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SPRINGDALE, Ark. — Following two straight bye weeks, the Northwest Arkansas Battle held on to defeat the Queen City Grizzlies 40-30 at Jarrell Williams Bulldog Stadium Saturday night. The No. 3 seed Battle move on to the semi-final round of the Central Football League Playoffs to play the No. 2 seed Enid Enforcers next Saturday night at D. Bruce Selby Stadium in Enid, Oklahoma.
Grub’s Player of the Game Chris Stewart (six catches for 169 yards and a touchdown) has proven to be quarterback Blake McDonald’s favorite target this season, but his biggest catch of the night came from a different source. Up 34-23 and facing a 4th-and-5 with eight minutes and 40 seconds left in the game, punter Jake Denzer saw a flaw in the Queen City Grizzlies (5-5) defensive scheme. Queen City left Stewart uncovered, and Denzer changed the play on the spot, yelling at Stewart to let him know that a pass was incoming. Denzer threw it immediately and Stewart took off for a 32 yard gain and the first down. The drive didn’t result in points, but it took time and momentum from the surging Queen City offense and its star quarterback, Edward Pruitt.
The Battle (9-1) had trouble containing Pruitt all night. He finished 18-of-29 with 271 yards and three touchdowns passing, and also led the Grizzlies’ rushing attack with 108 yards on nine carries and a score. But his three turnovers proved to be costly. With just over five minutes before halftime, Pruitt took over on his own 10-yard-line after the Grizzly defense intercepted a Blake McDonald pass. Pruitt overthrew a quick screen pass to the right, which Battle linebacker Chris Scott picked off and returned it seven yards for a touchdown. That put Northwest Arkansas up 20-7, but Pruitt and the Grizzlies responded with a long drive capped off with a one yard Pruitt touchdown run as the clock ran out in the first half to narrow the Battle’s lead to 20-13. The Battle’s “Black Curtain” defense constantly pressured Pruitt, racking up four sacks and forcing him to improvise many times throughout the game. But time-and-again, Pruitt found receivers downfield or lanes to scramble through. The Battle came into the game allowing just eight points per game. The Grizzlies’ 30 points were the second-most allowed by the Battle defense all season, following Enid’s 32 on April 9.
Northwest Arkansas started the scoring early in the first quarter after defensive back Octavian Neal recovered a muffed punt by a Queen City gunner in Grizzly territory. Blake McDonald hit Chris Stewart deep on a 39-yard play-action pass for a touchdown on the ensuing play. The Battle continued their aerial assault in the second quarter when McDonald faked a handoff to Stewart and connected with receiver Gionni Harris behind Queen City’s defensive backs for a 45-yard touchdown. McDonald finished 9-of-19 for 225 yards and two touchdowns, continuing his record-breaking rookie season in the CFL.
Nursing a 27-16 lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Battle turned to running back Davon Neal and the ground game. Through three quarters, Neal had rushed for just 27 yards on seven carries, but the third-year back carried the torch for the NWA offense in the fourth quarter, picking up 65 yards and two touchdowns. The offensive line found its groove late and Neal broke several tackles downfield to finish just shy of the 100-yard mark with 92 on 16 carries, putting the game away in the process.
Northwest Arkansas heads west next Saturday for a rematch game with the Enid Enforcers, the only team to hand the Battle a loss all season. In the Apr. 9 contest, the Battle secured a 21-20 lead with 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter before giving up two late scores to lose 32-21. Since the loss, the Battle have won six straight games, averaging a 30-point margin of defeat per game. The Enforcers defeated the Oklahoma Nightmare 23-6 Saturday night in their quarterfinal matchup.