The Billings Outlaws' second championship ring was a little tougher to grab. Make that a lot tougher.
With a franchise-record crowd of 8,351 roaring from start to finish, the Outlaws held off the River City Rage 71-62 in a wild offensive shootout Saturday afternoon in the inaugural United Bowl, the Indoor Football League championship game.
As Chris Dixon celebrated the win with his teammates on the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark turf, he said he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
"We said before the game ... no matter what happens, we're going out with a bang," said Dixon, the Outlaws' quarterback who threw five touchdown passes and ran for another score. "We knew River City had a good offense ... we knew they would put up some points.
"But nobody in the league has an offense like we do. We knew no matter what, we could put up one more score than they did."
Billings did exactly that in finishing the season 15-2 and adding a second championship to its 2006 National Indoor Football League title, a 59-44 win over the Fayetteville (N.C.) Guard.
The Outlaws scored on 11 of 12 possessions - 10 touchdowns and one field goal - and had an answer for every shot fired by River City's red-hot offense.
Rage quarterback Ben Sankey threw for 225 yards and eight touchdowns in putting up a season-high point total on the Billings defense.
"I could see from the start it was going to be one of those shootout-type games," said Outlaws coach Heron O'Neal. "I told our defense if we get one or two stops, we'll win the game. And the defense did their job ... they forced two missed field goals and those were the stops we needed.
"As far as the offense, they did what they've been doing all season ... dominate. With our O-line doing their thing and with Chris and all the weapons we have around him ... I'll take our offense in a shootout with any team on any given day."
This day started with the crowd sent into a frenzy on the first two plays of the game.
Billings began the game with an onside kick, and receiver James Walton pounced on kicker Nate Parseghian's perfectly-placed bouncer near the left sideline.
Seconds later on Billings' first offensive play, Dixon pitched the ball to running back Tim Brown, who started to his right before stopping and throwing the ball back to Dixon. Dixon then heaved a length-of-the-field pass to Robert Redd, who caught the ball in the front corner of the end zone just before a River City defender arrived.
"That was for my brother Chauncy ... the flea-flicker is his favorite play and he told me to use it today," said O'Neal with a wide smile. "I figured let's do it on the first play of the game. We got the defensive look we wanted from River City and the guys executed it perfectly. The onside kick and the flea-flicker were both executed perfectly ... that's one of the advantages to having two weeks to prepare for a game."
The Outlaws scored touchdowns on all five first-half possessions and led 34-20 at the break. But the Rage came out smoking in the third quarter, scoring four TDs in the quarter to cut Billings' lead to 55-48 entering the fourth.
Billings pushed the margin back to 16 on a 26-yard Parseghian field goal and a 7-yard TD run by Tim Brown. But River City wasn't done yet, slashing that deficit in half with 2:04 remaining on a TD pass from Sankey to Luke McCardle and a two-point conversion pass by the same duo.
But the Billings offense - which led the IFL this season with an average of 60 points per game, would not be denied. After Kelly Rouse cleanly fielded River City's onside kick attempt, running back Charles Anthony provided the exclamation point the Outlaws and 8,000 of their rowdiest friends were waiting for.
On first down from the Rage 11, Anthony took a handoff around the right end and met a River City defender head-on just inside the sideline boards. Anthony spun back toward the middle and stayed on his feet - and from there a convoy of seemingly 15 Outlaws escorted him into the end zone.
"There was no way I was going into the boards," said Anthony. "Even if I didn't get in (to the end zone), I was going to stay inbounds and keep the clock running.
"After I got through that first tackle, I had a lot of help getting in. Ya'tarrie (offensive lineman Ya'tarrie Brown) was right behind me all the way ... he basically pushed me in."
"That's what we've done all season," said Ya'tarrie Brown, who won league championships as a member of the Sioux Falls Storm in 2007 and '08. "Our offensive line just takes over when the game is on the line, and Chris and the running backs and receivers get it in the end zone.
"River City definitely came to play tonight. They played great. But they just couldn't stop our offense."
