Brandon Rankin looked at the offensive guard in front of him and saw an advantage.
Adam Shackleford caught the eye of the holder, then faked like he was going to call a timeout.
On the final play of Saturday night’s 42-39 victory over the visiting Iowa Barnstormers, there was a lot of strategic thinking going on for the victorious Tri-Cities Fever.
Iowa kicker Josh Gable had lined up to kick a 27-yard field goal with 4.5 seconds remaining in the game, a kick that would force the Indoor Football League contest into overtime.
But Shackleford called consecutive timeouts before the play was to begin in what looked like an attempt to freeze Gable. The second one was called right before the snap, and Gable went on to kick the ball wide left.
Shackleford, however, wasn’t trying to freeze Gable.
“My timeouts were to give my defensive linemen a rest,” Shackleford said.
The Fever defensive line has been banged up for much of the second half of this season, and in the final 9 minutes of Saturday’s game, Iowa was running roughshod over Tri-Cities in a furious rally.
Those timeouts enabled the Fever D-line, including Rankin, a chance to collect their breath.
As the Barnstormers lined up for a third time, Shackleford looked like he was going to call a timeout again, standing on the sideline.
“I saw the holder look at me, so I did this (got ready to make the timeout sign), then he turned around to look at the snapper,” said Shackleford. “I was trying to mess with his head.”
And that’s when Rankin noticed what the guy across the line from him was doing.
“The offensive guard that was in front of me, he lined up in a four-point stance,” said Rankin. “He hadn’t done that all night, so I thought he might be thinking I was going to bull-rush him. So I swim-moved by him and it opened up like the Red Sea.”
Rankin ran right at Gable and blocked the Iowa kicker’s game-tying attempt, clinching the victory for the Fever.
With the win, the Fever finished the IFL regular season with an 8-6 record. The team has this week off as a bye, then prepares for a June 26 road playoff game at Nebraska. It will be for the Intense Conference championship.
Saturday’s victory also helped Tri-Cities avoid a four-game losing streak to finish the regular season.
“We had to win this game,” Shackleford said. “I felt we had to for our team to have a chance at success in the playoffs. Winning this close of a game gives us some confidence going into the playoffs.”
BLACKMAN GETS THE CALL: Shackleford had planned on giving recently acquired Patrick McCain the start at quarterback Saturday night. McCain had come off the bench in his first game with the Fever on June 6 at Sioux Falls — replacing starter Dominique Blackman — and performed well, tossing two touchdown passes and rushing for another.
But McCain’s knee had swelled up this week, and it wasn’t until late in the week that Blackman was back as starter.
“I didn’t know until the walk-through,” said Blackman. “I give glory to God. I got a shot. I just tried to prepare myself. I’m working two jobs and trying to play football, so I took some time off my jobs this week to prepare for the game.”
Blackman played well, going 22-for-30 for 154 yards and three TD passes. He also rushed for a team-best 65 yards.
But getting his first victory for the Fever was his favorite stat.
“The win was huge,” he said. “Just the momentum going into the playoffs is great. There are a lot of situational things we can take from this game to make us get better.”
PRATT NO LONGER WITH TEAM: Long-time assistant coach Cleveland Pratt was fired in the middle of the week leading up to the game.
It was a tough decision, said Fever owner Teri Carr, who said she was the one who made the call.
“He’s a good person,” said Carr. “I appreciate all of his service and years to the organization. But since Game 4 of this season, our special teams this year have been atrocious. We’ve been asking for it to get fixed, but it hasn’t. We needed to make a change going into the playoffs to give our team a chance.”
THORNTON BACK WITH TEAM: Former Fever linebacker Joe Thornton made his triumphant return to the Toyota Center, playing for Tri-Cities.
Thornton was in on three tackles, one for a loss, and a pass breakup. He also cut off a couple of kickoffs in the up man position to give the Fever good field position. And he scored the team’s first touchdown on a 1-yard dive.
“It’s my only chance to play running back since high school,” said Thornton, who was a first-team IFL all-star last season as a linebacker for the Colorado Ice. “Tonight felt good. I’m happy to come in and help this team. I’m a veteran guy. We kind of let off the gas at the end tonight. Our main goal is to finish strong. But I’ll do what I can to help this defense out.”
FINAL TOYOTA CENTER GAMES: Fever receiver Steven Whitehead had made it clear this week that this was going to be his final game playing in the Toyota Center. The league’s leading receiver caught seven passes for 55 yards, and he will continue to play for the Fever in the playoffs on the road.
But he said he’s done playing football after this season concludes so he can concentrate on his son and his business, Elite Ambitions Training.
Another player who said he was calling it quits after this season is Fever defensive back Rudell Crim, who was All-IFL first team in 2013.
“It’s been a pleasure playing here,” Crim said after the game. “It’s hard walking out of this building for the last time, knowing I won’t play another game here. But it’s time to move on with my career and working in the community.”
Crim works for the Boys and Girls Club and plans on staying in the Tri-Cities.
NOTES: Iowa falls to 5-8 and finishes the season at home Saturday against Green Bay. ... Carr said the attendance for the home finale was 3,154. ... LB Leon Jackson led the Fever with nine tackles and an interception. Crim was next with seven tackles. ... Javicz Jones led Iowa with 10 tackles, while DB T.J. Simmons had nine. ... Both Jackson and Troy Sanders had interceptions for the Fever in the end zone, saving touchdowns. And Aaron Foster picked off another pass that he returned 30 yards for a score. ... Key stat for Fever on Saturday: no turnovers given up on offense. Also the defense forced three turnovers. For the season, the team’s turnover margin finished at an even 0. ... While the team is off this week as the final weekend of regular-season play concludes with two games on Saturday, Shackleford will have the Fever practice in the Toyota Center on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before giving the players next weekend off.