DES MOINES – Cedar Rapids Titans defensive back/kick returner Demetruce McNeal was adamant he could have played last week.
Sidelined with a left elbow injury in last week’s 38-34 home loss to Wichita Falls, McNeal returned to the lineup Saturday against the Iowa Barnstormers at Wells Fargo Arena and showed what the Titans were missing last week.
McNeal’s 48-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 3:50 left in the game gave the Titans the lead for good in a 50-46 win over the Iowa Barnstormers Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
“I just want to be out there helping my team because I feel like I can make an impact on any play in any game,” McNeal said. “I tried to do that tonight.”
The game-winner was the second of two return touchdowns in the game for McNeal. After the Barnstormers (3-7) took a 46-43 lead – their first lead since early in the second quarter – on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Genuser to former Grand View receiver Brady Roland with 3:58 left in the game, they bounced a kickoff down the middle of the field to McNeal.
“When the ball bounced there on the second hop, I told myself ‘I know this is it,’” McNeal said. “When it’s a high bounce like that, I’ve got room and I can see. And when Rob (Brown) came out to the right, he opened up the block and I outran everyone to the edge. My speed’s 4.3, baby.”
McNeal also led the Titans defense with 12 tackles. Linebacker Nick Haag’s 10 tackles were his fourth game with double-digit stops, and he leads the Indoor Football League with 89 tackles this season. Two sacks from defensive lineman Jermiah Price extended his own league lead to 11.
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Offensively, the passing game was much tighter in quarterback Willie Copeland’s second start. Despite the fact that receivers Willie Carter (ankle) and Charles Watkins (shoulder) did not play, and former Iowa Hawkeyes receiver Jordan Cotton tore his right Achilles in the first quarter, Copeland completed 12 of his first 13 passes for 111 yards and three touchdowns.
“This week, the receivers and running backs stayed after practice,” Copeland said. “Then we just got extra work in and it showed.”
Running back Washaun Ealey, who scored a touchdown for the 11th-straight game with a 35-yard scamper in the first quarter, switched to receiver to fill the roster holes. Ealey finished with 55 yards rushing and three catches for 26 yards.
“Tonight we were able to settle down,” Cedar Rapids Coach Mark Stoute said. “We were able to get into the flow. Even though we had hiccups at the receiver spot, we were able to settle it down and keep playing football.”
Receiver Justin Helwege led the Titans with four receptions for 41 yards, including touchdowns on back-to-back possessions to give the Titans a 29-17 halftime lead.
“The receivers did a really good job of just finding holes and sitting down in it,” Copeland said. “It made it really easy for me, just pitch and catch.”
Copeland, who ran for 118 yards on 16 carries in the Wichita Falls loss, was much more judicious with his legs against Iowa. Rather than taking on defenders head-on, Copeland only sprinted when the field was open and better utilized the quarterback slide to avoid contact. He ran 10 times for 48 yards.
“That’s the biggest thing Coach Stoute preaches,” Copeland said. “He says, ‘Take what they give you.’ If I don’t see what I like and you’ve got a hole, find five yards and get down.”
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The game came down to a final drive for Iowa. After McNeal’s second touchdown return, the Barnstormers drove inside the Cedar Rapids 20-yard line. After a holding call assessed to McNeal on 4th-and-3 from the 9-yard line gave Iowa new life, Cedar Rapids linebacker-turned-defensive back Nikolas Sierra intercepted a Genuser pass at the goal line with 21 seconds left.
“We were just playing man (coverage),” Sierra said. “So I just tried to do my job and play the play and hopefully it all works out for the best. We’re on the right side of the ‘W,’ the win charts, so we’re just going to keep pushing forward.”
Genuser threw for 256 yards and five touchdowns for Iowa. The victory not only guarantees the Iowa Bowl trophy will remain in Cedar Rapids until next season, it kept the 7-4 Titans ahead of third-place Green Bay (5-5) for the final playoff spot in the United Conference. Cedar Rapids has a week off before traveling to Green Bay May 30.
“We need it this week,” Stoute said. “Obviously we have a big game at Green Bay, but we need it this week for sure. We’ll be able to get some adjustments in, and then we’ll see what we can do with our receiving corps. We’re really banged up.”
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