In a game that was all but finished after the first quarter, the New York Empire stomped the upstart Austin Sol.
August 26, 2023 by Alex Rubin in Recap with 0 comments
For about 10 minutes at the start of the contest, it looked like the Austin Sol would be able to hang with the Empire. With two breaks to start the game, Austin put an early scare into New York.
After two straight upset victories in the playoffs, Austin wouldn’t be satisfied with a moral victory. Though not favored by any pundits to win, the Sol were promising to come out swinging even against the best team in AUDL history. In his pregame press conference, Matt Armour said, “We’re not here to lose by two and have you guys write up ‘Oh the Sol put up a good fight.’ We’re going to come out swinging. We don’t care if we’re going to lose by 10 if it improves our chances to win by one.”
For two entire points, Austin was on a trajectory to win by one. The Sol were winning the game with stronger energy and a good sense of field position. They used two short field turnovers to punch in breaks and looked to have a foothold in the game with a 2-0 lead. It seemed that Armour’s instinct that the Sol could compete would prove prophetic. Until New York clamped down its defense and wouldn’t let Austin get a throw out of their own half. The Empire scored six straight to effectively put the game away with a virtuosic D-line performance.
The latter stages of the first quarter turned when multiple Sol short field turns gave New York easy break chances. Though the Empire looked uneven in the wind to start — they threw three turnovers before notching their first goal — once they held, the New York defense was really able to put pressure on Austin’s relatively untested handler group. After the Sol’s 2-0 run to open the game, New York closed on a 7-1 run to blow the game open, running through its entire roster to churn out break after break after break.
“A lot of the mental edge we have is from our fitness and the fact that we run through all of our guys,” Empire D-line star John Randolph said after the game. “Through the whole game, we were running our two D lines switching off and of course their O line was playing every O point. It’s a huge mental edge when you’re only playing half as many points as the guy you’re guarding. They say the legs feed the wolf, and our legs definitely help us have that mentality.”
The Sol seemed in shock and couldn’t find the answers needed for a comeback. Austin didn’t even try a basic change-of-pace maneuver like a sideline roller pull until the very end of the first half. With the swirling wind and the shakiness of New York’s offense to start, pinning the Empire against the sideline or against a double team may have helped keep the game more interesting, but Austin was having too much trouble stringing together passes against a revitalized Empire defense and the magnitude of the moment suddenly hitting the Austin offense.
While Austin stagnated, the Empire shone. John Randolph and Bretton Tan each had impressive layout blocks that led to breaks. If you imagined before the game that the Empire would only convert four of their ten offensive possessions in the first half into scores, you might think they were in trouble. They still held an eight point lead as the conditions favored a defensive game and the Empire defense came to play.
From one perspective, Austin suffered a number of unforced turnovers. They struggled to complete swing passes backed up against their own end zone. They chose to take wide swings against a force middle defense that presented a big challenge to complete with a gusting wind, and they dropped some throws that did hit their hands. But New York simply outplayed their opponents in all facets.
“Our team’s commitment to individual matchups and playing how we want them to play [stood out],” Randolph said. “If you’re guarding a guy who is not a confident hucker, force him under and get him on the sideline and get him to throw a big space pass. They turfed a few big space passes, and it might look like watching the game that they made a mistake, but we’re upping the probability on that by putting their slightly weaker throwers into those spots that they don’t like, so that was the team strategy that blew it wide open for us.”
As Randolph alluded to, the Empire also plainly won their individual matchups. John Randolph was in Evan Swiatek’s pocket the entire game. Antoine Davis owned Kyle Henke. Marques Brownlee clearly had the advantage over Duncan Fitzgerald both with his wide mark and his speed on the counterattack. For Austin, Joey Wylie had his moments slowing down Osgar, and Matt Armour’s two blocks exemplified a good shift, but the Sol couldn’t put together more than one good moment at a time, while the Empire were stringing them together like Christmas lights.
“They are just used to putting in that extra bit of effort,” Swiatek said. “They played [force middle] and it’s difficult, it’s an adjustment for any team to play against, but that wasn’t really like what messed us up. More than anything–when you’re New York and you’ve had to battle so many good teams, you get in the habit of putting in every bit of effort on pretty much every play. John Randolph got me down in the end zone here and that’s a great example of that.”
The second half featured a few highlights from each team. Brandon Dial had an impressive layout block on a shoulder high away shot aimed at Jack Williams. Elliott Chartock ripped a beautiful line drive huck that held its line perfectly in the wind–probably the most impressive throw of the night. Despite those moments, most of the fans in attendance lost interest by the time the score differential reached ten. Babbitt had put on street clothes by the time the third quarter started. The press box was researching the biggest blowouts in AUDL history. On the broadcast, Evan Lepler was left discussing twins Ryan and Mike Drost’s trip to the Minnesota Twins game last night. Midway through the fourth quarter, Jagt, Williams, Chartock, and the rest of the O-line were sitting on the ground on the sideline with their cleats off.
Babbitt had one of the most interesting statistical games in league history. He played seven first half points, scoring six goals — the last one the most emphatic — and needed zero throws. He simply got open in the end zone nearly every point he was on the field. Davis, Randolph, and Ryan Drost each notched two blocks to lead the energized defensive effort. For Drost, that makes an even 200 for his career, becoming the first to the milestone in league history.
New York advances and will face Salt Lake in Saturday night’s final. The Empire beat the Shred 23-19 back on July 15 and will look to repeat the feat to secure their third championship and win their 30th consecutive game, which would tie the Toronto Rush’s all-time record.
Austin will regroup as it looks to 2024. The success of getting to Championship Weekend this season certainly outweighs their dismal showing in the semifinal and sets a standard for competitive success moving forward.
“You don’t walk into a Championship,” Swiatek said. “[Carolina] is a great example of that. They battled year after year after year and they finally broke through…this three year plan was the foundation of the next three year plan. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but we’ll get there.”