Officially, the playoffs dont begin for another three weeks.
Saturday night, in a pulsating with post-season atmosphere, the Billings Outlaws played like champions.
After spotting the Sioux City Bandits an early 10-7 lead, the Outlaws scored six consecutive touchdowns to post an important, 49-17, National Indoor Football League victory.
The game drew 4,695 at Metra, the Outlaws second-largest crowd of the season.
Billings improved to 7-6 and stopped a two-game losing streak. The Outlaws close out the regular season this Thursday at the Rapid City Red Dogs.
Billings is battling Casper and Sioux Falls for a playoff berth. Only two of the teams will earn a post-season berth.
The Bandits are 4-9.
We knew if we lost this game, it would crush our playoff chances," said Fontez Jefferson, who scored three touchdowns Saturday night. We view it as were in the playoffs already."
Jefferson caught touchdown passes of 23 and 10 yards from quarterback Josh Wallwork and ran for a 3-yard score in the second quarter to start the Outlaws points avalanche.
Jefferson caught a team-high 12 passes for 106 yards, his third 100-yard receiving game of the season and had two tackles on defense.
Wallwork, in his first start since joining the team a month ago, finished 20 of 40 passing for 205 yards. Along with his two touchdown passes to Jefferson, he also had an 11-yard scoring toss to Jordan Conn and had a one-yard quarterback sneak for a score.
Wallwork got the nod to start after throwing four second-half touchdowns in last weeks 44-37 loss at Yakima, Wash.
Just because of his performance last week," said Mitch Donahue, the Billings head coach of why the coaching staff opted for Wallwork instead of season-long starter Tom Racius. Josh has a real quick release of the ball and recognizes defenses so well. He can find a soft spot in a defense and exploit it."
Donahue, Jefferson and Keith Woods took reps on both defense and offense in the game. Donahue played on the offensive line when Woods sat out briefly with an injury. The four-year National Football League veteran finished with a season-high six tackles and had a quarterback sack. Donahue was pressed into service along the offensive line because starter Brad Halsten is lost for the season.
According to Donahue, a turf burn Halsten suffered earlier in the season got infected and spread into his knee joint. Halsten underwent surgery to clean out the infection and watched the game in street clothes.
Sioux City led 10-7 early in the second quarter after Adam Kennett made a 44-yard field goal in the first quarter and quarterback Jon Eldred eluded an Outlaws rush to find Pinklon Thomas in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown pass.
Billings took the lead for good, 14-10, when Jefferson took a quick pitch left for his three-yard touchdown run. The Outlaws led 21-10 at halftime after Jefferson caught his 23-yard pass for a score.
In six quarters of play, Jefferson has caught five touchdown passes from Wallwork.
We knew Josh was a good quarterback just by what he did here last year," said Jefferson of Wallworks record-breaking season with the Billings Thunder Bolts.
The defense also produced two touchdowns for the Outlaws.
Jaquwan Brackenridge returned a missed field goal attempt — there is no punting in the NIFL — 38 yards for a touchdown midway in the third quarter.
Then late in the fourth quarter, Shon Flores intercepted a pass and returned it 42 yards for a score to give Billings a 42-10 lead.
Eldred finished 11 of 22 passing for 84 yards for the Bandits. The Outlaws defense limited Sioux City to 126 yards in total offense. Of the Bandits 13 first downs — just two in the second half — seven were via Billings penalties.
The Bandits, who got into a brawl with the Sioux Falls players at the end of last weeks loss, were whistled for 15 penalties for 104 yards. Most were personal fouls. Billings had eight penaltied for 67 yards and both teams had a player ejected. Art Maulpe got tossed for Sioux City and Brackenridge got ejected later for Billings.
Some of the Billings players said some of the Sioux City players were getting in some extra-curricular activity after the whistle, particularly when the teams were piled up on the ball.
You just let the refs know what is going on," said Jefferson. We cant afford to lose a player because he wants some revenge. Were a pretty classy team, we had to play that way.
It was one of Billings largest margins of victory this season.
Im feeling really good about the way were playing," said Donahue. Were scoring and playing good D. I think its the best defense we played all year."
First quarterSC — Adam Kennett 44 field goal.
BIL — Jordan Conn 11 pass from Josh Wallwork (Brandon Schillinger kick)Second quarterSC — Pinklon Thomas 13 pass from Jon Eldred (Kennett kick)
BIL — Fontez Jefferson 3 run (Schillinger kick)
BIL — Jefferson 23 pass from Wallwork (Schillinger kick)Third quarterBIL — Jaquwan Brackenridge 38 missed field goal return (Schillinger kick)
BIL — Jefferson 10 pass from Wallwork (Schillinger kick)Fourth quarterBIL — Wallwork 1 run (Schillinger kick)
BIL — Shon Flores 42 interception return (Schillinger kick)
SC — Jerry Davis 5 run (Kennett kick)Individual statisticsRUSHING — Sioux City, Jason Graham 11-29, Lamont Truitt 3-9, Jerry Davis 4-7, Jon Elder 13-(minus 3). Billings, Ted Reiter 7-23, Fontez Jefferson 1-3, Jordan Conn 1-3, Josh Wallwork 5-(minus 2).
PASSING — Sioux City, Eldred 11-22-84-2. Billings, Wallwork 20-40-205-1.
RECIEVING — Sioux City, Pinklon Thomas 6-63, Graham 2-9, Truitt 2-3, Jermaine Brooks 1-9. Billings, Jefferson 12-106, Conn 4-51, Chris Spoja 3-35, John Horn 1-13.
DEFENSIVE HIGHLIGHTS — Shon Flores 9 tackles, 1 interception; Luke Twibell 9 tackles; Kent Boos 7 tackles; Derek Clements 1 interception.