The Utah Blaze battled back from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to edge the New Orleans VooDoo 62-58 on Saturday in the final home game of the 2011 season.
Utah’s defense sparked the comeback at EnergySolutions Arena, holding the VooDoo’s offense to three points in the final quarter. Quarterback Todd Hammel’s 5-yard touchdown strike to Chris Bocage sealed the victory for the Blaze, improving their record to 8-9 on the season.
The VooDoo and Blaze traded touchdowns back and forth during the first quarter. Hammel threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Michael Preston at the 13-minute mark for the first score of the game, and New Orleans countered with a touchdown of its own minutes later. Blaze running back Ben Stallings then set the Blaze’s single season rushing touchdown record with a 5-yard rush with 2:36 remaining in the first quarter.
Sixty seconds later, VooDoo quarterback Danny Wimprine found wide receiver Franklin Carlese for a 9-yard touchdown pass. Both teams were knotted at 14 after the first quarter.
The VooDoo offense took advantage of multiple Blaze turnovers during the second quarter. New Orleans had a strong defensive stand at the beginning of the second quarter, leading to a Blaze turnover on downs. VooDoo kicker Jonathan Ruffin hit a 41-yard field goal to put the Voodoo up by 3.
With 5:31 left in the second quarter, Stallings coughed up the ball at midfield. The New Orleans offense took advantage on the next play as Wimprine lofted a 28-yard touchdown pass to Franklin in the right corner of the end zone.
Wimprine continued to pick apart the Blaze secondary during the second quarter, throwing a 22-yard strike to wide receiver PJ Berry to put the VooDoo up by 11. Bocage had an impressive 48-yard kick return, giving Utah a first-and-goal with under a minute remaining in the first half. The Blaze failed to capitalize on its good field position, as the VooDoo forced another turnover on downs before the close of the first half. Despite two Utah touchdowns during the second quarter, New Orleans finished the half with a 38-27 lead.
The VooDoo extended their lead to two touchdowns as Ruffin hit a 44-yard field go through the uprights with 5:17 remaining in the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, Bockage went the distance on a 55-yard kickoff return to put Utah within striking distance.
However, the Blaze defense continued to struggle in the third quarter. The VooDoo marched down the field, capping off a 24-yard drive with an 11-yard connection from Wimprine to wide receiver Skyler Green. Utah closed out the third quarter trailing 55-41.
“Chris [Bocage’s] kickoff return was huge for us because not only did we get points, but we didn’t run any clock,” said Blaze head coach Ron James. “If he didn’t run that one back, they may have been able to milk the clock down considerably, and we might not have had time to make a comeback.”
Utah pulled within seven at the beginning of the fourth quarter with a 17-yard strike from Hammel to wide receiver Michael Preston. The Blaze defense finally held their ground and came up with a big stop with under 10 minutes remaining in the game. Linebacker Michael Lewis pressured the VooDoo’s Wimprine from the outside, forcing a fumble near midfield.
Utah’s offense capitalized on New Orleans’ turnover, capping off a seven-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run by Bocage. Kyle Brotzman’s extra point tied the game at 55 a piece with 3:21 remaining in regulation.
With only 1:28 left on the clock, the VooDoo faced a big fourth down from their 23-yard line. Wimprine found Berry wide open 10 yards out to continue New Orleans’ offensive possession. The Blaze defense continued to battle, forcing another VooDoo fourth down. With 38 seconds remaining, Ruffin nailed a 34-yard field goal to put New Orleans up by three.
Hammel and the Blaze took over at the 5-yard line with 35 seconds left in regulation and the quarterback marched his team downfield, completing crucial passes to Alvan Robinson and Preston. Hammel’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Bocage with nine seconds remaining capped off a four play, 45-yard drive over a 26-second span. Hammel’s veteran leadership and clock management helped secure the victory for the Blaze.
“I slid outside … and I saw Bocage coming to the back of the wall,” Hammell said. “I saw him late and took a shot at it, and he caught it. It was a good touchdown.”
Hammell finished the game going 26-for-39 with five touchdowns and 316 passing yards. The VooDoo’s Wimprine was 19-of-34 for 265 yards and seven touchdowns.
“The receivers knew exactly where they were supposed to be tonight. They made plays after the catch,” Wimprine said. “Early, we were matching them score for score and went up a couple scores. I was happy with the production we were able to get early, we just have to keep it going throughout the whole night.”