back to Spokane, where he played the previous two seasons. Thompkins recorded 27 receptions for 345 yards and four touchdowns in four games with the Blaze, but was inactive during the past two contests.