Recap vs. Chicago Force – May 7, 2016

Dramatic Divas Triumph On Game’s Final Play, Defeat Chicago, 41-34
DC 41, Chicago 34
By Neal Rozendaal

Recap • StatisticsBox Score

Chicago, IL – The 2016 D.C. Divas certainly have a flair for the dramatic.

Safi Mojidi intercepted a pass from Chicago’s Rachel Gore at the goal line as time expired, and the Divas held on for a heart-stopping 41-34 victory over the Chicago Force. Coupled with their last-minute victory over the Boston Renegades earlier this year, the Divas have now captured two road victories over top Eastern Conference rivals, both of them secured only in the final minute of play.

The Divas (4-1) have embraced a mantra the past couple of seasons that pits the “D.C. Divas vs. Everybody”. The Force (4-1) put that motto to the test in this contest. Cassie Brick, Jeanette Gray, and Jennifer Dulski – none of whom recorded any stats for the Force in their first four games – all came out of hibernation to log their first game action of the year against the Divas. The result was a Chicago Force squad that was significantly stronger than the edition that had already impressively steamrolled to easy victories in their first four games of the season.

Brick, in particular, was a relentless threat for the Force, a fact demonstrated early in the contest. The Divas’ first offensive drive resulted in a punt, and Brick – the former MVP of the 2012 national championship game as a member of the San Diego Surge – returned it all the way for a touchdown. Although the score was wiped out by a block in the back, she gave the Force great field position for their first offensive drive.

Chicago could not capitalize, however. The Force decided to go for it on fourth and eight from the D.C. 42-yard line, but a surprise run netted just one yard. The Divas took over from there and made their first dent on the scoreboard with a 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Allyson Hamlin to Ashley Whisonant. A bad snap led to a missed PAT kick by Stephanie Nealis, but the Divas still led, 6-0, with 9:45 left in the first quarter.

Brick had an immediate response, returning the ensuing kickoff all the way to the D.C. 29-yard line. Thanks largely to Brick’s kick returns and the Divas’ caution in attempting to kick or punt away from her, Chicago had excellent field position all game long, with an average starting field position at the D.C. 46-yard line.

The Divas were then victimized by the first of several questionable officiating calls. During a Chicago run on third and goal, a Divas defensive lineman had her helmet ripped off during the play. The officials flagged her for taunting, giving Chicago a new set of downs at the D.C. six-yard line. On their sixth attempt inside the Divas’ ten-yard line, the Force finally punched through with a four-yard touchdown run by Brick. Chicago grabbed a 7-6 lead with 6:40 remaining in the first quarter.

A 58-yard drive helped the Divas snatch the lead right back. Whisonant caught her second score of the game, a seven-yard touchdown reception from Hamlin that gave the Divas a 13-7 lead with 2:10 left in the first quarter. Whisonant, who suffered a slight neck injury on the first offensive play of the game, battled through the pain to score two touchdowns on the evening.

The Force went three and out on their next possession and were forced to punt as the first quarter ended. The Divas opened the second quarter with a nice drive down the field until an offensive facemask penalty stalled the drive. A poor punt that actually bounced backwards gave the Force great field position at the D.C. 27-yard line.

But again, the Divas’ defense rose to the occasion and did a terrific job. With a short field behind them, the D.C. defense forced an incomplete pass on fourth down to give the ball right back to their offense.

For the second consecutive drive, however, the Divas’ offense was stymied by penalty. A long reverse run by Whisonant for a first down was negated by a block in the back call, bringing up second and long. The Divas were forced to punt two plays later, and once again, the Force started with great field position.

This time, Chicago would not be denied in their efforts to retake the lead. A 17-yard touchdown run from Australian import Zoe Barnett knotted the score at 13-13, and Chicago’s pass on the two-point conversion attempt fell short. But a penalty gave the Force another shot at it, and Chicago quarterback Rachel Gore’s one-yard run added two points and put the Force back on top, 15-13, with 6:33 to go before halftime.

The Divas’ offense came back with their third long scoring drive of the half. The Divas used long passes to wide receivers Kentrina Wilson and Callie Brownson to march the ball 65 yards to the end zone, with running back Kenyetta Grigsby breaking the goal line on a six-yard run. The Divas retook the lead, 20-15, with 2:48 remaining in the first half, and D.C. would take that five-point lead into the halftime break.

The Divas seized control of the game by dominating the third quarter of play. The Force received the second half kickoff but were quickly forced to punt, and linebacker Tia Watkins broke through to block the punt attempt by Chicago’s Jamie Fornal. Quiana Ford fell on the ball for the Divas at the Chicago 49-yard line, and the D.C. offense went right to work. Hamlin finished off the drive with a three-yard quarterback keeper for the touchdown, giving the Divas a 27-15 advantage with 11:05 left in the third period.

The D.C. defense came out on fire again on their second appearance of the second half. Brick was stopped on a pass reception by Latriece Elcock and C’Vette Henson for just a three-yard gain on fourth and eight, resulting in a turnover on downs at the Chicago 48-yard line.

Grigsby stepped into the spotlight again. After being dragged to the ground on an uncalled horse-collar tackle at the Chicago two-yard line, Grigsby took the ball into the end zone on the next play for a 34-15 D.C. lead with 8:13 remaining in the third quarter. Kenyetta Grigsby ended the day with two touchdowns rushing, boosting her career mark to 97 touchdowns since joining the D.C. Divas in 2010.

