The Spring League 2021 season came to a close Saturday afternoon, with the ‘Mega Bowl‘ airing on FOX. After seven weeks of play, TSL has a new champion but come this time next year; there will be a new league in its place. Many expect the Spring League to fade into the background, with The United States Football League returning to take center stage. Saturday 6/19 could be the swan song of The Spring League.
The plans of the USFL might be on the thoughts of many who have monitored TSL in recent years but the focus on Saturday afternoon shifted directly to the players and coaches of The Linemen (5-1) and Jousters (4-2) at Rice Stadium, in front of the Spring League’s first game this season attended by fans.
One of the clear-cut positives to alternative pro football leagues has been the opportunities they have created for players and coaches. The AAF and XFL are recent examples of that, with so many people currently in the NFL after participating in those leagues. And The Spring League in 2020 and now 2021 has also opened up a pathway to National Football League, as evidenced in the last two months and most recently by the players who have signed on with NFL teams.
Saturday’s Mega Bowl provided players one last chance to shine and hopefully earn roster spots before NFL training camps begin in late July.
As is always the case with any football championship game, the focus is always on the head coach/quarterback matchup. The Linemen’s #1 ranked offense led by the legendary founder of the Air-Raid Hal Mumme and former Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis, who led the Spring League this season in passing yards (1,680) and touchdown passes (13), squaring off against two-time Superbowl winning coach Kevin Gilbride and Quarterback Luis Perez.
The New York Guardians XFL reunion has paid dividends for the Jousters in a shortened season. It’s not surprising that continuity and familiarity on the Jousters have positioned themselves to win a championship. But it’s also a strong cast of defensive players from the Guardians and former St. Louis BattleHawks DC Jay Hayes who have helped lead the Jousters to their top ranking on defense in The Spring League.
The Spring League Mega Bowl Game Recap
The mid-June outdoor game in Houston provided 95-degree weather, with 43 percent humidity and conditions on the field feeling like 102 degrees. So a difficult setting and conditioning test for many of the players.
The Linemen won the toss and elected to receive. Hal Mumme’s offense tried to catch the Jousters sleeping on their first third down with a quick snap and completion, but the Linemen came up just shy of a first down. On 4th down and 1, the Linemen lined up to presumably go for it but instead, Ryan Willis executed a pooch punt from the shotgun to pin the Jousters inside their twenty-yard line.
With Luis Perez under center from their own 17, the Jousters’ offense would open things up quickly, on a first down 28-yard catch and run by RB CJ Okpalobi. However, two plays later, linebacker Angelo Garbutt would force a Luis Perez fumble and recovery by the Linemen’s defense, only for the play to be called back due to a questionable illegal defensive penalty.
The reprieve would reset the Jousters’ offense with a 2nd and 3 at the Linemen 48-yard line. A first-down run by John Hillman would get the Jousters into field goal range. However, the Linemen would force their second turnover on the series, only this time it would count when Jordan Wyatt intercepted a Perez pass into heavy traffic.
On their second offensive series, The Linemen’s offense would once again be faced with a 4th and short near midfield. And for the second time in successive series, Hal Mumme’s offense would line up in the shotgun and punt the ball away. Ryan Willis making his case for future emergency punting duties, would pin the Jousters back at their own nine-yard line.
On the first play of their second series, Luis Perez would take a shot down the field to a wide-open KJ Stepherson, who might’ve scored, but the pass was overthrown. Two plays later, Luis Perez would redeem himself by finding Stepherson for a first down after escaping pressure in the pocket. Perez would continue to work his magic on the drive by eluding rushers and finding open receivers like Tyler Palka for a first down into Linemen territory. The Jousters’ 91-yard march for the game’s first score would occur when Luis Perez connected deep down the middle of the field with WR Joshua Simmons for a 35-yard touchdown score, giving the Jousters a 7-0 lead.
With the first quarter winding down, The Linemen would pick up the tempo on offense and drive quickly across midfield thanks to a quick passing attack and a nice first-down run by RB Tra Minter. The second quarter would begin with Ryan Willis and the Linemen offense at the Jousters’ 33-yard line. A perfectly executed swing pass by Willis to Damon Sheehy-Guisseppi would bring the Linemen deep into the red zone. However, the drive would stall after a near touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to Isaac Zico. The Linemen would have to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Jonathan Song to cut the Jousters lead to 7-3.
Facing a third and long on their next offensive possession. Jousters’ WR Darren Woods Jr. would draw a huge pass interference down the field that would extend his team’s drive into enemy territory. Behind superb blocking by Spring League standout OT Lukayus McNeil, the Jousters would extend their drive on the ground into the red zone. Luis Perez would then connect with former LA Wildcats teammate Dequan Hampton, setting up the Jousters with a first and goal. Perez would stay hot, connecting with his ninth different receiver on the day and finishing off the drive with the man who started it all, Darren Woods, on a 4-yard touchdown strike to give the Jousters a 14-3 lead.
With time running out in the first half and The Linemen down 11, their offense would move quickly into Jousters territory, but once again, the drive would stall on third down. However, another questionable illegal defensive penalty, a Spring League rule, where only a certain amount of players (5) are allowed to rush the quarterback, would give the Linemen’s offense another crack at converting. However, TSL’s leading receiver Michael Dereus would drop an easy first down completion.
The Linemen would go for it on 4th down and would once again be aided by a defensive penalty. An offsides penalty by the Jousters defense gave Ryan Willis a free play, and WR Ben Putman would pluck a deflected pass out of the air for a first down conversion. A third Jousters penalty would set up a first and goal for the Linemen offense, and RB DJ Davis would cash in the td with under a minute left in the first half to cut the Jousters lead to 14-9. A bad snap on the extra point would keep the deficit at five.
