The Billings Wolves wanted no part of backing into a home playoff game.
“We wanted to earn that game,” said offensive lineman Nate Ryan. “We don’t want it given to us, this team is gelling at the right time and we wanted to earn it.”
The Wolves did just that.
By defeating rival Tri-Cities 63-27 Saturday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark and by virtue of Colorado’s 54-51 overtime win over Nebraska, the Wolves secured a home playoff game in the first round of the Indoor Football League playoffs in two weeks.
Ryan and his clan of big fellas set the tone early, providing protection for Cory Murphy as he completed 14 of 23 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback also ran for six touchdowns in just his third career start.
“(Cory) did a great job tonight of making tremendous reads,” said Wolves coach Chris Dixon. “He can put points on the board in a hurry for us and those guys in that locker room have a tremendous amount of confidence in what he can do.”
Ryan echoed those comments.
“Cory came in this year and he’s worked his tail off every night in practice,” he said. “We know what he’s capable of and we feel confident we’ll win every week he’s under center.”
While the Wolves’ offense found its rhythm Saturday night, it was again the defense that stole the show.
Fan favorite Travonti “Tuff” Johnson returned to the secondary to provide experience and depth as the team heads into the playoffs.
“Having a guy like Tuff in the locker is invaluable,” said Ryan. “He’s been in this situation before and he knows what it takes to win at this level.”
“He’s hit me a couple of times in practice,” Murphy said with a laugh. “His goal is to make everyone better and his leadership this week has been wonderful.”
Johnson was playing his first game for the Wolves since last June. It was also the first game he played at the Metra since his mother passed away from lung cancer.
“Tonight was an emotional night,” Johnson said. “I wanted to start the season out here but I was playing in St. Louis because it was easier on my family. I’ve been in touch with Chris and I couldn’t be happier than being back in Billings.”
Johnson was in on three tackles and had two pass breakups.
“I wasn’t a big factor tonight in the box score,” Johnson said. “This team is special. I was here a year ago and that team gelled at the wrong time. This team is gelling at a great time and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
The Wolves jumped out to a 43-9 halftime lead as they scored touchdowns on six of seven first-half possessions.
Former Wolves quarterback Jawad Yatim was 7 for 14 for 40 yards in the first half for Tri-Cities. He did not see action in the second half.
The Wolves defense had five sacks and eight tackles for loss.
While the defense limited a high-powered offensive attack, it was the offense that Dixon was happy with the most.
The Wolves ran for 120 yards and threw for 209 more as they outgained the Fever 329-112.
“We did a great job tonight of making the easy plays easy,” Dixon said. “In past weeks we’ve left a lot of points on the board and tonight we didn’t do that.”
Murphy added: “There have been games where our defense gets five turnovers and it’s a close game, and we’ve lost some of those games. That’s not acceptable. Tonight our offense took it upon themselves to make a difference.”
The Wolves host Spokane Saturday in the regular-season finale at 7:05 p.m. The Wolves beat Spokane at home in March but have lost two games to the Empire since.
“We want this game,” Dixon said. “If you want to be great you need to want to play the great teams and want to beat those teams.”