SIOUX CITY | Special teams, according to Sioux City Stampede Coach Jason Garnand, is a factor in the Northern Elite Football League playoffs.
Robert Lewis was simply superb in the return department, both on special teams and defense. Lewis was among the highlights of Saturday night's 34-12 NEFL semifinal playoff win over the Fargo Invaders at Memorial Field, breaking loose for three returns of over 50 yards, including a 93-yard kickoff return touchdown to begin the third quarter.
Sioux City shined in all three phases of the game and as a result, will host Elite Bowl XI this Saturday against the defending NEFL champion Minneapolis Warriors. Quarterback Dorian Ballentine passed for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the victory while cornerback Warren Joiner collected three interceptions.
Last year's Midwest Football Alliance champion, the Stampede will take an 8-1 record (10-1 overall) into Elite Bowl XI. Minneapolis (7-2, 9-2 overall), which fell to the Stampede 12-7 on June 16 at Memorial, advanced with a 36-9 win over the St. Paul Pioneers Saturday night.
Lewis set up the first of Ballentine’s touchdown passes, a 12-yarder to Jake McDonald, with a 50-yard punt return in the first quarter. Lewis had a nifty 57-yard interception return that Sioux City couldn’t capitalize on in the second frame, but he gave the home team a 21-6 lead with his weaving kickoff return to start the third.
“I saw an opportunity to cut back left and I hit open field," said Lewis. "You should have seen my face. I had the biggest grin, cheek to cheek. I just told myself I couldn’t get tackled because I wanted to score. It opened up the second half great. Coach told us we need to set the tone for the second half and that’s exactly what I did.”
It was the first kickoff return touchdown of the season for the Stampede, a program which incidentally, has won 28 of their last 30 games.
“When you go against a good team like Fargo, you know you’re going to battle offensively and defensively," said Garnand. "The big difference is going to be special teams. Wes Orr did fantastic on extra points. Our kickoff coverage did really good.
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“The kickoff return with Robert Lewis scoring that opening second-half touchdown made all the difference in the game. When you get to the playoffs, you have to put your best positions in a situation to help you. When you put him in a position to make plays, he can help any team he is on.”
Leading the game from start to finish, the Stampede made a statement in the third quarter. Garnand’s squad took advantage of a pass interference call on the Invaders’ Germain Armstrong who was defending McDonald on Ballentine’s bomb down the right sideline near Fargo’s 20-yard line.
On the ensuing play, Bret Van Muyden grabbed the first of his two touchdown catches, a 22-yarder for a 28-6 lead.
Fargo (7-3) at that point of the game was playing without NEFL MVP candidate Ja’Vonte Johnson, who injured his ankle as Devin Groenhagen tackled the scrambling quarterback out of bounds midway through the third quarter. Johnson, who had passed for 1,677 yards and 21 touchdowns, didn’t play the previous week in a 29-7 first-round win over the Northland Bulls because he hurt the pinkie finger of his throwing hand (right).
Johnson was repeatedly hassled on the pass rush by the lineman likes of Groenhagen, Derek Geddings and Chris Williams. Linebackers TyRae Kemp and Corey Wortman led the way in stopping Fargo’s rushing attack as well.
The night also belonged to Joiner, a 2009 Sioux City West graduate who hiked his season interception total to 11, two which came while playing shutdown defense on the league’s leading receiver, Jon Baume, who was held to three catches for 33 yards.
"He's a strong receiver," said Joiner. "At the line he's strong. He has good jump ball skills. That's kind of the same thing I have. We're both 6-foot-2. We like the jump ball.
"(It took) preparation, watching a lot of film. This was the second time we faced them this year. We saw a lot the first game, so we knew what to expect the second game. Maybe a couple of different wrinkles, but honestly, they ran a lot of the same stuff."