By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – Arena football is played on a short field as it is – only 50 yards instead of the standard 100 – and scoring can be fast and frequent.
A team can definitely not afford to give opponents any easier scoring opportunities.
The West Michigan Ironmen did that too many times on Friday night, and it cost them dearly in a 47-37 loss to the Music City Fire in their American Arena League season opener at Muskegon’s Mercy Health Arena.
The Ironmen overcame a halftime deficit and led 25-20 in the third quarter, following a touchdown run by quarterback Travis Zajkowski.
They appeared to try an onside kick after that, but the ball only traveled seven yards, and Music City took over the ball at the West Michigan 7. The Fire scored a touchdown a few plays later to take a 26-25 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the ball got past the Ironmen return men and rolled into the end zone, where a tackle was made. In arena football, a tackle in the end zone is worth a point, so Music City suddenly led 27-25.
The Ironmen had the ball at their own 10-yard line on their next possession, facing a fourth and 5 situation. Their pass was incomplete, Music City got the ball at the 10 and scored three plays later to take a 34-25 lead.
West Michigan kept battling, and pulled to within three points, 40-37, after a Mike Wynn touchdown catch with 51 seconds remaining.
But then another onside kick failed for the Ironmen, traveling only two yards and apparently giving the ball to Music City on the West Michigan 2-yard line. There were a flurry of penalties on the play, and the Fire ended up getting the ball at the Ironmen 12, but they still scored one more touchdown to ice the victory.
The Ironmen also had other key mistakes and missed opportunities. They had a missed field goal, two missed PAT kicks after touchdowns, and three failed two-point conversion attempts.
“I agree that you can’t give the other team a short field,” said Ironmen coach Nate Smith. “We are very disappointed, and we have high expectations this season. We have a lot of new guys on the team that are getting experience, and I feel good about the direction we are going to go. It sucks that we lost but hope we learn from it.”
The entire game was a struggle for the Ironmen, who trailed 13-0 after one quarter, 20-13 at halftime and 27-25 after three quarters.
The opening-game loss was definitely an eye-opener for the Ironmen, who have had winning records for three of the four seasons of their existence. Coming into 2020, they had an all-time 23-12 record, including one league championship and one league runner-up finish.
This year’s Ironmen appear to have their share of talent, but also some work to do.
Zajkowski, who took over the starting quarterback role from longtime QB Alex Carder this season, struggled in his debut. He completed only 13 of 33 passes for 152 yards and five touchdowns.
“Travis is our guy, and I thought he played a pretty damn good game, considering the things going on,” Coach Smith said. “I think he is going to do good this season.”
Keyindre Banks-Craig had four catches for West Michigan for 49 yards and two touchdowns. Wynn caught three passes for 32 yards and two touchdowns.
Derek VandenBosch led the defense with 4 ½ tackles while Brian Foy and DJ Goodrum each had four. Foy also had an interception.
The Ironmen will return to action March 22 at home against the Lousville Xtreme.
MC 3:56- Pat Smith 40-yard catch from PJ Settles (kick good)- MC 7, WM 0
MC 0:00- Dre Hall 25-yard catch from PJ Settles (kick failed)- MC 13, WM 0
WM 11:49- Mike Wynn 26-yard catch from Travis Zajkowski (kick good)- MC 13, WM 7
MC 8:41 – PJ Settles 11-yard run (kick good)- MC 20, WM 7
WM 4:36 – Mike Wynn 13-yard catch from Travis Zajkowski (kick failed)- MC 20, WM 13
WM 10:49- Daryl Gooden 16-yard catch from Travis Zajkowski (kick failed)- MC 20, WM 19
WM 5:13 – Travis Zajkowski 3-yard run (2-point failed)- WM 25, MC 20
MC 2:04 – Pat Smith 10-yard catch from PJ Settles (2-pt failed)- MC, 26 WM 25
MC 2:04 – Tackle in end zone on kickoff- MC 27, WM 25
MC 11:26 – Pat Smith 10-yard catch from PJ Settles (kick good)- MC 34, WM 25
WM 7: 49 – Keyindre Banks-Craig 3-yard catch from Travis Zajkowski (2-point failed)- MC 34, WM 31
MC 2:26 – PJ Settles 1-yard run (kick failed) MC 40, WM 31
WM :51 – Mike Wynn 11-yard catch from Travis Zajkowski (2-pt failed)- MC 40, WM 37
MC :38- PJ Settles 1-yard run (kick good)- MC 47, WM 37