Inside Stories

Lockdown Defense vs. Explosive Offense

by Ben Gottschalk

Lowell, MA – This Saturday, the Massachusetts Pirates head to San Antonio for their second encounter with the Gunslingers this season. The game kicks off at 7:05 p.m. at the Freeman Coliseum. The Pirates secured a playoff berth last weekend, boasting the third-best record in the Eastern Conference at 8-6. On the other hand, San Antonio, currently holding the sixth seed in the Western Conference, stands at 6-7 and is vying for a playoff position.

All-Time Series: Massachusetts and San Antonio are facing off for the second time this season. San Antonio leads the series 1-0, having won their inaugural meeting earlier this season.

The Last Meeting: (6/15/2024) Massachusetts 51 – San Antonio 52
In a hard-fought battle at the Tsongas Center, the Massachusetts Pirates clashed with the San Antonio Gunslingers in a back-and-forth affair that ended with a gut-wrenching 52-51 loss. NyQwan Murray shined with five catches for 96 yards and three touchdowns, while Sam Castronova threw for 314 yards and six touchdowns to lead the Gunslingers.

The Pirates got off to a quick start as Jimmie Robinson returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, but the Gunslingers rallied, tying the game at 7-7 early on. Massachusetts led most of the game, with Robinson’s stellar performance, rushing for 74 yards and three touchdowns, keeping Massachusetts competitive. However, a late surge by San Antonio, capped by Murray’s third touchdown catch with seconds remaining, gave them the narrow victory.

Despite Alejandro Bennifield’s efforts, throwing for 147 yards and two touchdowns, and Paris Ford’s standout defensive performance, the Pirates couldn’t hold off the Gunslingers relentless offense. A missed field goal as time expired sealed their fate, leaving the Pirates with a tough loss in a high-scoring thriller.

The Last Time Out: In their final regular-season home game at the Tsongas Center on Monday night, the Massachusetts Pirates secured a playoff berth with a convincing 52-35 victory over the Quad City Steamwheelers.

Alejandro Bennifield led the charge with 132 passing yards and five touchdowns, connecting on 13 of 15 attempts. Thomas Owens was a standout with four receptions, all resulting in touchdowns, while Jimmie Robinson contributed 65 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

Defensively, Jaiden Woodbey stepped up with seven tackles and two pass breakups, filling in admirably in Calvin Bundage’s absence. The Pirates secondary played a crucial role in limiting Quad City’s passing game, with Devin Hafford, Cyrus Fagan, and CJ Holmes each recording two pass breakups. The Pirates defense also limited Quad City quarterback Judd Erickson to just 66 passing yards and two touchdowns on 11 of 28 passing attempts.

The game started with Quad City taking an early 3-0 lead on a field goal, but Jimmie Robinson quickly responded with a three-yard touchdown run to put Massachusetts ahead. Despite some back-and-forth scoring, the Pirates maintained control, buoyed by strong defensive stands and timely offensive execution.

Massachusetts pulled away in the second half, highlighted by Owens’ third touchdown catch of the game, extending their lead to 35-20 after a successful dropkick by Henry Nell. A resilient defensive effort and key defensive stops down the stretch sealed the Pirates victory and playoff berth.

Last Saturday night, the Frisco Fighters clinched a thrilling 58-57 victory over the San Antonio Gunslingers at the Freeman Coliseum. Fighters quarterback T.J. Edwards orchestrated a dramatic final drive, connecting with Cole Blackman for a game-winning touchdown as time expired.

In a high-scoring first half, both teams traded touchdowns relentlessly. Justin Rankin’s early rushing score put Frisco ahead, but San Antonio’s Sam Castronova countered with an impressive performance, amassing 169 passing yards and throwing five touchdowns, including three to NyQwan Murray, who totaled 72 receiving yards.

The Gunslingers capitalized on their opportunities, converting multiple two-point attempts to hold a narrow halftime lead, 42-36. Frisco fought back in the second half, with running backs Carter Martez and Justin Rankin leading multiple scoring drives.

With just seconds remaining, Edwards delivered under pressure, maneuvering the Fighters into position for the game-winning play to Blackman. The victory solidifies Frisco’s playoff position, while San Antonio faces a tougher path to postseason contention.

Team Stats (IFL Ranking Included): The Pirates showcase one of the league’s toughest defenses, giving up only 195.5 yards per game (2nd best) and allowing 38.1 points per game (3rd best). In contrast, San Antonio leads the league in offense, averaging an impressive 271.5 yards per game and ranking first in points scored with an average of 53.1 per game.

