The Florida Tuskers may not be used to playing in Omaha’s cool, late-November temperatures but their defense was hot enough Friday to earn the team another game to get used to the chill.
The Tuskers returned two interceptions for touchdowns and punched a return ticket for next Saturday’s United Football League Championship Game back here in Omaha with a 27-10 win over the Omaha Nighthawks Friday night. The win sets up a rematch of the inaugural UFL Championship between Florida and Las Vegas, which the Locos won 20-17 in overtime last season.
It was the Tuskers’ third straight win after starting the season 2-3.
“We knew what was at stake. We had a lot riding on this game,” Florida coach Jay Gruden said. “They came out and played hard. We started out 2-3 and we challenged our guys. No one hung their head. Everybody came and continued to work hard in practice, and it paid off the last three weeks.”
Gruden had his team pack a week’s worth of clothing for its regular-season finale, anticipating a week-long stay in the city that will host next week’s title game. He was proven prophetic thanks to a stingy Tuskers’ defense that became the latest team to feast on a struggling Nighthawks offense.
Omaha gained just 225 total yards and converted only 2 of 14 third-down attempts while being held without a first down on nine of its 13 possessions.
The Tuskers’ defense made a statement on the game’s first possession. Cornerback Darrius Vinnett picked off Omaha quarterback Jeff Garcia’s first pass of the night and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown to put Florida up 7-0 just 1 minute, 40 seconds into the game.
“Playing on the road and everyone’s kind of chilly. We didn’t know what to expect,” Gruden said. We’ve had two exciting wins back-to-back playing on the road so it was important for us to get an immediate lift early. Darrius Vinnett made a great play to break on the ball and took it in for a touchdown so it was a good start for us.”
Chris Greisen continued his solid late-season play after replacing 2009 UFL Offensive MVP Brooks Bollinger three weeks ago. Greisen hooked up with nine different receivers and finished 17-of-26 passing for 200 yards and a touchdown without throwing an interception.
“We didn’t play as well offensively as I would have liked to have seen, but we kept the ball. We did keep drives alive. We won the field position battle. I’m proud of the guys,” Gruden said.
Florida led 10-3 at halftime and stretched the lead to 17-3 on Greisen’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Russell. It was Greisen’s fifth touchdown pass in his last three games. The former NFL Europe and Arena Football League star has completed 69 percent of his passes (58 of 84) since taking over the starting job.
Gruden said after the game Greisen would get the start in the Championship Game with Bollinger, now recovered from several injuries which sidelined him midway through the season, available for fill-in duty.
“I’ve been tickled with what Chris has done,” said Florida President Joe Theismann, who was in attendance Friday night. “Brooks was the MVP of the league last year and had some physical issues. We really didn’t want him to play a lot because of some things that physically came up for him. Chris did exactly what the other quarterback is supposed to do.”
For Omaha, the loss ended a frustrating, debut season. After a promising 3-1 start, the Nighthawks lost their final four games, often plagued by turnovers and offensive inefficiency. Garcia finished 17-of-35 passing for 133 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown to Roy Hall, but was intercepted twice. He was INSERT d in the first half by backup Matt Guiterrez and again in the fourth quarter by D.J. Shockley, who fired an interception that Keiwan Ratliff returned 58 yards for a score in the game’s final minute.
“In tonight’s game, just like it’s been the entire second half (of the season), turnovers hurt us,” Omaha coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. “The last four weeks I’ve been saying the same thing. If you turn the ball over you can’t win games.”
The Nighthawks’ defense did provide a bright spot for Omaha, holding Dominic Rhodes, who leads the UFL with 10 rushing touchdowns, to 52 yards on 22 attempts. Omaha also recovered a pair of fumbles and sacked Greisen three times in the loss.
“The defense did step up,” Jagodzinski said. “They played well. We gave up a couple big plays. The picks for six never help. You start yourself in a hole. But even at halftime I thought we were in this thing. But defense, we played a lot better.”
Omaha running back Maurice Clarett also continued his improved play in his return to pro football. Clarett led all rushers with 69 yards on 12 carries.
It wasn’t enough, however, to set up a rubber match between the Tuskers and Locos for the UFL Championship. The teams split their two meetings this year with each team winning on the other’s home field. Florida took home a 27-20 win in the season opener before the Locos won the rematch 20-17 on September 30th.
“Just looking at the faces of the guys in the locker room tonight, they’re excited,” Theismann said. “They’re excited for this chance to be able to somewhat get redemption even though we’re a different team and they’re a different team. We’re still the Tuskers, and they’re still the Locos.”