MUSKEGON – It appears the Battle Creek Smoke players were dancing on their bench just a little bit early on Saturday night.
The visitors from the southern part of the state had just intercepted a West Michigan Ironmen pass with 30 seconds left in the game and led 31-27.
All they needed was a few yards and a first down to kill the clock, upset the Ironmen and walk away with a win in their very first game as an arena football franchise.
But arena football is fast-moving game. A lot of things can happen in 30 seconds, and they certainly did.
The Ironmen defense rose up and got the ball back on downs at the Battle Creek 10-yard line with 13 seconds left.
On the first play from scrmmage, quarterback Alex Carder threw what appeared to be a game-ending interception in the end zone, and the visitors’ celebration intensified. But there was a flag on the play and the Ironmen got the ball back with seven seconds remaining.
Carder’s next pass was incomplete, but the one after that was right on the mark. The veteran quarterback connected with Jon Ross in the middle of the end zone as the clock ran out, giving the Ironmen a thrilling 33-31 victory over their newest rival in a Great Lakes Arena Alliance game.
The Ironmen improved to 2-0 on the season while Battle Creek fell to 0-1.
“They were taking away our high-motion man,” Carder said about the final TD on the final play of the game. “So we had to get something delayed underneath and we finally found a soft spot. It’s better when you have to earn it!
“The wonderful thing about arena football is it’s never over until there are three zeroes on the clock. The plays happen so fast.”
Ross said there was no panic, even when the Ironmen were down to one final play to try to steal the win.
“I knew the last play was going to be a cutting situation,” he said. “I had to create something to get open and once I did, I just took it because I knew my quarterback was going to find me.
“Even though we were down, we weren’t going to give up, we were going to fight until that final buzzer.”
For the past two weeks, Ironmen head coach Nate Smith has been promising that the new Battle Creek team would be a much more difficult opponent than the Ohio Blitz, a team the Ironmen beat 81-6 in their season opener.
That definitely turned out to be the case.
The teams traded touchdowns for most of the game, with the largest point spread being eight points.
Willie Shanks opened the scoring on the opening kickoff with a 37-yard touchdown return, and the PAT gave the Ironmen a quick 7-0 lead.
Battle Creek answered right away with a touchdown pass, tying the game at 7-7, then Carder hit Ross with a six-yard TD toss and the Ironmen led 14-7 after one quarter.
Battle Creek scored again early in the second quarter, then Carter found Keondre Banks-Craig with a two-yard touchdown pass, giving ethe Ironmen a 21-13 lead at halftime.
The Smoke scored a TD with 8:40 left in the third quarter, then Banks-Craig had to turn around to haul in a slightly underthrown ball from Carder on a 35-yard TD pass with 7:47 remaining in the quarter.
Battle Creek finished the third quarter with a touchdown and West Michigan led 27-25 headed into the fourth.
Both teams had trouble finding the end zone in the fourth quarter.
The Ironmen turned the ball over on downs, then West Michigan’s Alje Buiter picked off a BC pass in the end zone to spoil a Smoke drive.
The Ironmen turned the ball over on downs again on their next possession when Carder was sacked on fourth down, then Battle Creek finally scored with 1:17 remaining and led 31-27 after a two-point conversion try failed.
The Ironmen got the ball back with lots of time, but Battle Creek intercepted a Carder pass with 30 seconds left, seemingly sealing up the victory.
But the visitors could not get a necessary first down. Their chances were spoiled when West Michigan’s Nick DeKracker sacked the BC quarterback with 13 seconds left, giving the Ironmen the ball back at the visitor’s 10 and leading to Carder’s game-winning throw to Ross.
Carder was 13-for-27 for 148 yards through the air but threw two interceptions and was sacked four times. Banks-Craig caught eight pass passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
“I would say it was a heck of a game,” Coach Smith said. “It had everything, with some defensive stops, great offensive plays, and the rules of the indoor game came into play. It was a great crowd and a great night for Muskegon and arena football.”
WM 13:27 – Willie Shanks 37-yard kick return (Ben Townshend kick good) WM 7, BC 0
BC 9:47 – Edward Thomas 25-yard catch from Darren Daniels (Jim Terry kick good) WM 7, BC 7
WM 7:19 – John Ross 6-yard catch from Alex Carder (Ben Townshend kick good) WM 14, BC 7
BC 13:03 – Mason Partlow 3-yard catch from Darren Daniels (kicked failed) WM 14, BC 13
WM 10:06 – Keyondre Banks-Craig 2-yard catch from Alex Carder (Ben Townshend kick good) WM 21, BC 13
BC 8:40 – Mason Partlow 1-yard catch from Daniels (kick blocked) WM 21, BC 19
WM 7:47 – Keyondre Banks-Craig 35-yard catch from Alex Carder (kick failed) WM 27, BC 19
BC 3:54 – Mason Partlow 10-yard catch from Daniels (run failed) WM 27, BC 25