CEDAR RAPIDS — A past shortcoming appeared early, but was quickly snuffed out by the Cedar Rapids Titans.
Stung by a pair of kick return TDs – including one in the game’s final seconds – in a four-point loss at Wichita Falls two weeks ago, extra emphasis was placed on the special teams unit entering Saturday night’s game against Tri-Cities.
“For these guys at the next level, special teams is where they have to make their mark,” Cedar Rapids Coach Mark Stoute said before the Titans routed the Fever, 58-17, in an Indoor Football League game before 3,864 fans at the U.S. Cellular Center. “For an undrafted street free agent in the NFL, if you can’t play special teams then you’re not going to make the roster. Special teams is a huge factor in the transition to the next level for all these guys.”
The inauspicious beginning was served courtesy of Tri-Cities kick returner Rob Brown – the twin brother of former Cedar Rapids player Robert Brown – who returned the opening kickoff of the game 48 yards for a touchdown.
“He’s a dangerous return guy and we know him from experience,” Stoute said.
The Cedar Rapids kickoff unit adjusted their formations and pursuit, while kicker Nick Belcher made a few tweaks of his own. Belcher adjusted the location of the tee, fired his kicks into the corner of the field, bounced kicks toward the end zone and even put four through, which drew 15 and 20-yard penalties but prevented a return.
“The biggest role of mine is to start the kick,” said Belcher, who chipped in field goals of 32 and 37 yards. “Put that kick in the corner, either corner we’re going and then act as a safety valve in the back and mirror the return guy. Where he goes, try to stay on his inside shoulder, keep him towards the wall.”
With the Tri-Cities return game nullified, the other two units dominated for Cedar Rapids (7-4). Quarterback Dylan Favre connected on a 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Ryan Balentine on the first play of the first offensive possession, then added a seven-yard strike to Jared Elmore as the Titans ended the first half with a 39-9 lead.
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Favre also added a touchdown run in the first half and finished the game with 172 yards passing and five total touchdowns, two apiece to Balentine and Elmore.
Elmore took over the league lead with 18 touchdown receptions.
“Offense played steady,” Stoute said. “Got bogged down a little bit, then regained our focus and got back on track.”
Receiver Dawan Scott ran for 28 yards and a short touchdown in place of tailback Waymon James (knee).
The Tri-Cities offense was neutralized by a vicious Cedar Rapids pass rush and a ball-hawking secondary.
Defensive back Nate Lindsey made a bang out of his home debut with two first-half interceptions, one returned 25 yards for a score.
“I kind of just waited,” said Lindsey, who was signed April 12. “I saw the quarterback, stared him down. I just jumped the route. It was such a short route, I had green light in front of me.”
IFL career sack leader and fifth-year Cedar Rapids defensive lineman Xzavie Jackson charged out of the tunnel in a full sprint for player introductions, which appeared to foreshadow the night for both he and the Cedar Rapids defense.
“Something just took over me,” Jackson said. “I just came out here and tried to have fun today. I’m getting older. ... If this is my last year, I just want to go out with a bang. I think that type of stuff riles up my teammates.”
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Jackson collected three more sacks, forced a pair of fumbles and recovered one as the Titans held Tri-Cities to just 85 total yards.
“It was our secondary,” Jackson said. “Defensive linemen don’t get sacks necessarily off bad O-linemen or good O-linemen. It’s if your secondary is covering and making the quarterback hold the ball.”
Jackson leads the IFL with 10 sacks this season, and teammate Jermiah Price upped his season total to eight and added a safety.
Linebacker Niko Sierra tallied seven tackles, while defensive back Antoine Tharpe intercepted his first pass of the season with his mother in the stands for Mother’s Day weekend.
Cedar Rapids visits Green Bay (3-7) this Friday.
“They’re playing good football,” Stoute said. “It’s always a tough game. It’s Wisconsin-Iowa. It doesn’t matter if we’re pitching marbles. It’s going to be a tough night.”
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