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ARENA FOOTBALL

Graziani Leads Avengers to Win

March 24, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

The Avengers completed the first half of their Arena Football League schedule on Sunday with a complete performance.

Quarterback Tony Graziani and the offense proved virtually unstoppable. The defense forced turnovers and produced big stops. And special teams provided advantageous field position throughout.

The result was an easier-than-it-looked 61-51 victory over the Grand Rapids Rampage before an announced crowd of 13,849 at Staples Center.

The Avengers improved to 6-2, tying them with Orlando, Tampa Bay, Georgia and San Jose for the league's best record.

"We're sitting pretty good going into the second half," Avenger Coach Ed Hodgkiss said.

Veteran Rampage quarterback Clint Dolezel is regarded as perhaps the best quarterback in the Arena League, but Graziani upstaged him with help from linemen who neutralized any rush.

Graziani completed 12 of 13 passes for 133 yards and four touchdowns in the first half.

He finished 20 of 27 for 222 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception.

The Avengers scored on 11 of 12 possessions.

"When there's no pressure [from defensive linemen], we're going to pick people apart with this offense," Graziani said.

The Avengers, who gave up a franchise-low 20 points last week against Indiana, looked as if they might be challenged when Dolezel connected with Willis Marshall on a 46-yard touchdown pass play on the first possession.

But the Avengers recovered a fumble, stopped the Rampage on downs and intercepted a pass the next three times Grand Rapids had the ball. The Avengers turned each opportunity into points and built a 30-13 halftime lead.

The Avengers' Kevin Ingram played a pivotal role in three consecutive second-quarter possessions.

With 14:39 left in the first half and the Avengers leading, 14-6, Ingram fumbled after catching a pass from Graziani.

Three minutes later, Ingram stopped the ensuing Rampage drive by intercepting a pass in the end zone. He gave the Avengers a 20-6 lead when he caught a 15-yard touchdown pass with 7:58 left.

The Rampage scored on all five of its second-half possessions, but that was not enough to overcome an Avenger offense that did the same.

Dolezel finished 29 of 43 for 290 yards and six touchdowns, with one interception.

Avenger offensive specialist Chris Jackson caught two second-half touchdown passes and finished with eight receptions for 72 yards.

Receiver Greg Hopkins caught six passes for 88 yards and three touchdowns.

Jackson, the only Avenger player who was with the franchise in its inaugural season in 2000, said the team is a legitimate contender for its first ArenaBowl title.

"The last two weeks, it feels like we're finally starting to turn that corner," Jackson said.

*

Andy Kelly passed for 252 yards and seven touchdowns to lead the Detroit Fury past the Colorado Crush, 71-56, at Denver.... John Kaleo completed 20 of 34 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns as the Tampa Bay Storm defeated the Indiana Firebirds, 41-20, at Indianapolis.... Steve McLaughlin's 30-yard field goal as time expired lifted the Georgia Force to a 38-36 victory over the Orlando Predators at Orlando, Fla. ... Jay McDonagh passed for 311 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Las Vegas Gladiators past the Buffalo Destroyers, 50-32, at Buffalo, N.Y. ... Aaron Garcia threw a 30-yard touchdown to Damien Groce with a minute remaining and the New York Dragons beat the Chicago Rush, 54-51, at Chicago.

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