Despite only have 32 seconds left in the second quarter. Kevin Gilbride would elect to ride the hot hand in Luis Perez and stay aggressive. The strategy would nearly pay off as Perez would guide the Jousters deep into enemy territory but WR Anthony Ratliff Williams would fail to get out of bounds to stop the clock and time would expire with the Jousters squandering an opportunity inside the Linemen’s ten-yard line.
Mega Bowl Second Half
The Jousters would get the football to start the second half up 14-9, but QB Drew Anderson would be under center. A common occurrence in The Spring League, for quarterbacks to rotate in and out but not something you would see under standard pro football championship game conditions.
So much for conventional wisdom and tradition. On his very first snap, Drew Anderson would find a sliding Joshua Simmons deep down the field. Untouched, Simmons would get up and race into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown score to give his team a 20-9 lead. But, unfortunately, a bad snap would result in a missed extra point by Austin Jones.
Needing to respond to the score, the Linemen’s air-raid offense would continue to operate at a breakneck pace. Leaning on a quick underneath passing attack to players like Reece Horn and Isaac Zico. Ryan Willis would quickly march his team into the red zone. With the heat and pace wearing down the Jousters’ defense. Ryan Willis would cap off the rapid-paced scoring drive with a TD strike to the Spring League’s TD leader Isaac Zico. The extra point by Song would make the Jousters lead 20-16.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams would give the Jousters great field position on the ensuing kickoff with a return to the Linemen 33-yard line. Drew Anderson would be back at the controls. The Jousters would start to lean on their ground game with seven straight runs, perhaps to slow things down for their defense. The strategy would lead to a key 3rd down and 3 at the 16-yard line. Gilbride would use Anderson’s running ability on a zone-read run to pick up the first down.
Facing a third and goal up 4, the Jousters would go back to the well again with another zone read run by Anderson, but they would fail to cash with the td score. Instead, Jousters kicker Austin Jones would connect with a field goal from 21 yards out to give his team a seven-point lead 23-16. A big defensive stop by the Linemen to keep them within one score.
Entering the fourth quarter, Ryan Willis was heard on the broadcast attempting to rally his teammates to keep their energy up despite being tired due to the conditions and their pace of play. A personal foul penalty by the Jousters would help extend the Linemen’s drive to midfield. Later on in the drive, Facing a key third down and 7, the Linemen would run a draw play that was stopped four yards short of the first down.
On 4th and 3, The Linemen would opt to go for it, and their most reliable receiver Reece Horn would help them pick up the crucial first down on a 12 yard gain over the middle. On another critical third down, Calling his own plays, Ryan Willis would find Ben Putman for another first down. The third time on 3rd down wasn’t a charm for the Linemen as Dominique Davis would sack Willis to force a field goal on 4th and long. Jonathan Song would connect on a 49-yard field to cut the Jousters lead to 23-19.
With just over 7 minutes left in the game, up by four points, the Jousters offense would be back out with Drew Anderson at QB. The Jousters would pick the worst time to have their worst offensive series of the day. A bad snap on first down, followed by a drop on second down, and an errant pass over the middle would lead to the Jousters punting the football away in short order.
Down four with 4:52 left in the game, The Linemen’s offense would set up shop at their own 45 yard line. The Linemen would pick up yardage on the ground but a key holding penalty on this series would eventually lead to a 4th and 15. And once again, Ryan Willis would punt the ball away from the Shotgun. A friendly roll would pin the Jousters back to their ten yard line with 3:05 left.
On 1st down for the Jousters, Drew Anderson executed a well-designed play-action rollout poorly when he missed a wide-open Darren Woods down the field. The misstep not only stopped the clock but was also a missed opportunity on what could conceivably have been a score. Two straight short runs followed by consecutive timeouts by the Linemen followed the miscue. The Jousters punted the ball away with 2:34 remaining.
The Linemen would have excellent field position at their 49, with an opportunity to take the lead. On first down, RB DJ Davis would sprint for 23 yards to the Jousters 38-yard line. Davis would fumble the football on the play, but his team would recover the loose ball to retain possession.
On a 3rd and 1 from the 28-yard line, Tra Minter would break tackles down to the 15-yard line, but as he was going down, he presumably fumbled, and teammate Isaac Zico would pick up the football and race to the end zone for the go-ahead score. The play was ruled a touchdown on the field. However, The replay process ruled that the fumble did occur and was recovered by the offense but that the play couldn’t be advanced. Using the NFL two-minute rule.
The controversial and unique play resulted in a first down at the 16 but left the Linemen still needing to score a TD with 1:16 remaining. It delayed the inevitable as two plays later, Ryan Willis would connect with Isaac Zico for the go-ahead score with 52 seconds left. The Linemen would connect on the extra point to take the 26-23 lead.
Down three, Luis Perez would come out for the final series of the game with his team down three with 49 seconds left. The Linemen pass rush would start to give Perez fits, sacking him and putting the Jousters in a 3rd and 15 scenario at their own 20-yard line. Perez would pick up 13 yards on a completion to Dequan Hampton. Facing a 4th and 2, Perez would convert the first down to Donnie Ernsberger, who would fumble, but teammate Tyler Palka picked up the loose ball.
The Jousters used their final timeout with only 22 seconds left in the game at their 40-yard line. Perez would take a shot down the field to Anthony Ratliff-Williams. But, Linemen defensive back JJ Dallas would wrestle the ball away in mid-air for the championship-clinching interception.
Mega Bowl Final Score: Linemen 26 Jousters 23
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