SALINA, Kan. – With their backs almost literally against the wall, the Sioux City Bandits’ defense held.
On fourth-and-goal at the Sioux City 1-yard line with one second left in the game, Bandits’ defensive end Westly Johnson pressured Salina quarterback Derrick Bernard and forced an incomplete pass on the final play of the game. That sealed the Bandits' win over Salina 45-39 in the North Conference championship of the Champions Indoor Football playoffs at the Tony’s Pizza Events Center here Saturday.
"The only motivation I gave them was in the huddle with 23 seconds left I gave them two options," Bandits head coach Erv Strohbeen said. "I told them they could let them score and we would answer, or we could stop them right there. Every single one of those guys looked at me and told me they were going to stop them.
"In my 18 years in indoor football I don't know that I have seen a better goal-line stand."
The win allows Sioux City (11-3) to advance to the CIF Champions Bowl and avenges a 60-58 loss to Salina (10-4) from April 28 in Sioux City.
Liam Nadler threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Frederick Bruno on third-and-goal to give the Bandits a 45-39 lead with 3:10 left in the game.
"Talk about a guy coming up clutch because he snuck through there and made a couple of huge plays for us," said Strohbeen of his veteran receiver. "We knew they were gearing up to stop the run, but we stayed true to our plan and made them pick their poison."
Salina took over and picked up three first downs, setting up a first-and-goal at the Sioux City 1-yard line with 23 seconds left in the game. Bernard rushed for no gain on first down and Salina used its third and final timeout to stop the clock. Bandits’ defensive back C.J. Jones tackled Bernard for a 1-yard loss on second down. The Liberty quickly lined up and spiked the ball on third down to stop the clock with one second left, setting up Johnson’s hurry on the final play of the game.
The game featured 10 lead changes with neither team ever leading by more than seven points the entire game.
Nadler completed 10 of 17 passes for 112 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Nadler also scored on a 3-yard touchdown run on a bootleg that ended with him diving and flipping into the end zone in the second quarter.
Andre London caught six passes for 69 yards and a touchdown for the Bandits. Bruno caught three passes for 40 yards and two scores while also adding another five carries for 22 yards. Darrian Miller ran for 48 tough yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries against the stout Salina front.
Bernard, who entered the game third in the CIF in touchdown passes and second in touchdown runs, completed 10 of 25 passes for 110 yards and three touchdowns. Bernard also ran for 68 yards on 16 carries.
Former Bandit running back Dominique Carson ran for 38 yards on 11 carries. He also scored a touchdown on back-to-back kickoff returns sandwiched around a Greg Conry field goal in the second quarter.
Defensively, the Bandits held Salina to 212 yards of total offense on 53 plays (4.0 yards per play), although the Bandits had just 181 yards of offense on 42 plays (4.3 yards per play).
Johnson had five tackles and a pass breakup for Sioux City. Jones finished with nine tackles, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups. Delvin Batiste had eight tackles and three pass breakups.
Conry made an 18-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the third quarter to trim the Salina lead to 32-31. On the ensuing Salina drive, Sioux City linebacker Isaac Wright recovered a fumble after sacking and stripping Bernard on third and 10. It only took one play for the Bandits to retake the lead. Nadler tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Bruno to give Sioux City a 37-32 lead with 3:11 left in the third quarter.
"Huge turning point to get that turnover," Strohbeen said. "We knew it was going to be a tight ball game and I told them they needed to go get me one. They did and the offense was able to capitalize on it."
Salina responded with a 10-play 45-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Bernard touchdown pass to Donovan Rasberry to give the Liberty a 39-37 lead with 11:27 left in the game.
The Bandits have now won seven straight games since their loss to Salina.
The Bandits will play the winner of the game Monday between the Texas Revolution and the Duke City Gladiators in the Champions Bowl. The Champions Bowl will be played June 30. Duke City will host with a win over Texas. If Texas wins, then Sioux City will host.