All 4,700 seats in the Sioux Falls Arena will be filled tonight when the Sioux Falls Storm plays host to the Tri-Cities Fever in one of the most anticipated Indoor Football League games in the league’s short history.
And why not? The teams are a combined 17-0 this season — the Fever at 9-0.
Plus, it’s a rematch of the two teams who played in last season’s league championship, a 37-10 victory by the Storm.
So when the game kicks off at 5:05 p.m., all eyes in the league will be watching.
“I think we’re probably the two premier teams in this league,” said Storm coach Kurtiss Riggs. “Tri-Cities is a very talented team. They’re very much like us. They have a good mix of veterans with some talented new players. They find a way to win, with some tough games on the road. It’s never easy to beat a team four times in a season, but they did that with Everett. They go on the road and win a tough game in New Mexico.”
Meanwhile, Fever coach Adam Shackleford has said to be the best, you have to beat the best. And that’s what Sioux Falls has been the last few seasons.
“We’re using this game as a measuring stick to see where we are,” Shackleford said. “I’ve picked them No. 1 each week in the coaches’ poll, and until someone beats them it stays that way.”
Both teams’ success starts with their quarterbacks: Chris Dixon for Sioux Falls, and Houston Lillard for Tri-Cities.
“The quarterback play is going to be what everyone is talking about,” said Shackleford. “In my opinion, you have the two best quarterbacks in the league. Coach Riggs and I might be biased. But Chris Dixon has earned every award he’s gotten. If you look at elite quarterbacks in the league we have two of them.”
But Riggs makes a good point.
“I think (the quarterbacks) are key factors for both teams,” Riggs said. “They kind of have to play well though. It’s more about who is going to step up in the secondary roles.”
Another key will be the line play.
“Their defensive line against our offensive line and vice versa,” said Shackleford. “They have different guys on their defensive line this year. We have an all-new offensive front. Their offensive line has played together for a long time. They are obviously good and keep Chris protected.”
While Riggs has six of his eight starters back on offense, there are only three defensive starters back from last season’s title team.
“We’re quite a bit different this year on defense,” Riggs said. “This year we have a quicker style, but we have had a different lineup almost weekly in the defensive secondary. We’re kind of settling down. We’re still working through some kinks.”
Shackleford also believes the kicking game will play a big part in the contest: the Fever with Michael Taylor, who made all of his extra-point kicks last week in a 70-61 win over Everett; and the Storm’s Parker Douglass, who ranks among the league’s best in extra-point kicks.
But maybe the biggest factor lies within those 4,700 fans in a place Lillard calls one of the toughest places to play.
And Riggs knows what he has.
“We’re very appreciative of our fans,” Riggs said. “In some of the places Tri-Cities has played, there haven’t been that many fans. We think it’ll be a different atmosphere here.”
Shackleford believes his team will be able to handle the hostile crowd.
“This game,” he said, “if it’s played the way it should be, will come down to the last possession.”
By the numbers: The top two offenses in the league — Sioux Falls is No. 1, averaging 68.5 points. Tri-Cities averages 57.1. ... The Fever defense is No. 5, surrendering 42.4 points a game; the Storm is No. 6 at 43. ... The Storm’s Dixon is the top-ranked quarterback with a rating of 139.2. He also leads with 2,145 passing yards, and has a 41-to-4 TD pass-to-interception ratio. .. The Fever’s Lillard is ranked third at 114.0. He is fourth with 1,748 passing yards, and has a 41-to-6 ratio. ... Fever receiver Steven Whitehead is second in total yards with 986; teammate Dennis Kennedy is third at 984. ... Dixon ranks second in the league in rushing yardage, with 459. He’s also tied for firt with 16 rushing touchdowns. ... Kennedy is fifth with 372 rushing yards, and fifth with 12 rushing TDs. ... Whitehead is second in receiving with 60 catches, and fifth in receiving yards with 574. ... Storm receiver Carl Sims is third in receiving yards with 693. ... Both Whitehead and Sioux Falls receiver Clinton Solomon are tied for third with 18 TD catches. ... Storm kicker Parker Douglass is second in point-after-touchdown kicks at 91 percent (69 for 76). ... Korey Williams has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season for the Storm. ... Fever DB Lionell Singleton is tied for first with 10 interceptions and leads the league with nine pass breakups. ... Fever DE Jake Killeen is second in the league with 8.5 quarterback sacks.