In the IFL, the Gunslingers face challenges on defense, yielding the highest points per game at 55.6. They also rank average in other defensive categories, allowing the fourth-highest total yards per game (242.4), the most rushing yards per game (93.8), and the eighth-most passing yards per game (148.5).

The Pirates offense averages 41.7 points per game (10th in the league) and gains 219.3 yards per game (9th). They also rank 5th with an average of 86 rushing yards per game.

Players to Watch (Includes IFL Rankings): Jimmie Robinson of the Pirates tops the IFL rushing charts, amassing 811 yards on 172 attempts (1st). He has recorded 22 rushing touchdowns (5th) and averages 62.4 yards per game (2nd), with an impressive 4.6 yards per carry. Robinson also leads the league with 159 all-purpose yards per game.

Sam Castronova, quarterback for the Gunslingers, leads the IFL this season with 2,843 passing yards and 66 passing touchdowns, the highest in both categories. He also tops the league with an average of 218.7 passing yards per game and holds the second-highest efficiency rating of 192.7 this season. In addition to his passing prowess, Castronova has contributed 339 rushing yards on 91 attempts, ranking 16th in the league, and his 17 rushing touchdowns tie for the 9th most this year.

Alejandro Bennifield, quarterback for the Pirates, has completed 149 of 225 passes (6th), boasting a 66.2 percent completion rate. He has thrown for 1,581 yards (6th) with 36 touchdowns (6th) and five interceptions. Bennifield averages 131.8 passing yards per game (11th) and holds an efficiency rating of 167.7 (9th).

Teo Redding, the Pirates wide receiver, has caught 45 passes (ranking 14th) for 523 yards and ten touchdowns. He averages 11.6 yards per reception and 37.4 yards per game. Thomas Owens has scored nine touchdowns in the last five games, totaling 16 touchdowns this season, which ranks 5th among all receivers in the league and leads the Pirates.

In contrast, the Gunslingers have three receivers in the top five for receiving yards this season. NyQwan Murray leads with 787 yards (1st), followed closely by DJ Myers with 714 yards (3rd) and Kali Rashaad with 672 yards (5th). Murray has caught 22 touchdowns, the second-most in the league this year, and averages 71.5 receiving yards per game, ranking first in the league.

Kali Rashaad, San Antonio’s kick returner, ranks second in the league with 45 returns for 699 yards (8th overall), averaging 15.5 yards per return. Meanwhile, Jimmie Robinson holds the fourth spot with 39 returns for 815 yards (2nd overall), averaging 20.9 yards per return.

Defensively for the Pirates, Guy Thomas stands fourth in the league with 14 tackles for loss and has recorded four sacks (10th). Meanwhile, Calvin Bundage leads the team with 59.5 total tackles and has 4.5 sacks (7th overall).

The Coaches: This is Rod Miller’s first season as Head Coach of the Massachusetts Pirates and he is the sixth Head Coach in the history of the franchise. He is also the Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Backs Coach. He is 8-6 leading the Pirates. Miller was the Defensive Coordinator for the Vegas Knight Hawks last season. His last stint as head coach was in Bismarck from 2019 through 2022 before the Bucks suspended operations. Miller was also a head coach in the China Arena Football League with the Qingdao Clipper. Prior to that, he led the Omaha Beef, the Trenton Steel and the Laredo Rattlesnakes.

Tom Menas, a former player for the 1985 San Antonio Gunslingers (USFL) team, made a comeback after 38 years. He took over as Head Coach and General Manager of the San Antonio Gunslingers. Menas brought a wealth of experience, including five years as a starting guard at Kansas State, where he helped secure the university’s first-ever bowl game appearance. Despite a premature end to his NFL career due to injury with the Detroit Lions in 1983, Menas quickly found a new home with the San Antonio Gunslingers. After retiring from pro football, he transitioned into coaching, making his mark in the indoor football world with various AFL teams and eventually the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, where he contributed to a Grey Cup victory in 2004. Menas’ coaching journey continued with successful stints at Michigan’s Oakland University, the Green Bay Blizzard (IFL), and the New Jersey Flight (NAL). In a remarkable feat, he led the Albany Empire (NAL) to consecutive championships in 2021 and 2022, making them the only team in National Arena League history to achieve back-to-back titles. Throughout his 55-year football career, Menas was part of 12 championship-winning teams.

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