SPOKANE, WA– The Spokane Empire (12-4) will host the number-three seed Nebraska Danger (7-10) on Sunday, July 17th at 4:00 p.m. PT for the Intense Conference Championship at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
This weekend's Conference Championship matchup will be the second meeting between the Danger and Empire in 2016. In their Week 17 game in Nebraska, Spokane came away with a 25-23 victory.
The Empire struggled offensively throughout the night, but the defense stepped up to answer the call as they limited Nebraska to 182 total yards and caused four turnovers. Spokane took a 9-0 lead in the first quarter after Charles Dowdell connected with Carl Sims on a 45-yard touchdown pass, but the Danger would battle back and take a 16-12 lead going into halftime.
With just over five minutes remaining in the game, Nebraska running back Lyle McCombs scampered 15-yards into the end zone on a screen pass to give the Danger a 23-19 lead. After Empire receiver Carl Sims hauled in his second receiving touchdown of the game, defensive lineman Ben Perry would cause the final turnover of the game via a forced fumble to allow Spokane to run out the clock and seal the 25-23 road win.
In the first round of the 2016 IFL Playoffs, Nebraska visited and defeated the Billings Wolves 64-52.
The Danger jumped out to a 14-7 first quarter lead and then racked up 23-second quarter points to take a 37-27 lead at halftime. Billings fought back in the third quarter and brought the game within a field goal at 37-34, but 20 unanswered points by the Danger would be enough to propel them to the road playoff win.
In the Intense Conference Championship matchup between the Danger and Empire, both teams will field new offensive weapons that were sorely missed during the Week 17 game in Nebraska.
Nebraska quarterback Derrick Bernard will be the anticipated starter for the Danger. Last week, Bernard completed 13-of-15 pass attempts for 190 yards and five passing touchdowns. He also added 13 carries for 24 yards.
For the Empire, the addition of running back Andrew Pierce is expected to pay dividends. The loss of Trevor Kennedy during the regular season to an injury left Spokane without a true running back for their final three games which required defensive back Josh Ferguson to take reps in the backfield.
Head Coach Adam Shackleford is looking forward to the "plug-and-play" piece that Pierce offers due to his familiarity with his offensive system after their time spent together in Tri-Cities. In 13 games with the Fever last season, Pierce earned Second Team All-IFL honors as he recorded 121 carries for 415 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was also third on the team with 49 receptions for 406 yards and six scores.
"Andrew Pierce is a very good running back with the ability to play in the backfield and at the wide receiver position," said Head Coach Adam Shackleford. "His all-league performance last year and familiarity in our system makes it easy for him to fit into our offense. His high character and leadership has allowed him to fit in even faster with his teammates."
Defensively for Spokane, defensive lineman Donte Rumph will also be active for this Sunday's game. Rumph was a late-season addition to the Empire after additional injuries to the defensive line left Spokane thin at the position going into playoffs.
Spokane finished the regular season ranked fourth in scoring offense (50.9) and third in defense (44.3) while Nebraska was ranked sixth in both offensive points per game (47.8) and points allowed (49.6).
The Achilles heel for the Empire in their losses during the regular season were turnovers. In their four losses (two to Billings, two to Sioux Falls), Spokane committed 20 total turnovers while only forcing six. The Empire led the IFL in turnover margin during a majority of the regular season but finished tied for fourth at +4. By removing the turnovers from their four losses, Spokane would have had a turnover margin of +18.
Nebraska Head Coach Mike Davis is in his sixth season with the Danger. Including the 2016 regular season, Davis has amassed an overall record of 48-45 and led the Danger to conference championship wins in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
"Nebraska is a much improved team. Coach Davis has done an outstanding job of weathering the storm through injuries," said Head Coach Adam Shackleford. "They are a powerful defensive team and have playmakers at the wide receiver and running back position."
Sunday's game will be available via radio on AM 700 ESPN with Larry Weir on the call. The pregame show will begin at 3:30 p.m. PT. The game can also be viewed online via IFLLive.TV.