SIOUX CITY | T.J. James feels the Northern Elite Football League is more competitive than the Midwest Football Alliance.
Saturday night at Memorial Field, James’ 34-yard touchdown run with 2:07 left in the game gave the Sioux City Stampede a second consecutive league championship, this time in the NEFL. James’ game-high 54 yards rushing and Derek Geddings’ five quarterback sacks were among the highlights in a 27-20 thriller over the Minneapolis Warriors in Elite Bowl XI.
James and Geddings each competed for last year’s Stampede squad that won the MFA title, 43-12 over the Des Moines Blaze. James by no means is dissing the MFA, he just feels the NEFL has better defenses against the run.
“I’m just glad my offensive line, they could just come together, execute how we were supposed to and win this thing,” said James, a three-year Stampede veteran who had nine carries for 20 yards before he sprung loose down the left sideline.
“This is definitely a harder league. There are better defensive linemen. Overall, defenses around this league are just tough. It’s harder to run the ball. I actually think I didn’t have one of my best seasons this year because of the ‘d’ lines we faced all year.”
A year after going 10-0, Coach Jason Garnand’s squad finished with a 10-1 record, which included an 8-1 NEFL mark. Minneapolis, which a year ago had ended St. Paul's string of six Elite Bowl titles, ended at 7-3.
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Minneapolis rallied twice to tie game, knotting the score at 20 when immediately after throwing a 21-yard touchdown pass to Lakeeme Johnson, quarterback Deejay Hebert rushed for a two-point conversion 43 seconds before halftime.
Each team lost chances to take the lead in the second half. Minneapolis’ Ricky Clifton ended a five-play Sioux City drive that began at midfield late in the second quarter with an interception, but the Warriors’ ensuing 10-play series ended when the Stampede’s Devin Groenhagen sacked Hebert eight yards shy of the end zone.
Minneapolis forced Sioux City to two straight three-and-outs, but also saw kicker Jon Ostertag miss a 37-yard field goal with 6:56 left.
Sioux City’s eventual game-winning drive began when Bret Van Muyden caught a nine-yard pass at the Warriors’ 44. Jamar Merritt broke up a deep pass intended for Jake McDonald, but James turned a screen pass into a 17-yard gain the play before the game’s longest run.
“Towards the end of the third quarter, we went into a jumbo set, something we hadn’t done all game long,” said Garnand. “What we had seen, we were always one block away from breaking a long one. We just stayed with it. We knew when the game was on the line, we have a fabulous first-team running back in T.J. James, we knew he was going to win the game.”
Dre Sims’ 49-yard catch at Sioux City’s 35-yard line still gave Minneapolis life. Hebert had passed for a whopping 262 yards, but was sacked seven times, including shots from Geddings and Chris Williams in the final minute.