The Tri-Cities Fever fought its way into the locker room at halftime Saturday night at Toyota Center, trailing Billings 35-24.
A few breaks here, a few breaks there, and the Fever could be back in the game.
But while the Fever waited the final two quarters for one of its players to step up, the Outlaws already had their man.
Chris Dixon, a two-time Indoor Football League most valuable player, completed 14 of 18 passes for 146 yards and five touchdowns and ran for two more touchdowns to lift the defending champions to a 70-47 victory over Tri-Cities.
Dixon threw four touchdown passes in the second half alone, shredding a Fever secondary that seemed helpless to stop him. He hit receiver James Walton eight times for 114 yards and three touchdowns and remained elusive in the pocket, running for 39 yards on six carries.
But for Tri-Cities, it was another frustrating example of a game that could have gone its way but didn't. The loss dropped the Fever's record to 1-5.
"We didn't take advantage of this opportunity," said Tri-Cities coach Adam Shackleford, who isn't accustomed to losing after winning an af2 title last season with the Spokane Shock. "I thought we played three pretty good quarters of football, but we couldn't sustain it at the end."
One of Shackleford's game plans was to establish the run, something Tri-Cities didn't do in a 64-50 loss to Billings in Week 2. But the Fever looked strong from the get-go, as running back Tyson Thompson took the handoff on Tri-Cities' first play from scrimmage and scampered 28 yards off right tackle to tie the game at 7. Thompson, a former kick returner for the Dallas Cowboys, also opened the second half with a 30-yard TD run to cut the Outlaws' lead to 35-31.
Thompson finished with 64 yards on nine carries and also caught a second-half touchdown.
But the Fever couldn't quite find the balance between its running and passing game, as quarterback Andy Collins completed just 10 of 17 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game at halftime with a sore shoulder. He was replaced by Houston Lilliard, who looked good passing for two second-half touchdowns but couldn't quite create enough magic to get the offense going.
"We're not playing as one unit," said Jo Artist Ratti, who led Tri-Cities with six tackles. "There's three phases in football -- offense, defense and special teams -- and we all have to do our jobs."
Tri-Cities' defense worked hard to contain Dixon in the first half and had Billings pinned deep in its own territory on consecutive drives near the end of the second quarter. Trailing 28-22 with 6:20 left in the half, the Fever defense forced safeties on consecutive Billings' drives. The unit picked up four points, but more importantly, set the Fever up with another scoring opportunities.
After the first safety, Collins hit Kevin Heard for 17 yards down to the Billings 2-yard line, setting up first and goal with four chances to score. But Thompson and Collins failed to cross the plane on successive carries, then a fumbled snap set up a fourth-and-goal form the 3. Collins' pass into the end zone missed Brandon Copeland for what would have been a go-ahead score.
Kicker Brett Jaekle missed two field goals, adding insult to injury.
Billings got a break with 10:46 left in the game, when Dixon carried the ball on first-and-goal from the Tri-Cities 4-yard line and was hit hard at the goal line. He lost the ball, and his helmet, and the Fever appeared to recover the ball in the end zone. But after consulting on the play, referees ruled that there had been an inadvertent whistle on the play and that Dixon was down at the 1-yard line before the fumble.
"It was a weird call," said Fever defensive back Montavis Pitts. "I don't think the refs knew the ball was out."
Dixon followed the ruling with a 1-yard TD run to push the lead to 63-41.