Sankey's eighth and final touchdown pass came in the final minute - a 14-yarder to Randy Bell - but a missed extra point left Billings with a nine-point lead. Once Brown fielded the ensuing squib kick cleanly, all that was left was for Dixon to take a knee three times and the celebration was on.
Dixon threw five touchdown passes and ran for another score to earn the game's Most Valuable Player award, but there were no shortage of other candidates.
Charles rushed for 85 yards and two TDs, Brown rushed for 50 yards and two scores - and also tallied 135 yards in kick returns - Redd caught five passes for 81 yards and two TDs, and Eric McCain caught two TD passes.
Billings, the IFL's top rushing team all season, matched its season-high total of 182 rushing yards from its semifinal win over El Paso two weeks ago.
"Our guys had an answer for everything River City threw at us," said O'Neal. "It's a great feeling to win another championship in front of our home fans. These fans were unbelievable today, just like they have been all season.
"This has been our goal since the first day of training camp ... to get home-field advantage and win it right here on our field. It feels great to finish it off."
NOTES: River City, from St. Charles, Mo., finishes the season with an 11-7 record. ... The previous franchise-record crowd was 7,934 at the 2006 NIFL title game. Saturday's game marked the third crowd of 6,000-plus in franchise history - Billings' inaugural indoor game in 2000 drew a crowd of 6,076. ... Dixon and lineman Anthony Bonner are the only two remaining players from the 2006 championship team. Offensive coordinator Robert Reed was a receiver on the 2006 team.
Bil - Robert Redd pass from Chris Dixon (kick failed), 14:30.
Bil - Eric McCain 3 pass from Dixon (Nathan Parseghian kick), 5:04.
RC - Luke McCardle 23 pass from Ben Sankey (Will Rodriguez kick), 3:09.
Bil - Tim Brown 10 run (Parseghian kick), :37.
RC - Maurice Avery 36 pass from Sankey (kick failed), 13:17.
Bil - Redd 10 pass from Dixon (Parseghian kick), 7:49.
RC - Tyron Timmons 4 pass from Sankey (Rodriguez kick), 4:40.
Bil - James Walton 6 pass from Dixon (Parseghian kick), :15.
Bil - Charles Anthony 29 run (Parseghian kick), 13:58.
RC - McCardle 8 pass from Sankey (Rodriguez kick), 11:25.
Bil - McCain 19 pass from Dixon (Parseghian kick), 8:57.
RC - Pig Brown 28 kickoff return (Rodriguez kick), 8:49.
RC - Timmons 12 pass from Sankey (kick failed), 7:15
Bil - Dixon 6 run (Parseghian kick), 5:06
RC - Avery 17 pass from Sankey (McCardle pass from Sankey), 2:58
Bil - Parseghian 26 field goal, 13:18
Bil - Brown 7 run (kick failed), 5:52
RC - McCardle 10 pass from Sankey (McCardle pass from Sankey), 2:04
Bil - Anthony 11 run (Parseghian kick), 1:22
RC - Randy Bell 14 pass from Sankey (kick failed), :56
|Time of possession||25:36||34:24|
Rushing - River City: Randy Bell 7-55 . Billings: Charles Anthony 12-85, Tim Brown 7-50, Chris Dixon 9-45, Robert Redd 1-2.
Passing - River City: Ben Sankey 19-29-0, 225 yards. Billings: Chris Dixon 14-26-1, 162 yards.
Receiving - River City: Tyron Timmons 7-62, Luke McCardle 5-58, Maurice Avery 3-63, Randy Bell 3-38, Hurtis Chinn 1-4. Billings: Robert Redd 5-81, Eric McCain 4-45, James Walton 3-25, Charles Anthony 1-6, Tim Brown 1-5.
Leading tacklers - River City: Pig Brown 7, Byron Jones 51/2. Billings: Kelly Rouse 51/2, C.J. Ellis 4, Jovan Jackson 3.
Sacks - River City: Byron Jones 1. Billings: None.
Interceptions - River City: Darnell Terrell 1. Billings: None.
Attendance - 8,351.