In a game with major playoff implications, it was the Soul’s defense that made the difference Monday night.
Needing a win to get back to .500 and remain in the playoff hunt with two games remaining, the Soul (8-8) defeated the Orlando Predators (8-7) 42-35, despite scoring just twice after halftime. The Soul are currently a half-game back in the wild-card race, but they sit behind two teams -- Orlando and Tampa Bay, who are tied atop the South Division in the American Conference.
With their offense struggling for much of the second half, the Soul’s defense responded, preventing the Predators from scoring on their first four possessions after halftime.
“[The defense] was awesome,” head coach Clint Dolezel said. “I’ve been around Arena football for a long time and I haven’t seen many performances like that. The way they did it, putting pressure on the quarterback and making big plays in the secondary, it was a definite group effort by those eight [players] out there.
“It was not pretty, but sometimes you have to win them like that. We haven’t won a lot of close games, so it was good [to do that].”
After allowing four touchdowns in six first-half series -- the game was tied at 28 at halftime -- the Soul’s defense kept them in the game in the third quarter.
After linebacker Brandon Perkins ended the Predators’ opening drive of the second half with an interception off a deflected Jason Boltus pass, quarterback Dan Raudabaugh drove the Soul to the 16-yard line before badly missing a wide-open Anthony Jones for what would have been an easy touchdown.
Once again, the Soul’s defense answered, forcing another stop to give their offense a second chance. This time, Raudabaugh took advantage, hitting Jones from 20 yards out for a 35-28 lead.
“Sometimes you need someone to pick you up and the defense did a great job of answering the bell,” Raudabaugh said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better except for maybe more points from our end on offense.”
From that point, the Soul shut down Orlando’s next two drives; the latter was highlighted by a diving deflection by defensive back Rayshaun Kizer on a deep pass in the end zone that prevented the Predators from tying the score.
The Soul tacked on an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 20-yard strike from Raudabaugh to Markee White with 6:18 remaining. Orlando finally managed to score in the final two minutes on a pass from Boltus to Greg Carr in what ended up being its last possession of the game.
“There was definitely some momentum [on defense] in this game,” defensive end Teddy Jennings said. “We’re in a win-or-go-home situation and we’ve been that way for two weeks now.”
For most of the first half, it didn’t look like the Soul would need a big performance from their defense to secure the win.
LaRico Stevenson took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, and the Soul turned an early 14-0 lead into a 28-14 advantage. That was before the Predators scored two touchdowns with the help of a successful onside kick in the final two minutes to tie the game going into halftime.
“We’ve got to learn to put teams away and that’s the time to do it,” Dolezel said. “Offensively we struggled tonight for some reason and Dan was a little off. We’ve got to get that killer instinct back.”
Raudabaugh finished the game 14 for 25 passing with 193 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. White had five catches for 64 yards and three touchdowns and Jones added seven catches for 108 yards and a score.
Defensively, Jennings had two sacks to tie the franchise’s single-season record of 11. Boltus was just 22 of 42 for 308 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Following a bye next week, The Soul will face two playoff teams, the San Jose Sabercats (11-4) and the Pittsburgh Power (12-3), in their last two games.
The Soul still have a chance to make it back to the playoffs to compete for their third straight Arena Bowl appearance, though it won’t be easy.
“As long as we’re taking care of our business, then the opportunity is there for us to go to the playoffs,” Dolezel said. “I can promise you if we get in no one is going to want to play us.”