The Chicago Force failed on their third straight offensive series, turning the ball over on downs at the D.C. 42-yard line, and it looked like the Divas – leading by three touchdowns – might be able to put the game out of reach midway through the third quarter. But the Divas’ offense controversially came up empty for the first time in the second half on their next possession. On fourth and three from the D.C. 49-yard line, Grigsby took the ball and dove for the first down marker. The officials marked her inches short of the line to gain, and the Divas turned the ball over to Chicago near midfield.

Brick made the Divas pay for their turnover. Her 17-yard run followed by a seven-yard reception got the Force offense rolling, and Brick would finish off the drive with a ten-yard run for the end zone. Trigger McNair blocked Chicago’s extra point kick attempt, however, and the Force cut their deficit to 34-21 with 3:06 left in the third period.

The Divas’ offense polished off an impressive third quarter with another march to the end zone. This time, the Divas went 56 yards for the score, with Hamlin scoring on a one-yard quarterback sneak just 26 seconds before the end of the third quarter. Nealis’ fifth successful PAT kick pushed the Divas’ lead to 20, their largest of the game. The Divas led, 41-21, after three quarters of play.

However, the Divas would not score in the final quarter, and the Force would try to author an improbable comeback. Their rally began early in the fourth quarter. Gore connected with Jeanette Gray for a 25-yard pass on third and long to give Chicago first and goal, and Barnett ran it in for a four-yard touchdown to cut the D.C. lead to 41-28 with 13:14 left in the game.

The Force then gained even more momentum on a bizarre turn of events. The Divas advanced the ball to the Chicago 20-yard line, where they faced fourth and six. Nealis, who has a very strong leg as evidenced by the 32-yard field goal she made in last year’s national title game, lined up for a 37-yard attempt. But this time her kick came up short of the goalposts, and the ball bounced dead in the end zone.

The ball sat in the end zone for five seconds as both teams made their way off of the field. The officials, however, never whistled the play dead, and Jamie Fornal wisely scooped up the ball and began to run the ball down the sideline. The Divas raced back onto the field and tried to stop Fornal, who appeared to have a convoy to the end zone. But wide receiver Kentrina Wilson made a tremendous play, breaking through and dragging Fornal down at the D.C. 13-yard line.

Chicago would now start with their best field position of the game, but once again, the Force offense was ineffective against the D.C. defense. Safi Mojidi, who set a franchise record with four takeaways last week against Atlanta, picked off a Gore pass with 6:34 remaining in the game to preserve the Divas’ 41-28 advantage.

Fornal’s return had completely reversed the field position, however, and the Divas were soon forced to punt to midfield. Gray got the Force rolling with a 20-yard pass reception from Gore, and Brick had two receptions on the drive, taking the second one 23 yards for the Chicago score with exactly three minutes left in the contest. Brick and Gray had a substantial impact in their first games of the season; Brick finished the game with 18 combined rushes and receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns, while Gray had 10 receptions for 77 yards and sustained two drives by drawing critical 15-yard pass interference penalties.

But the Force missed their second PAT kick attempt, and the Divas still led, 41-34, with three minutes to go in the contest. Callie Brownson fielded a short kickoff near midfield, and the Divas would net seven yards on their next three plays. The Force used their first timeout of the half after the third down run with 1:51 left on the clock.

Facing fourth and three from the Chicago 42-yard line, the Divas had a critical decision to make. They decided to trust their defense and punt the ball away rather than try to maintain possession, and the kick rolled dead at the Chicago 22-yard line with 1:40 remaining in the game. The Force had the ball with a chance to tie or win the game with a touchdown and conversion, but the punt gave them by far their worst starting field position of the entire contest.

Gore completed a six-yard pass to Fornal on third and three to keep the chains moving, and then Brick took a short dump-off pass 22 yards to the D.C. 43-yard line. Chicago spent their second timeout of the half with 43 seconds left on the clock. The Force converted another third down – this time a third and two – on a ten-yard reception by Jeanette Gray, who stepped out of bounds at the Divas’ 25-yard line with 29 seconds remaining.

On the next play, Gore threw an ill-advised pass into double coverage. Ashley Whisonant leapt up and got her hands on the ball, but a fellow Divas defensive player upended her trying to make a play and knocked the ball free for an incompletion. After narrowly escaping disaster, the Force then tried to surprise the Divas on second down with a run up the middle by Brick. It netted five yards to the D.C. 20-yard line, but it also forced Chicago to spend their final timeout with 16 seconds remaining in the game.

On third and five, Gore attempted to go back to Gray, and although the pass fell incomplete, an interference penalty set Chicago up with first and goal from the Divas’ ten-yard line with ten seconds left to play. Trailing by seven points, the Force were just ten yards short of a potential game-tying or game-winning score.

But Safi Mojidi played the hero once again for the Divas. Gore dropped back and fired a pass toward the goal line, but Mojidi stepped in front of the receiver for her second fourth-quarter interception of the contest. Mojidi ran around long enough for time to run out on the clock and then stepped out of bounds to end the game, as the Divas captured a dramatic 41-34 victory over the Chicago Force.

The showdown between the two winningest franchises in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) did not disappoint, and in the end, it was the Divas who came away with a landmark win in their 150th game in franchise history. The Divas entered the contest ranked as the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture behind Chicago, and the win gives the Divas a huge boost as they try to secure home field advantage throughout the upcoming WFA playoffs. Home field advantage could be an important factor in the Divas’ quest to become the first team in the history of the Women’s Football Alliance to make it back to the WFA championship game the year after winning the title.

The D.C. Divas will carry a four-game winning streak into this weekend’s game in Baltimore against the reigning WSFL champion Keystone Assault.

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