- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 28, 2018

BALTIMORE — In a pass-happy Arena Football League, Arvell Nelson made plays with his legs. In a four-team playoff, a 2-10 team did the unthinkable.

The Washington Valor moved ahead of the Baltimore Brigade in the second quarter and hit the gas pedal to win ArenaBowl XXXI, 69-55, at Royal Farms Arena Saturday night.

Nelson, Washington’s quarterback, set an ArenaBowl record with five rushing touchdowns, four in the first half, and threw for 223 yards and three scores. He was named MVP of the game. Doug McNeil III finished with four total touchdowns for the Valor.

Brigade quarterback Randy Hippeard went 17-for-25 for 254 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

After an 0-7 start, interim head coach Benji McDowell helped the Valor win two of their last five regular-season games and upset the top-seeded Albany Empire in the semifinal round. The Brigade were the league’s second seed.

“These are two teams that were bottom of the barrel last year, playing in the championship this year,” McDowell said. “And you don’t get that way with luck and just by the guys that you have around you. You get that way by the things that you do, your beliefs and guys believing in you.”

Both teams, owned by Ted Leonsis’ firm Monumental Sports and Entertainment, were playing in their second season in the AFL and their first ArenaBowl.

Perhaps kids grow up dreaming of winning the Super Bowl, not the ArenaBowl. But players and coaches, celebrating after the game, said it was the best moment of their careers.

Benji picked me up in open tryouts two years ago and from that day he set high expectations,” defensive lineman Jake Payne said. “I had high expectations for us. It’s No. 1 (in his career) right now, but it’s not the end. We’ll keep moving forward.”

“It’s the highest level of football I’ve played at,” Nelson said. “At any sport or any level, winning the championship is the highest praise.”

Washington opened scoring on the first drive of the game. After a penalty set the Valor’s first and goal back to the 16, Nelson completed a pass to Reggie Gray on the left sideline bumper to advance to the 1-yard line. The quarterback snuck in on the next play.

Baltimore took just two plays from scrimmage to even the score. Randy Hippeard hit Quentin Sims for a 28-yard completion, setting up an 18-yard pass-and-catch to Brandon Collins on a crossing route in the end zone.

The Valor nearly had an electrifying touchdown late in the first quarter when Nelson scrambled out on fourth and 5 and flipped a pass to Josh Reese to race into the end zone. But officials ruled that Nelson had crossed the line of scrimmage — an illegal forward pass whether it’s the AFL or NFL.

The Brigade nearly capitalized in the second quarter as Hippeard aimed for a touchdown, but he just missed his target, the pass deflected off the bottom iron of the crossbar and Washington’s Svante Davenport caught it for an interception (his first of two in the game). The return set up Nelson’s second rushing touchdown, a 6-yarder to make it 14-7.

After Hippeard and Collins connected for their second touchdown, Washington went back to work. Nelson powered through two tacklers and carried in his third score from 14 yards out.

With a minute left in the half, the Valor pulled off an onside kick. Chris Duvalt recovered it on the run and took it 33 yards downfield, switching field from the right side to the left about five yards away from the end zone, and dove in at the sideline.

The game slowed up with timeouts on both sides, and each team was able to score again in the final minute. The Valor disrupted Baltimore’s PAT re-try after a penalty to keep them at 20 points, then Nelson scored on another QB sneak (with a helpful push from teammate Jimmy Gordon) in the final seconds to put Washington up 35-20 at the half.

The Brigade kept up on special teams in the third quarter. Brandon Thompkins cut loose a good kick return with his team down 42-20, and when Duvalt poked out the ball from behind, Baltimore teammate Michael Knight recovered the fumble in the end zone. Knight got another chance on the next Washington kickoff and took it to the house.

But Nelson kept the comeback at bay, this time leading the Valor with his arm. All three Valor touchdowns in the third quarter were Nelson passes to Doug McNeil III, including a 38-yard beauty down the left sideline. The third touchdown came at the end of the quarter to widen Washington’s lead to 56-34.

The teams swapped touchdowns during the fourth, and the Brigade were stuck attempting onside kicks and failing. After Thompkins caught a Hippeard pass for a touchdown, the onside kick went straight to McNeil for a 7-yard TD return.

Two straight Valor penalties allowed Brigade fullback Rory Nixon to punch in a 3-yard score and cut the lead to 63-48, but after another failed onside kick, Washington could not convert and turned possession over on downs.

With 5:18 left in regulation, Baltimore had to jump out of a 15-point hole. Hippeard connected with Collins on a handy drive that brought them within eight points and 2:18 to go, but the Valor stymied still another onside kick after that.

Brigade coach Omarr Smith credited the Valor for defending the onsides well.

“Today’s game was somewhat of a microcosm of our season, so to speak,” Smith said. “We didn’t take care of the little things and we didn’t execute.”

Nelson added his record-breaking fifth rushing touchdown in the final minute. The quarterback from Texas Southern ran for six touchdowns in six regular season games and four in the two-game semifinal round against Albany.

The game wrapped up on a curious moment when a roughing-the-passer penalty was called on Washington when the clock hit zero. Players and fans celebrated as though the game was over — and it was, just not officially. But with confetti covering the field, the Brigade ran one more play from the Valor 13-yard line and Hippeard’s final pass fell incomplete.

Baltimore won the regular season series 3-1, but Washington figured them out on Saturday, mainly through Nelson’s dominance running the ball. Though some of his touchdowns came on sneaks, the Valor’s gameplan was not made up of many designed runs.

“I don’t think that it’s us taking advantage of the defense. I think it was more of their defensive backs were covering our guys pretty well,” McDowell said, “and an athletic quarterback can get out of the pocket.”

The game attracted 8,183 fans, the lowest attendance number for an ArenaBowl on record.

Despite some evidence that interest in the league is waning, Philadelphia Soul and Albany Empire part-owner Ron Jaworski, a longtime investor in the AFL, said at Friday’s ArenaBowl media day that the league will expand in the near future. It has contracted from 14 teams to four as recently as the 2014 season.

“We need everyone to get on board,” Jaworski said. “Get on board, because this thing is gonna take off, and when it takes off in five years, you’ll be saying, ‘Jaws told us down there at Lord Baltimore (Hotel) that this league is gonna take off.’”

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