The Hitmen Fall Hard To The Rage
New York – (26 March 2001) — The ride is over. Coming into yesterdays game against Orlando. The NY/NJ Hitmen had turned around their season and put themselves in a position to take their next step to the XFL Playoffs. Two steps forward and by virtue of yesterday, one step back into reality. The Orlando Rage jumped on the Hitmen early and held on late to beat NY 17 to 12 in front of 20,000 Rage fans. Orlando was coming off a demoralizing loss to LA in their previous game, they lost their leader Jeff Brohm and the Hitmen were looking to avenge an early season defeat at the hands of the Rage. The task wasn’t supposed to be easy and the game didn’t start out easy for the Hitmen. They made things hard on themselves all game. The Rage struck NY early and fast when Brian Shay returned the opening kickoff 95 yards down to the Hitmen 1 yard line. It only took 1 play from scrimmage to score as Derrick Clark ran off the right side to give Orlando a 6-0 advantage. The Rage converted the extra point with a pass from Brian Kuklick to Kevin Swayne which gave the Rage a 7-0 lead only 43 seconds into the game.
The Hitmen tried to answer the Rage’s early score on their first offensive drive. They looked good early, getting 3 first downs, then a big James Roberson sack put the Hitmen back into 3rd and long. The Hitmen went to their bag of tricks early with a quick kick punt. The play failed and this would become an ongoing theme for the Hitmen on this day. Orlando was shut down by the New York defense on their next possession. The NY offense once again failed to respond and were forced to punt. Shannon Culver returned a Leo Araguz punt 64 yards for a touchdown, the play however was called back due to offsetting penalties. The Hitmen dodged a bullet with that play. Maybe the called back return effected Orlando because on their very next play, Brian Kuklick fumbled the center exchange and the football was picked up and returned 43 yards for a touchdown by Ron Merkerson. NY/NJ failed to convert the extra point but the score was now, Orlando 7 NY/NJ 6.
The play gave the Hitmen’s morale a boost when it desperately needed it. The Rage appeared to be rattled by the play and momentum was clearly swinging in NY’s side. The next Orlando possession, Brian Kuklick made an errant pass over the middle that was intercepted by Ty Talton, who flipped the football back to safety Brad Trout who returned the interception to the Rage 32 yard line. The wild first quarter came to an end and New York was now in business or so it seemed.
The Hitmen started the 2nd quarter in Rage territory but after 3 plays, they only managed one measly yard. So here came, the league’s worst kicker, Leo Araguz to attempt a 48 yard field goal to take the lead. Rusty Tillman decided to take a timeout to discuss their options. Obviously, anything besides an Araguz attempt is an option. So thanks to the XFL access, we were able to hear Rusty’s discussion as he debated what to do on the sidelines. Rusty decided to try a fake field goal but he told the holder, Charles Puleri to audible out and take the 5 yard penalty if he didn’t see an opening for the fake. Everyone in the stadium saw the fake coming so Puleri took the 5 yards and the Hitmen did something that they would continue to do throughout the course of this game, punt. The Hitmen defense gave their offense a gift and they let them down. It was the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.
The Hitmen shut down the Rage offense again and forced Orlando to punt. The Hitmen once again went 3 and out. The Rage began it’s 6th possession at their own 23 yard line and Brian Kuklick broke out of his early game slump. Kuklick led a 77 yard TD drive, with completions of 19 to Dialleo Burks, 28 yards and 7 yards to Culver and finally to cap it off, a 21 yard TD strike to Dialleo Burks to give Orlando a 13 to 6 lead. The Rage converted the extra point with a Mario Bailey score to extend the lead to eight. 14 to 6.
Another quick 3 and out by the Hitmen offense and the Rage’s offense was back on the field. The NY Defense spent most of the game on the field and they started to wear down at the end of the half. Brian Kuklick was in a passing range and he started out at his own 38 and drove Orlando all the way down to NY’s 6 yard line. Kuklick connected on 5 more consecutive completions to his WR’s. The Hitmen defense sucked it up and held Orlando to a 19 yard field goal by Jay Taylor to end the half. The score at halftime was Orlando 17 New York/New Jersey 6.
