What do you get when a team goes 1-0 for 13 weeks? Undefeated national champions!
That was the West Virginia Roughriders’ motto for the 2019 American Arena League indoor football season. Mission accomplished.
Staring a 15-0 deficit in the face, the Roughriders (13-0) didn’t blink as Jarrett Brown overcame a terrible start to account for more than 200 yards of total offense and seven touchdowns in a 55-29 triumph over the Carolina Energy Saturday inside a raucous WesBanco Arena crowd estimated at nearly 4,500.
Things went sour from the get-go for West Virginia. On the first snap of the game from its 4, Noel Devine was tackled in the end zone for a safety and a 2-0 Energy lead.
Carolina (9-1) then drove inside the Roughriders’ 10, but quarterback Steffen Colon, from Glenville State, fumbled and former WVU defensive back Ellis Lankster came up out of the pile with it at the Roughriders’ 4.
However, back-to-back interception returns for touchdowns by Tony Reid, who played at Miami of Ohio, gave the visitors their commanding early advantage. Reid made a diving snag at the 2 of a ball that slipped out of Brown’s hands and rolled into the end zone for six points. On the very next offensive snap for West Virginia, Reid stepped in front of a Brown pass and rambled 30 yards to the promised land.
“We had never faced adversity like that but the guys never quit,” West Virginia coach Mook Zimmerman said.
“We were down 15-0. We took a couple of early punches from them, but when we started punching back it was over.”
Brown got the Roughriders going with a 14-yard touchdown scamper with 90 seconds remaining in the opening quarter. Placekicker Anthony Prevost, the smallest player on the roster, took a pitch from holder Steve Penasuk and bulled his way into the end zone for a 15-8 reading.
“That was huge,” Zimmerman said of the Roughriders getting on the scoreboard before the first quarter ended. “It gave us some confidence and some momentum.”
After Carolina missed a field goal to start the second quarter, West Virginia scored a pair of touchdowns in a 3-minute span — one offensively and one defensively — to take a 21-15 lead. Brown found Larry Beavers Jr. from three yards out. Beavers Jr. caught the ball at the 1 and spun away from a defender’s grasp and into the end zone. Three plays later, nose tackle Harold Love pounced on a bad snap in the end zone for six points. Prevost split the uprights once.
The Energy came right back as Colon found Gerron Bryant for a 5-yard score and Erik Amaya’s PAT made it 22-21.
A 7-yard scoring strike from Brown to Chad Walcott in the back of the end zone put the hosts back ahead 27-22 with 47 ticks left before the half. A safety on Carolina for holding in the end zone 21 seconds later bumped the count to 29-22.
The first series of the third quarter summed up the second half as defensive end Shawn Oakman, 6-9, 275 out of Baylor, sacked Colon and forced a fumble he recovered at the Energy 1. Three plays later, Brown speared Beavers Jr. in traffic for a 35-22 lead.
Carolina drove inside the West Virginia 5 on its next possession, but a triple-reverse pass went awry as the Roughriders’ Jamie Bender picked it off.
On 4th-and-7 from the Energy 24, Brown found his former WVU teammate Devine wide open down the middle of the field from 24 yards out. The defensive back tried to jam Devine at the line of scrimmage, but he eluded the tactic and found himself all alone. Brown lofted the ball to him in stride and Prevost’s placement made it 42-22.
Smelley fell on a Colon fumble that led to a 9-yard TD run by Brown. Prevost’s PAT made it 49-22.
“It feels amazing. We all went out there and gave it everything we had for 60 minutes,” the former Bridgeport all-stater, who recorded a quarterback sack to go with his fumble recovery from his linebacker spot, said. “We faced the worst adversity we had faced all season, but our defense has been resilient all year. We got some turnovers to get back in it and then our offense just exploded.
“I have to credit all these guys around me. We all stuck together throughout the whole season and tonight we finished strong.”
Former Madonna standout Connor Arlia caught a 13-yard TD pass to complete the Roughriders scoring. He finished with four receptions for 34 yards.
“It’s the best. It’s the best. It’s the best feeling in the world,” Arlia said. “I was blessed enough to win three (state titles) in high school. There’s guys on this team that have been playing football for 20 years of their lives and never won one until (Saturday).”
When asked if this championship means more than the other three, Arlia replied, “Your last championship always feels the best. To do it with these guys in this city is unbelievable … unbelievable. This is almost heaven right here.”
Carolina managed 100 yards of total offense, but after racking up 70 in the first half, the Energy were held to minus 3 yards in the third quarter.
“The ‘Nation of Domination’ got it done again (Saturday),” Zimmerman said. “They stood out all season and did it again tonight.”
The defense forced nine fumbles recovering four and picked off the one pass.
Brown went 14-24 for 157 yards with five touchdowns and the two aforementioned pick-sixes. He also ran for 49 yards and two scores.
“This is unbelievable. We did it,” Brown said. “We did it. National champions.”
Walcott landed five passes for 64 yards to lead all receivers. Beavers Jr. caught just three passes for 22 yards, but two went for scores.
“This is for you Ohio Valley. You are the best fans ever,” team owner Gregg Fornario said following the come-from-behind victory. “Following last year we didn’t know where we were going to play this season. We went on a tour of cities and found this city called Wheeling, West Virginia. I’m glad we did.”
This marks the second championship for the franchise as it won the 2017 Arena Pro Football title as the Richmond Roughriders. It’s also the third championship for the City of Wheeling as the Ohio Valley Greyhounds won the National Indoor Football League crowns in 2003 and 2004, going 14-0 the second season.