Recap vs. Dallas Elite – July 23, 2016

D.C. Divas Upset Dallas Elite, 28-26, To Win Third National Championship
DC 28, Dallas 26
By Neal Rozendaal

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Pittsburgh, PA – The D.C. Divas have now won two championship trophies as members of the Women’s Football Alliance, trophies they can place side by side.

Or perhaps back to back.

The Divas’ offense rallied from an early two-touchdown deficit, the defense forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter, and the D.C. Divas upset the previously undefeated Dallas Elite for the 2016 national championship of women’s football, 28-26. The Divas won their second straight national title and their third overall, becoming the first team in the nine-year history of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) to win consecutive league championships.

The 2016 WFA national title game featured two teams seeking redemption. The Divas (10-1), champions of the Eastern Conference, entered the game having won nine straight contests since dropping their season opener to the Dallas Elite on April 9. As defending national champs, the Divas were the underdogs coming into the title game against a Dallas team that had defeated them at home by three touchdowns earlier in the year.

The Elite (10-1), on the other hand, were the undefeated champions of the Western Conference and had only lost one game in the franchise’s two-year history. But that loss, a 30-26 setback to the Divas in the 2015 WFA national title game in Los Angeles, cost the Elite a chance to bring the national championship back to Dallas for the first time since 2008. With the all-time series knotted at one win apiece, the rubber match between these two elite teams was met with high anticipation and national television coverage on ESPN3.

Dallas and D.C. started out cautiously as the game began, exchanging a series of three and outs followed by a punt. But on their second drive, the powerful Dallas offense drew first blood. Star wide receiver Alberta Fitcheard-Brydson, a 15-year veteran of women’s football and a two-time gold medal winner with Team USA, slipped behind the D.C. defense, and Elite quarterback Jessica Gerhart found her for a 56-yard touchdown pass midway through the first quarter. As is their custom, the Elite went for the two-point conversion. But the pass fell incomplete, and the Dallas lead stayed at 6-0.

The Divas’ offense then started to put together a decent drive, but penalties and several negative plays sent the Divas into a massive hole, at one point putting the offense 47 yards behind the first down marker. The Divas could only muster a punt to their own 42-yard line, and Dallas started with great field position.

The Divas earned a temporary reprieve with their first turnover of the game, as Sylvia Espinoza picked off a Gerhart pass to stave off the Dallas threat. But once again, the Divas’ offense could not muster a first down. The ferocious defensive line of the Elite simply overwhelmed Divas quarterback Allyson Hamlin and the rest of the Divas’ offense, and the Divas went three and out. D.C. punted to their own 33-yard line and trailed 6-0 as the first quarter came to a close.

Blessed once again with great field position, the Elite cashed in on their first big gamble of the game. Dallas lost seven yards on three plays and faced fourth and 17 from the D.C. 40-yard line. The Elite decided to go for it, and Gerhart found Fitcheard-Brydson for a 31-yard gain and a momentum-changing first down. On the very next play, running back Tiffany Hill expanded Dallas’ lead with a nine-yard touchdown run; although the two-point conversion run was stopped short, the Elite had seized a 12-0 lead early in the second quarter.

A great kickoff by Dallas then pinned the Divas back at their own 14-yard line. The Divas’ offense was finally able to chain together a couple of first downs, but their drive stalled out near midfield and they were forced to punt to the Dallas 26. The Elite drove into D.C. territory with an opportunity to further extend their lead, but the Divas’ defense came up with a huge fourth down stop to regain possession for the offense.

The Divas had been able to muster little offense by this point in the game. Star wide receiver Ashley Whisonant – the MVP of the Divas’ 2015 national championship game victory over Dallas – had left the contest with a badly-injured foot, and running back Kenyetta Grigsby was dealing with a shoulder injury. But as the first half came to a close, both stars returned to the game and came up big as the Divas made a stunning comeback going into halftime.

