Thursday Thoughts: Jacksonville at Dallas — AUDL Playoffs, Round 1

July 27, 2017

1. The Cannons handed the Roughnecks their first loss ever and their first home loss ever. Can they beat Dallas in the playoffs for the first time, too?

We’re two days away from the start of the postseason, and the opening matchup is truly a game made for primetime. Dallas and Jacksonville are both exceptionally talented and unquestionably polarizing, characteristics that have made them beloved by some fans and disliked by others. That’s sports, and competition tends to thrive when these dynamics clash.

Highlights from the first matchup of 2017 between Jacksonville and Dallas.

A year ago, most everyone thought the Roughnecks were invincible. They led wire-to-wire in 11 of their 14 regular season games in 2016; their largest deficit en route to 14-0, absurdly, was one. Contrastingly, Dallas had to play from behind in eight different games this season, and they trailed by as many as seven on two separate occasions. The roster experienced some major changes, but they seemingly replaced their big guns by exchanging Beau Kittredge and Cassidy Rasmussen for Abe Coffin and Jay Froude. If anything, the injury bug bit Dallas more this year, with Matt Jackson, Jake Anderson, Dan Emmons, and Stanley Peterson missing time.

Highlights from the most recent matchup between Jacksonville and Dallas.

Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Cannons doubled their win total from 2016 to 2017, improving from 5-9 to 10-4 by improving their depth, chemistry, and becoming more unpredictable. Last year, Mischa Freystaetter scored more goals (95) than the next three top scorers on the team combined (81). In 2017, the two-time All-AUDL standout shifted to defense, while new pieces emerged as more responsible and reliable offensive threats. Interestingly, the Cannons top two scorers this year, Jordan Huston (80) and Jeremy Langdon (59), played elsewhere in the South Division a year ago.

The Roughnecks brought an extremely shorthanded roster to Jacksonville on May 12, so there was a built-in excuse when they experienced their first loss in franchise history. On July 7, however, Dallas undeniably bolstered the gameday 20 for the rematch, and the Cannons still became the first road team to celebrate a victory at the Roughnecks’ home venue.

Of course, we know Dallas still has another gear for the postseason. Kurt Gibson just made his season debut in the Roughnecks’ finale, while Ben Lohre, who did not play in any of Dallas’ three losses, is expected to be back on Saturday. Superstars Jimmy Mickle and Dylan Freechild should be in peak form after winning gold with the USA World Games squad in Poland, though jetlag is real and one wonders if either of them might be hampered by the travel fatigue.

It’s hard to imagine Jacksonville playing better than the first half of the July meeting, but it’s also worth remembering that the Cannons’ victory in Dallas happened without the on-field services of Cole Sullivan, who’s been a mainstay for the team’s O-line three years in a row. While a back injury plagued him through much of the second half of the season, he is expected to be back near 100% for the postseason.

Obviously, whoever loses on Saturday will be tremendously disappointed. More than any other division, the two and three seeds from the South harbor real ambitions to do some damage at Championship Weekend in Montreal, and either Jacksonville or Dallas will fall shy of the game to go. After going 0-4 vs. Raleigh in the regular season, the Cannons would love one last shot at the Flyers. Similarly, the Roughnecks are eager to prove that their regular season shortcomings against both Jacksonville and Raleigh are not truly representative of the championship abilities.

On Saturday, over the course of 48 minutes, Jacksonville and Dallas will trade punches in their biggest game of the season. For one team, it could be a stepping-stone to greater things. For another, it will be a brutally crushing outcome.

The stage is set, and it should be quite a show.

2. Can Dallas slow down Jacksonville's Jordan Huston?

Perhaps you’ll look at the league leaders and assume that Jordan Huston’s AUDL-best 80 goals was a byproduct of simply feasting against the lesser teams. His 22-goal explosion in the Cannons’ season finale against winless Nashville certainly offers a little evidence to that theory. But when you look the bigger picture, a different truth is revealed.

What if I told you that Huston averaged more goals in Jacksonville’s two games against Dallas than he did in three games against Nashville? Would you believe that? You should.

While Huston scored 22 goals in the Cannons’ third meeting with the NightWatch, he did not score at all in the previous two—full disclosure: in one of these games, he did not play. Consequently, Huston only averaged 7.3 goals in the Cannons three games with Nashville. In two matchups against Dallas, Huston found the end zone 18 times, an average of nine per game.

Highlights from Jordan Huston's record-setting 22 goal performance.

Overall, Huston averaged 6.2 goals per game for the 13 games he played. If you removed the 22-goal outburst against Nashville, then he averaged 4.8 goals per game in his other 12. Regardless of the context, his nine goals per game against Dallas stand out, and the Roughnecks will need to make an adjustment against Huston downfield if they hope to cool off Jacksonville’s high-powered offense on Saturday.

3. Will Jacksonville’s Brodie Smith make his 2017 debut for the Cannons in an elimination game?

While the trick-shot star has not yet played a single point in the AUDL this year, he is currently listed on Jacksonville’s 28-man playoff roster, making him eligible to be among the Cannons’ active 20 this weekend. It’s unclear whether Smith will actually play, but he has said he is planning to warm up and will see how it feels. Certainly, he’s hoping he can give it a go.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for Jacksonville is an interesting debate. Despite all of his injuries, Smith remains a respected thrower. He has size, precision, and vision, not to mention great distance on his hucks. He has watched every Cannons game this year and has expressed confidence that he can assimilate quickly into the team’s precious on-field chemistry because of that film study and his past experiences with several Jacksonville teammates.

At the same time, it’s hard not to be skeptical, or at least curious, whether he can truly fit right back in, especially against an explosive Dallas defense. One of the reasons the Cannons had great success against the Roughnecks in the regular season was their O-line’s ability to be patient and not make mistakes. For the year, Jacksonville’s team-wide completion percentage was 94.76%, #1 in the league. In two games against Dallas, the Cannons were even better than that, registering a completion rate of 95.71%.

There’s no doubt that Smith could give Jacksonville a new and exciting big-play presence, but you wonder what cost there could also be to the team’s season-long style. This all may be a moot point if he does not feel healthy enough to play, but Smith has been long determined to get back on the field, and if he does try and contribute, that will just add even more sizzle into the already bright Saturday night spectacle.