SPORTS

C.R. Titans on the cusp of hosting IFL playoff game

Cedar Rapids (11-4) wins sixth game in a row, 28-20, over Billings

CEDAR RAPIDS – For the fourth year in a row, the Cedar Rapids Titans are playoff bound in the Indoor Football League.

But with one game left in the regular season, there is still a very large prize to be had.

Linebacker Niko Sierra broke up a pass in the end zone with 1:48 left and helped seal the Titans’ sixth win a row, 28-20, over the Billings Wolves (6-8) in the regular-season home finale last night at the U.S. Cellular Center in front of 2,335 fans.

The victory kept alive hopes of hosting a postseason game.

“It would be awesome, especially for the team,” said receiver Ryan Balentine, who caught four passes for 60 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. “We get an opportunity to play in front of the home crowd if it works out in our advantage. Either way it goes, we’re going to handle business.”

With the win and Wichita Falls’ 61-57 loss to Colorado, Cedar Rapids (11-4) can secure the first home playoff game in the five-year history of the franchise with a win at Iowa June 25.

The Titans would then host the conference semifinal against Wichita Falls (9-5) July 9 at the U.S. Cellular Center.

“That’s been my goal since I got here,” Cedar Rapids Coach Mark Stoute said. “We’ve been in the playoffs all four years, but our number-one goal is to have a playoff game here in Cedar Rapids for our fans and make somebody come here in a playoff atmosphere.”

Last night, the Cedar Rapids defense reigned on a night in which the offense scuffled. Cedar Rapids quarterback Dylan Favre was intercepted twice, his receivers dropped passes and the Titans lost one of their three fumbles.

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“We were just not smooth and focused on offense,” Stoute said. “We were bumpy. At times, we look like world-beaters on one drive and then then the next drive, we’ve got to get that cleaned up. To play championship football, we can’t sputter on offense.”

Favre connected with newly-acquired receiver Lemans Casimier for a six-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter for Cedar Rapids’ first lead.

Casimier tallied four catches for 41 yards.

Trailing 10-6, kicker Nick Belcher booted a pair of field goals that allowed the Titans to regain the lead, which appeared in jeopardy as Billings lined up on the Cedar Rapids one-yard-line on the final play of the first half.

Cedar Rapids defensive back Antoine Tharpe perfectly read the jet-screen attempt and stuffed the Billings ball carrier, which sent the jubilant Titans’ defense to the halftime locker room with the 12-10 lead.

“It’s so big,” Tharpe said. “We feed off each other so much. Anything we can do to give our offense a spark, we’ve got to do it. We’ve just got to continue to play like that in order for us to be great.”

Belcher started the third quarter with another field goal, then watched as the Cedar Rapids defense, again backed up against their own goal line, prevented Billings from taking the lead.

Reigning IFL defensive player of the year Jermiah Price fought off a blocker on the right end, batted the Billings quick screen pass into the air, collected and rode the caravan of teammates 46 yards for a touchdown that extended Cedar Rapids’ lead to 22-10 with 3:12 left in the third quarter.

“I just read the play,” Price said. “The guy tried to grab me, so just play with your hands and look up. Get in the end zone and let the guys take you there.”

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Tharpe snuffed another Billings drive with an interception on the last play of the third quarter, then Favre found Balentine for the score that pushed the lead to 28-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Favre finished with 161 yards passing, two TDs and 42 yards on the ground.

Billings hit a long throw for a score and blocked a field goal that was recovered in the end zone for a safety and got within a score at 28-20, but the Cedar Rapids defense again turned the Wolves away on their last-gasp drive.

Cedar Rapids has won 10 of 12 games. Everyone in the Titans’ organization – from management down to the coaches and players – are hungry to bring postseason football to the U.S. Cellular Center.

“Our fans are amazing,” defensive back Tim Bennett said. “It gets rocking in there. I love the fans. The interaction we have with the fans is amazing. I love playing at home.”

The possibility of a home playoff game in Cedar Rapids is the product of the league’s expansion of playoff participants, which began this season. Previously, only the top two teams in each conference qualified for the postseason. Now, three of five teams earn playoff bids and the regular-season conference champions receive byes.

“It would be really huge,” Bennett said. “But we’ve got to do this one game, one play, one series at a time and focus on us. … We’ve got to take care of us.”

l Comments: douglas.miles@thegazette.com

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