The D.C. offense went on one of their trademark time-consuming drives down the field, chewing up the clock and getting on the scoreboard with Grigsby punching it in from three yards out. Stephanie Nealis missed the extra point kick attempt, but the Divas had cut into the Elite lead, 12-6, with 1:12 left in the first half.

The Divas then gained even more momentum. Dallas had difficulty corralling the ensuing kickoff, and Divas linebacker Kira Robinson fell on the football at the Elite 25-yard line. Already in scoring position, the Divas’ offense picked up a first and goal at the seven-yard line and spent their final timeout of the half with 28 seconds left on the clock.

On first and goal and with no timeouts left, the Divas made a surprise call, running the ball up the middle of the field with Kenyetta Grigsby. Grigsby was tripped up inches short of the goal line, and quarterback Hamlin scrambled to get the offense back in position. With the clock running down, Hamlin took the snap and lunged forward herself for a one-yard touchdown with six seconds left in the first half. Nealis tacked on the extra point to give the Divas their first lead of the game, 13-12. Despite being held scoreless for over 28 minutes to start the contest, it was the D.C. Divas who held the lead at intermission over the Dallas Elite.

At halftime, the WFA league award winners were announced, and two Divas were recognized with major awards. Allyson Hamlin was named the WFA’s Eastern Conference Most Valuable Player for the 2016 season, while linebacker Safi Mojidi – who set a franchise record this season with ten takeaways – earned the Eastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year Award. Mojidi was the second straight Diva to earn that award, which went to linebacker Tia Watkins last season.

The Divas received the second half kickoff and promptly went three and out. But on their punt attempt on fourth down, the Dallas Elite were flagged with a personal foul penalty, which was followed by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Dallas bench for protesting the call. The back-to-back penalties allowed the Divas to retain possession and moved the ball near midfield, and the Divas made the Elite pay. Hamlin found Kentrina Wilson on a 40-yard touchdown pass, and Nealis’ extra point kick put the Divas ahead by eight points, 20-12.

But the Elite had an immediate response. Erika Bobo returned the kickoff deep into D.C. territory at the 36-yard line to give Dallas great starting field position. Several plays later, Tiffany Hill took a handoff, raced toward the Divas sideline, and tiptoed along the out of bounds line before diving into the end zone for her second rushing touchdown of the game. Hill’s 13-yard touchdown run pulled the Elite within two points, and Dallas went for two to tie the game. The Elite then made their first successful two-point conversion of the day after two previous failed attempts, running the ball into the end zone and tying the game at 20-20 with just under ten minutes remaining in the third quarter.

D.C. tried to get the lead right back. They used a long, time-consuming drive to break into the Dallas red zone, but an incomplete pass by Hamlin on fourth down gave the Elite possession at their own 19-yard line. Dallas then took over with their first chance to regain the lead since the first half. The Elite advanced into D.C. territory and faced fourth and three at the Divas’ 36-yard line as time expired in the third period. The 2016 WFA national title game was tied going into the fourth quarter, 20-20.

On the opening play of the fourth quarter, Dallas elected to go for it on fourth and three. Odessa Jenkins, the co-owner, head coach, and outstanding running back of the Elite, took the handoff and picked up enough yards for the first down. But before the play was over, the Divas’ 18-year veteran linebacker, Trigger McNair, jarred the ball loose, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Divas for a turnover.

Jenkins’ error looked like it might cost the Elite dearly until the Divas gave them the ball back in nearly the exact same fashion. Facing third and 20, Hamlin completed a long pass to wideout Amanda Congialdi. Congialdi picked up enough yardage for the first down but then fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Dallas right at midfield.

Congialdi’s fumble was the Divas’ only turnover of the game, but with momentum on their side, the Elite struck quickly against a stunned Divas squad. On Dallas’ first play after the turnover, Gerhart found Bobo on a swing pass, and Bobo blazed down the sidelines for a 50-yard touchdown. A run for the two-point conversion came up short of the goal line, but Dallas had regained the lead, 26-20, with 12:51 left in the game.

