On the stat sheet, the key matchup in Saturday’s Indoor Football League semifinal game looks like a no-brainer.
The Billings Outlaws (14-2) feature the IFL’s No. 1 offense, averaging just a shade under 60 points per game. The Arkansas Diamonds (13-3) boast the league’s No. 1 defense, holding opponents to just 31 points per game.
But as Billings coach Heron O’Neal prepares his defending IFL champions for the game, which kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Outlaws SportsPlex, he’s just as concerned with the Arkansas offense.
“Their defense gets a lot of attention,” said O’Neal. “And rightly so … the numbers they’ve put up on defense are impressive. They’ve shut down some of the best offenses in the league.
“But they can play offense, too. They’ve got a good offensive line and they’ve got some big-time playmakers at quarterback and receiver. This is a big test for our defense, too.”
Among those playmakers are quarterback Brian Jones and wide receiver Bret Smith. Jones, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound left-hander, guided Toledo to a share of the MAC championship in 2002. The 6-3, 195-pound Smith played his college ball at Tennessee, where he caught 83 passes — 14 for touchdowns — for the Vols from 2003-06.
The pair hooked up eight times for 132 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 46-31 quarterfinal win at Amarillo. Jones finished the game 15 of 27 for 246 yards and five TDs.
“Smith is the real deal at receiver,” said O’Neal. “They’ve got three quarterbacks and they use them all. (Stephen) Wasil and (Eric) Ware played in their first-round game (a 44-29 win over Corpus Christi) and Jones played last week.
“The way Jones played last week, I’d be surprised if they don’t stay with him. But all three guys are capable.”
Defensively, O’Neal was impressed with the way Arkansas manhandled Amarillo last week. The Venom had the IFL’s third-ranked offense in the regular season, averaging better than 51 points per game.
Linebacker/defensive end Luis Vasquez, a 6-3, 255-pounder from Arizona State, has 25 tackles and two sacks in the Diamonds’ two playoff wins.
“That’s a good Amarillo team they shut down,” said O’Neal. “Vasquez is one of the best players in the league, no question. He’s a beast, and we have to contain him.
“Arkansas went into Amarillo last week and dominated Amarillo on their home field … that lets our guys know they can’t take this game lightly just because we’re at home. Arkansas has eight guys with NFL experience, so they’re obviously a legit team.”
The Diamonds are facing a considerably longer road trip this week — it’s a 30-hour bus ride from Little Rock to Billings. Arkansas coach Danton Barto figures to have his team ready, as he’s no stranger to postseason success.
Barto won an arenafootball2 league championship in 2005 as the coach of the Memphis Xplorers. He also led the Manchester Wolves to the af2 playoffs in both 2008 and ’09, and in 2007 he was the head coach of the Arena Football League’s Las Vegas Gladiators — where Jones was his quarterback.
“Arkansas is talented and they’re well-coached,” said O’Neal, who is bidding for his third league championship in five seasons as Billings’ coach. “When you get to this stage of the season … two wins away from a championship … you expect to play teams that are talented and well-coached.
“These are the kind of games that we prepare all season for. I’m looking forward to the challenge and I know our players are, too.”
NOTES: Sioux Falls (13-3) will host Wichita (11-5) in Saturday’s other semifinal game. If Billings wins, they will host the Sioux Falls-Wichita winner in the United Bowl championship next Saturday (July 17) at 7 p.m. at the SportsPlex. … Sioux Falls has won two of three meetings against Wichita this season, though Wichita’s win came at Sioux Falls, a 44-26 victory on April 3. … Five different players have played quarterback for Arkansas this season. … The Little Rock franchise started in 2000, the same year as the Billings franchise. They were the Arkansas Twisters in arenafootball2 from 2000-2009 before joining the IFL this season and changing their name to the Diamonds. … Arkansas reached the af2 semifinals in 2003 and ’06, losing both times. … The Diamonds’ team colors are Carolina blue, black and gray.