Nine seconds was all that separated the Utah Blaze from a shot at the title. Just nine seconds to grasp ahold of their championship aspirations.
But the Blaze (13-7) couldn't hold on to a slim lead against the Arizona Rattlers (15-5) in the National Conference title game, dropping a heartbreaker of a 75-69 loss Saturday night in Phoenix.
Although Utah held a two-point lead nearly until the finish, a Maurice Purify touchdown helped ensure the Blaze wouldn't make it to Arena Bowl XXV.
"It's a gut-wrenching loss we had control for most of the game," coach Ron James said. "Then at the end, they made a few more plays than we did, and it left us with a desperation attempt."
Tremendous statistical games by quarterback Tommy Grady and receivers Tysson Poots and Aaron Lesue couldn't carry the Blaze. Grady set an Arena Football League record with 10 touchdowns to go with 431 yards. Lesue led with five touchdowns, and Poots set another postseason record with 19 receptions to go with four touchdowns.
The teams swapped scores on 10 straight possessions headed into the final minutes, but the Blaze stalled out only a few yards out from their end. Arizona quarterback Nick Davila led a brilliant 21-second drive that gave the Rattlers (15-5) the lead, capping a 331-yard, eight-touchdown game.
The Blaze (13-7) had time for two more passes, but Grady's final effort bounced off the back net to the ground.
A monstrous first half by Grady turned the tide of a game in which the Blaze trailed early. The All-Arena quarterback who led the league in touchdowns this season threw six scores in the first half, including four in the second quarter.
Down 33-28, the Blaze offense turned the Al Phillips interception into points with a go-ahead touchdown catch by lineman Ed Ta'amu. The Blaze subsequently recovered their second onside kick, which led to a touchdown by Aaron Lesue for a 42-33 lead into halftime.
It was a dramatic improvement from the Blaze's disastrous start, giving up a 40-yard touchdown run by Odie Armstrong, followed by a quick pick-six by Arizona corner Arkeith Brown.
In a 14-0 hole, the Blaze soon found an offensive rhythm, but gave up a safety in the second quarter that threatened to douse them early. But Utah recovered an ensuing onside kick that allowed it to retain possession. Grady wrapped up the drive with a touchdown to Poots that brought them Utah five points.
The Blaze players and staff were crestfallen, finding it hard to stomach the end of the franchise's best-ever season. They couldn't stave off defeat at the hands of a Rattlers team that finished runner-up in the Arena Bowl last season.
"I told them I was proud of the effort in tonight's game and in the season," James said. "We'll use this to mature and know what to do in these situations. We lost to a veteran group tonight."