The Divas desperately tried to tie the score, but a nice drive into Dallas territory was stalled by a chop block penalty. The Divas were forced to punt to the Dallas 41-yard line with 8:06 left in the game.

But just when things looked dire for the Divas, a turnover gave the team another chance. On the very next play, a bad handoff for the Elite put the ball on the ground. Divas defensive lineman Denee “Dex” Walker, a nine-year veteran of women’s football who played for several years in Philadelphia, fell on the Dallas fumble at the Elite 40-yard line. It was the second fumble recovery of the fourth quarter for the Divas defense.

The D.C. offense took over 40 yards from the end zone with exactly eight minutes remaining in the game and trailing, 26-20. The biggest drive of the year – and one of the biggest in Divas history – followed, and it took place entirely on the ground. With the national championship hanging in the balance, the Divas turned to their all-time leading rusher, Kenyetta Grigsby, who would go on to be named the Most Valuable Player of the 2016 national title game in part due to her work on this drive.

Grigsby took the ball on two handoffs and gained eight yards, bringing up third and two at the Dallas 32. The Divas then called Grigsby’s number again, and she blasted into the clear for an 18-yard gain and a first down at the 14-yard line. A quarterback sneak by Hamlin netted four yards, but a strong run blitz from Dallas dropped Grigsby for a one-yard loss on second down, resulting in third and seven from the 11-yard line.

But even after being tackled for loss and facing third and long, the Divas continued to put their faith in Grigsby. She took the handoff on third down and powered forward for ten yards, picking up a first down at the one-yard line. She got the call again on the following play and charged for the goal line, but the officials marked her down an inch short of the end zone.

Hamlin did the rest from there, polishing off an eight-play drive with a one-yard quarterback keeper into the end zone on second down. Hamlin’s touchdown with 3:26 remaining in the game tied the score, 26-26, with the extra point pending.

The Divas lined up for the critical extra point kick attempt to take the lead. The Dallas defense jumped offsides and blocked Nealis’ kick, but the resulting penalty gave the Divas another conversion attempt, this time from the one-yard line.

Rather than attempt another kick, the Divas decided to buck conventional football wisdom and put the game back in Hamlin’s hands, sending the offense out for a two-point conversion. Standing only one yard away from the lead, the Divas called what had been their favorite short-yardage play all year: the quarterback sneak. Hamlin found a seam in the Dallas defensive line and popped out the back of the pile in the end zone for the two-point conversion. Hamlin held the ball aloft as her rushing score put the Divas back on top, 28-26, with 3:26 remaining in the contest.

The Dallas Elite had one final chance to retake the lead in the closing minutes of the national championship game. The Elite started the drive from their own 38-yard line and quickly faced fourth and ten. But on fourth down, the Divas were flagged for a questionable pass interference penalty on a pass play, giving Dallas an automatic first down.

Later in the drive, a Dallas player tried to catch a third down pass near the first down marker, and she appeared to fumble the football right after the pass arrived. The official ruled both the pass complete and the Dallas player down before the fumble, giving the Elite fourth and inches. Jenkins took the ball on the next play and rushed for the first down, keeping the drive alive on the Divas’ side of the field with around a minute left to play in the game.

But as time was running down, the defense sealed the national championship for the Divas with yet another turnover. Gerhart’s pass was intercepted by Espinoza, who returned it down the sidelines to the Dallas 30-yard line with 31 seconds remaining in the game. The Divas had won the turnover battle, 5-1, and the defense’s third turnover of the fourth quarter clinched the national title for the Divas.

Two kneel-downs by Hamlin made it official: the D.C. Divas were national champions once again. It was the 120th victory in the 16-year history of the D.C. Divas, giving the franchise the most wins of any team in women’s football history. The Divas claimed their first national championship back in Pittsburgh in 2006, when they defeated the Oklahoma City Lightning for the National Women’s Football Association (NWFA) title. Exactly one decade later, the Divas won their third national title in the same city, a city that has dubbed itself the City of Champions.

For the D.C. Divas, it’s a label that couldn’t be more fitting.

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