The previous week against Memphis, NY trailed the Maniax by 12 at the half and in Orlando yesterday, they trailed by 11 at the half. So there was still some hope if the Hitmen offense could wake up. To start the second half, both teams traded scoreless possessions. The Hitmen failed to generate any offense on their 2nd drive and were once again forced to punt. The Rage took over in great field position at the NY 48. This was their chance to put the game away. The NY defense answered with a big interception by Donnie Caldwell that gave their offense yet another chance to capitalize.
The Hitmen offense took over and brought the football near midfield to their own 48. The running game which only mustered 30 yards on the day was a complete non factor and the Rage defense put tons of pressure on Wally. The Hitmen who were struggling to beat Orlando straight up went to another trick play on 4th down. It was 4th and 5 and NY lined up in a punt formation, Charles Puleri took the direct snap and attempted a pass that misfired downfield to corner Mark Tate. Once again, NY had failed to capitalize. As a result of the risky play. Orlando once again had great field position at the NY 48. The Hitmen defense stepped up yet again as Joey Eloms deflected a Kuklick pass in the air that came down into the arms of Israel Raybon. The Hitmen D bailed their offense out again and NY took over on their own 30. The offense didn’t wait long to blow it as Wally Richardson threw an interception to Louis Riddick on their 1st offensive play after The Hitmen defense forced their 4th turnover of the game. The 3rd quarter came to a close. 1 quarter remained and the Hitmen trailed by 2 scores.
The defense was now back on the field as Orlando took over on the NY/NJ 39 yard line and drove down to The Hitmen 10. Jay Taylor’s 27 yard field goal attempt was botched as Brian Kuklick missed the snap, The football rolled to the 40 and Taylor was tackled by Damen Wheeler.
Now the Hitmen special teams had bailed out their offense. The offense still sputtered as they went 3 and out again. The NY defense responded as they forced the Rage to punt and the special teams made another big-time play when Anthony Dicosmo blocked a Jay Taylor punt. The punt was recovered at the Rage 33 with just 5 minutes left in the game. The offense finally capitalized on their 1st play from scrimmage when Wally Richardson hit Mike Archie with a 33 yard strike for a touchdown. The extra point conversion failed but the score was now Orlando 17 Hitmen 12.
With under 5 minutes left in the game, This was crunch time for NY’s defense. The Rage managed to garner a first down and milk some time off the clock but the Hitmen defense held again and forced Orlando to punt. Kirby Dar Dar returned a Taylor punt 16 yards to set up the Hitmen at their own 34 with 1:41 remaining. It seemed like history was going to repeat itself. This was exactly how things unfolded last week vs Memphis. On 1st down, Wally connected with Michael Blair for 8 yards. Clock running, Wally hits Anthony Dicosmo for a big first down completion to The Orlando 46 yard line with 1:16 left in the game.
Then disaster struck the Hitmen as Wally Richardson was harrassed by James Roberson in the backfield and was forced to throw the football away. Wally threw the ball away and avoided the sack but he didn’t avoid disaster as he landed hard and sprained his left knee. Richardson limped off the field and was out of the game and he could miss next weeks game which would hurt their playoff chances. Charles Puleri came in and he threw two completions and failed to keep the drive alive for NY. The game was over. Orlando 17 New York 12.
The Orlando Rage clinched the Eastern Division title and a first round home playoff game. They are now 5-0 at home and 7-1 on the season. They have a 1 game lead over the LA Xtreme for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
For the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, they now stand at 3 and 5 after 8 games with only 2 regular season games left. The Chicago Enforcers defeated Birmingham 13-0. They are now tied with NY for The 2nd playoff spot in the east. Both teams meet Saturday Night on NBC at Giants Stadium with a playoff spot on the line. NY defeated Chicago in week 4 13-0 at soldier field. A win by the Hitmen would give them a season sweep over Chicago and possibly ensure them a playoff spot. John Avery missed the first matchup and he may miss the second due to a hamstring tear that he suffered late in Sunday night’s win at home. It’s back to the drawing board for the Hitmen. They have to find a way to generate some offense or they will be home watching the Enforcers in the playoffs.