“I would expect some extreme things, maybe. Trick plays, special teams’ things; we always put ourselves in their shoes. This is a desperate team.”
That was Battlehawks’ head coach Anthony Becht on Thursday, predicting how the Vegas Vipers – the only team eliminated from the XFL playoffs entering Week 8 – would try to spoil the rowdiest party yet inside The Dome at America’s Center.
But by the fourth quarter on Saturday afternoon, it wasn’t the visitors from Sin City who needed to gamble.
Dealt a tough hand with quarterback A.J. McCarron sidelined by injury, St. Louis trailed 17-8 and was five minutes from squandering precious ground in the XFL North division race.
On fourth down from the Battlehawks’ 36-yard-line, Becht pushed all his chips into the hands of a player that had never thrown a forward pass in a game.
Sterling Hofrichter lined up to punt with a poker face and ace up his sleeve.
“I caught the (snap), looking up and I was like, oh my gosh Gary (Jennings) is wide open,” Hofrichter said after executing a perfect fake punt that started St. Louis’ comeback bid that culminated in a 21-17 overtime win.
“I was like, just give him a ball he can catch, get a first down at least. Gary just turned on his burners and left everyone in the dust.”
The trick play went 64 yards to the house and St. Louis hit the jackpot on a wager that was anything but impulsive.
The Battlehawks mustered just 43 total yards in the third quarter, and with the offense stuck in neutral, Becht buzzed special teams coach Tory Woodbury.
“I said listen, how are our fakes? What do our looks look like here? We could try to maybe shake things up. We were originally going to do it the series before…the next time it came up, Tory was like ‘what do you think?’ I’m like, yeah let’s do it.”
“Gary did a great job selling it. How about the speed?” Becht said.
The execution was as perfect as Hofrichter’s QB rating after Jennings vaulted over the pylon and trimmed Vipers’ lead to 17-14.
For 35,166 Ka-Kaw faithful it was sudden pandemonium. With 4:55 to play, St. Louis was feeling lucky and ready to run the table.
The Battlehawks forced the Vipers to punt and quarterback Nick Tiano completed three consecutive passes to move St. Louis to Vegas’ 28-yard-line. Tiano scrambled for a 12-yard gain to set-up Donny Hageman’s 34-yard field goal that sent the game to OT tied 17-17.
Tiano led STL with 51 yards rushing and he converted a 2-point try in the second quarter with a headfirst dive that sent the 6-foot-4, 238-lbs quarterback on a helicopter ride over the goaline. He finished 19-of-34 for 194 yards passing, one touchdown and two interceptions.
On the first overtime play in XFL history, the Battlehawks’ defense denied Vipers’ tight end Cam Sutton at the goaline.
Hakeem Butler darted over the middle and Tiano delivered a perfect throw to convert St. Louis’ first 2-point try to put STL ahead 19-17. Butler caught a 32-yard bomb in the second quarter for the Battlehawks’ only touchdown on offense, his league-leading sixth TD reception of the season.
Martavis Bryant was whistled for offensive pass interference to negate the Vipers’ ensuing 2-point play and Battlehawks’ running back Brian Hill bruised into the endzone for St. Louis, giving the Battlehawks the final 21-17 margin.
St. Louis (6-2) can clinch a spot in the XFL playoffs with a win over Seattle (5-3) at the Dome on Sunday at 2 p.m. The Sea Dragons were beaten by the D.C. Defenders (7-1) on Sunday night.