This Arena Football League season welcomed the fourth addition of a new team in the last three years. In happened to be that the new team in their inaugural season, the Atlantic City Blackjacks, would travel to Philadelphia to play the Philadelphia Soul. This would mark the very first game for the Blackjacks in team history and Philadelphia was the challenging host that welcomed them to the league.
Preface; Atlantic City Blackjacks and Philadelphia Soul: Joint Practice
Going into this first game, the Atlantic City Blackjacks and Philadelphia Soul held a joint practice on April 13, 2019. Soul head coach, Clint Dolezel, spoke about the wide receiver group placed emphasis about players staying healthy. Darius Reynolds was the big star that was back in that joint practice for the Soul wide receivers and Dolezel said Reynolds “came out healthy” followed by stating that Darius Prince would “be back soon.” Dolezel seemed absolutely confident in his wide receivers, also speaking highly of BJ Bunn. Soul quarterback, Dan Raudabaugh, really spoke highly of the offensive line and of the wide receivers as well. What stood out to me about Raudabaugh was how calm, even-keeled, and collected he is while working with rookie players. His eyes are on the prize to lead the Soul back to being ArenaBowl champions and he comes off like a solid locker room leader.
A little bit about the Atlantic City Blackjacks going into the first game of their team history versus the Philadelphia Soul is that this isn’t a team made up of players without any real AFL experience. In fact, as said by Soul owner Ron Jaworski, the Blackjacks head coach, Ron James, is a two time AFL Coach of the Year. Fifteen of the twenty-four players on the Blackjacks have previous AFL playing experience, including quarterback Randy Hippeard, who was James’ quarterback when he coached the Tampa Bay Storm, reaching the ArenaBowl game. Included on the Blackjacks roster is Mark Lewis, an AFL kicker with sixteen years of AFL experience. In any line of work, especially in football, sixteen years is a mark of showing that you are absolutely reliable and hard to replace.
Analysis; Atlantic City Blackjacks at Philadelphia Soul: Week 1
Fast forward to Saturday, it was time for the Atlantic City Blackjacks to make their AFL debut against the three-time ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul. Going into this game, the Soul won four straight season openers. Soul head coach, Clint Dolezel, owns a 69-27 all-time record as head coach of the Soul. This game against the Blackjacks was the first time that the Soul opened the season in Philadelphia since 2008. The Soul had seven returning players that were named to All-Arena teams, including AFL Defensive Back of the Year award winners James Romain and Dwayne Hollis. Directly correlated to the Blackjacks and coach Ron James is the fact that the Soul had six consecutive wins against James coached teams headed into the April 27th, 2019 game.
In the first quarter, the Atlantic City Blackjacks would get on the scoreboard twice with two touchdowns produced by Randy Hippeard. The first by Hippeard would be a nine-yard touchdown pass to Lamark Brown followed by an extra point by Mark Lewis. The second would be a one-yard touchdown run by Hippeard that followed with another extra point by Lewis to extend the Blackjacks to a 14-0 lead. The Blackjacks had a small field to convert their second touchdown after gaining possession after a net recovery. The Philadelphia Soul would respond by the end of the first quarter with a touchdown of their own. Adrian Ferns ran for a one-yard touchdown and Kenny Spencer followed with the extra point to make the score 14-7 going into the second quarter.
Opening the second quarter, the Atlantic City Blackjacks were in the middle of an offensive possession that would end with a touchdown pass from Randy Hippeard to Lamark Brown for thirty-eight yards, but Mark Lewis would miss the extra point attempt, leading 20-7. The Philadelphia Soul’s first possession of the second quarter fizzled away very quickly with a turnover on downs. The Blackjacks would get the ball back, but not to worry, as Hippeard with throw an interception to James Romain and it would be returned for a fifty-yard touchdown followed by a Kenny Spencer extra point to make the score 20-14. The Soul would kick back off to the Blackjacks and Hippeard would recover after throwing that interception by throwing a touchdown to Brown for a fourteen-yard score, extending the lead to 27-14. The Soul would then answer back to that touchdown before halftime with one of their own as Dan Raudabaugh found Darius Prince for a three-yard touchdown pass, closing the deficit to 27-20 after Spencer missed the extra point attempt.
The Philadelphia Soul needed to come out with a bang in the second half because they weren’t out of the game by any means. Only being down by one possession means that this game is still up for grabs. That is absolutely what they did on their opening offensive possession as they received in the second half. The long opening drive of the third quarter was what the Soul needed to control the game, perfectly capped with another Adrian Ferns one-yard touchdown run and a converted extra point by Kenny Spencer, tying the game at 27. The Atlantic City Blackjacks would try to answer back and not allow the Soul to take the lead, but James Romain would intercept Randy Hippeard for a twenty-three-yard touchdown return to provide the Soul with their first lead of the game at 34-27. Again, a game where a lead is only a margin of one possession does not mean it is secure. The Blackjacks would get the ball back on a kickoff and Hippeard would throw a twenty-eight-yard touchdown pass to Antwane Grant to be followed by a converted Mark Lewis extra point. Going into the fourth quarter, this game was tied at 34.
Into the final quarter of play, the Philadelphia Soul scored early on their possession they carried over from the remaining time left in the third quarter. Before the first minute of the fourth quarter had expired, Dan Raudabaugh threw a three-yard touchdown to Darius Reynolds and the Kenny Spencer extra point was good. The Soul weres back in the lead, 41-34. The Atlantic City Blackjacks would get the ball back, but Lamark Brown would fumble the ball and the Soul recovered! Just as quickly however, Raudabaugh would commit his first turnover, throwing an interception to the Blackjacks’ Marvin Ross. With the Blackjacks back on offense, Randy Hippeard would throw a two-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Ings followed by a Mark Lewis extra point to tie the game at 41. With just under three minutes left in the game, the Soul took to the field with the opportunity to close the game with a sound offensive drive. Adrian Ferns would come up big again for the Soul and score on a two-yard touchdown run, followed by a good extra point from Spencer. The final score of this game was in favor of the Soul, 48-41.
Looking at the way that the offenses breakdown, the Atlantic City Blackjacks ran the ball only once all game. In twenty-eight total plays, twenty-seven of them were passes from Randy Hippeard. The Philadelphia Soul were passed heavy as well, but ran the ball twelve times versus passing thirty-one times. The Soul won the time of possession battle in every quarter and were perfect in converting red zone chances, going five for five. Both teams had fourteen points off of turnovers, all coming from James Romain on the defensive side of the ball for the Soul. The Blackjacks points off turnovers came from the net recovery and the Dan Raudabaugh interception which were converted into offensive touchdowns, one rushing and one throwing by Hippeard with Kendrick Ings on the receiving end. The Soul extend their home opener winning record to five games as head coach Clint Dolezel records his seventieth win as the Soul head coach.
This is now the seventh consecutive win for the Soul against Ron James coached teams and the Blackjacks are now 0-1 in the 2019 campaign as well as in franchise history. They will look for their first win against the Columbus Destroyers as the Soul will face the Baltimore Brigade in week two. The Soul named Adrian Ferns the Offensive MVP in this game as Romain was named Defensive MVP and Player of the Game.