March 3, 2020
By Louis Zatzman
WIth just over a minute remaining in the third quarter of the 2019 AUDL Championship Game, Josh Alorro skied over Abe Coffin to win the disc for the New York Empire defense. The ensuing possession was only the second break opportunity for New York in the game, yet the Dallas Roughnecks had already had six chances to steal a point with its defensive line. Nobody on the field knew it at the time, but Dallas’ chances had come and gone, while New York was about to take control of the championship game for good.
Empire Head Coach Bryan Jones immediately called a timeout after Alorro’s block, putting his best offensive group on the field. Jeff Babbitt found himself mismatched against the much smaller Dalton Smith, and Babbitt took off for the endzone.
New York’s goal broke the tie, and the Empire didn’t trail again for the rest of the game. Despite Dallas’ lead in break opportunities, New York ended up winning 26-22, becoming the third undefeated champion in AUDL history, and the first since Dallas in 2016.
The break goal differential told the story of the game. Dallas had seven break chances throughout the game, yet it only managed to score one goal. New York, on the other hand, managed only five chances, but converted an efficient four goals.
Dallas did an excellent job creating chances against a high-powered and sure-handed Empire offense. Though New York’s deep game was as successful as expected—completing 11 of 14 attempted hucks—at times the Dallas defense made spectacular plays to claim the disc.
“We knew Dallas was going to have some big athletes,” said Jones. “Kai [Marshall] was gonna get something.”
Despite generating defensive pressure, including Marshall’s block, Dallas could not put points on the board with its defensive line. There were a variety of reasons why Dallas had such trouble scoring after creating turnovers. For one, New York played one of the best defenders in the league on its offensive line. Babbitt led the AUDL in blocks in 2017, with 41. He’s fourth all-time in AUDL history in blocks per game among players who’ve played at least 20 games with 2.02. After playing with the defense for the majority of New York’s semfinal against the Indianapolis AlleyCats, Babbitt moved to the offense for the championship match. The move was intended explicitly to make it much harder for Dallas to score break goals after it forced turnovers.
“Sometimes I think the way we looked at it was that we wanted our O-line to play stellar defense,” said Jones. “Jeff [Babbitt] has a sense of security in the way he can generate an under or a deep on offense, and then on the turn he can play really great defense and get the disc back.”
Jones didn’t just plan to limit Dallas’ break chances. He also strategized to maximize his own team’s opportunities. He used all four of his timeouts exclusively for subbing purposes to put his best offensive players on the field when New York took possession of the disc midway through a point. Until the fourth quarter, when New York was out of timeouts and Jones was thus unable to make substitutions, Jones didn’t allow his D-line a single chance to score a break. Just as happened after Alorro’s block, the team always called a timeout.
“We had to take advantage of the small chances we had because we were having a tough time stopping Dalton [Smith] and stopping Abe [Coffin],” explained Jones. “So, we usually do a little bit more and get the D-line a little more run, but I don't know what it was in the first half exactly how many chances, but it wasn't many. So when you have a chance to call timeout and put Jack [Williams], Grant [Lindsley], Harper [Garvey], [Ben] Jagt, Jeff [Babbitt], and Beau [Kittredge] on the field, you do that.”
Roughnecks Head Coach Wes Nemec follows a different philosophy. He only called a timeout if he saw his D-Line was struggling, preferring instead to let his defenders work in the score for themselves.
“A D-line that earns the turnover, I think is hungry to punch it in,” explained Nemec. “Especially some of the guys on our team. They are fiery competitors and, whenever the D-line earns the turnover, I mean, it's like they're just drooling to go punch it into the endzone.”
The difference in philosophy in part led to a difference in results. During the first three quarters, the Empire’s D-line didn’t have a single opportunity to break, and instead the O-line went two-for-two with its chances. The Roughnecks’ D-Line went one-for-three over the first three quarters on break chances.
Dallas suffered from structural issues with their play, such as cutters sometimes setting a vertical stack far too deep, and miscalculated throws. This throwaway was how Dallas used the possession following Marshall’s acrobatic block.
Dallas also experienced some fluky errors. Smith -- who completed 175 passes compared to only three turnovers over his three 2019 playoff games -- turfed a simple swing pass, and Coffin uncharacteristically threw a huck directly to one of the best deep defenders in the game, Ryan Drost.
“Abe Coffin has been airtight the entire season, and he throws one or two turns and all of a sudden it's like, ‘let's start questioning Abe's ability,’ or ‘let's start let's start questioning Dalton's decision-making or his ability to throw a short swing pass or a short toss,’ said Nemec. “I mean, these things happen.”
“These are high level players, and they're the best in the world," Nemec continued. "But that doesn't mean they're infallible.”
Dallas’ D-Line had its own execution issues. Dillon Larberg committed three throwaways and only six completions as Dallas’ main D-line handler. Some of his mistakes, like attempting this hammer and floating it too long in the air, were head-scratching.
Nemec and the Roughnecks are implementing a specific plan to address their issues punching in break chances in the Finals. The team won’t be changing its philosophy.
“Our D-line punched in tons of breaks all season,” said Nemec. “I had complete faith that they would be able to do it [in the championship]. I would echo that even now. My faith is not shaken even though we did just see a couple of miscues from them.”
Instead, as the D-Line will continue to punch in its own break goals, Dallas acquired heaps of talent to help that happen. Dallas’ D-line will have more offensive talent next year than most other teams’ O-lines.
Dallas has added Chris Mazur, former Roughnecks champion in 2016, and last seen throwing 44 assists for the Los Angeles Aviators in the 2018 AUDL semifinals. Joining him is Kurt Gibson, two-time AUDL champion and considered among many to be one of the greatest ultimate players ever. Dallas also poached two of the best players from longtime rival Austin Sol in Chase Cunningham and Kyle Henke. Mazur, Gibson, and Cunningham are all able to play as possession handlers or downfield initiators, and the 22-year-old Henke is getting there, having led the Sol last season with 31 assists. Jay Froude, who was named to the First Team All-AUDL in 2017 and 2018 and is perhaps Dallas’ best all-around player, was injured early in the first half of the championship game, and only played five points. His return, as much as any addition, will help boost Dallas’ D-line offense if he slots in as a defender in 2020.
“I think what we're looking forward to is kind of a pumping up of our D-line offense in general,” said Nemec. “We can move guys around. You know, for example, Dillon [Larberg] or Kaplan [Maurer] or Gabe [Hernandez], constantly [were the] guys that were picking up for us last year, [and they] can initiate the offense downfield."
“Maybe Kurt [Gibson] can initiate the O. So it shouldn't be as much of a Band-Aiding type thing, where we're having to call a timeout and fix a deficiency, but rather the deficiency should just be fixed.”
As for the Empire, they’re comfortable that what worked last year will continue to work this year. They already have such a wealth of talent on their offensive line that scoring can seem easy. During the Championship, New York often scored after two-pass or even one-pass possessions. Dallas, on the other hand, needed far more passes. Though Smith, Coffin, and others were effective, Dallas had to squeeze more passes into tighter windows than New York; the pass totals from the game were 307 for Dallas and only 172 for New York. That difference, too, made Dallas press too hard on break chances.
Jones and the Empire know that many of the advantages that aided them last year remain in place. They’ll return a similar roster that went through 2019 undefeated, even adding a world-class player in Chris Kocher, who last played in 2017 for New York when he averaged 3.6 assists and 38 completions per game. The Empire, like the Roughnecks, will be improved in 2020. Regardless, New York is not complacent.
“The 2020 Empire team has earned absolutely nothing, and it's time for us to get to work,” said Jones.
It’s early, but Dallas and New York both have to have their eyes set on a championship rematch. Dallas is joining the talented West Division in 2020, while New York will contend with the newly added Boston Glory in its own East Division; neither Dallas nor New York will have an easy path. But they are likely the two most talented teams in the league. If they do face one another in the playoffs for the third year in a row, their distinct philosophies in regards to scoring break goals will remain in place. And whichever team scores better after forcing a turnover could very well end up winning the 2020 Championship.