Friday, Oct. 29, 2010 | 2:17 a.m.
OMAHA, NE — With sellout crowds and unprecedented buzz in their hometown, the Omaha Nighthawks have been the big story of the United Football League season.
But the Las Vegas Locomotives showed Thursday why the defending UFL champions are still the league's main force to be reckoned with.
The Locos dialed up a dominating defensive effort that forced five turnovers in a 24-10 win over Omaha before a crowd of 23,554 fans at Rosenblatt Stadium. The win gave Las Vegas (5-1) a season sweep of the Nighthawks and strengthened the Locos' hold on first place in the league with their fifth straight win.
“We're aggressive and we've improved our pass rush and our tighter coverages,” Las Vegas coach Jim Fassel said. “We get after people and (turnovers) are what the by-product of that is. They've been very opportunistic and at times when we've struggled on offense they've carried the load and given our offense good field position. They've played outstanding. They really, really have. I don't think we've had a bad game.”
Las Vegas turned four second-half takeaways into 17 points including a pair of fourth-quarter turnovers that led directly to touchdowns that snapped a 10-10 tie.
The first happened deep in Nighthawks' territory when Omaha quarterback Jeff Garcia couldn't connect with running back Ahman Green on a pitch, tossing the ball behind Green. Locos linebacker Brandon Moore recovered the loose ball at the Nighthawks' 3-yard line, and Marcel Shipp scored his UFL-leading fifth rushing touchdown on the next play to put Las Vegas in front 17-10 with 7:38 to play.
Omaha (3-2) had one final chance to put together a tying drive, but on 4th-and-2 from his own 36, Garcia was picked off by Locos defensive end Eric Henderson, who ran untouched into the end zone for the clinching score with 1:20 left in the game.
“Coach drew up a great game plan and we buy into it,” Henderson said. “We wanted to win. We had the discipline to not turn the ball over, to create turnovers, takeaways, and just play hard.”
Garcia, who led a pair of comeback victories in the Nighthawks' first two home games of the year, faced constant pressure from the Las Vegas defense. The former NFL All-Pro was sacked three times and completed just 13 of 32 passes for 155 yards and four interceptions while being held without a touchdown pass for the first time all year.
“Obviously, I was not what I needed to be tonight for this team,” Garcia said. “It's not indicative of how I play this game and how I've always played this game. I've never been one to turn the ball over, force the issue, force the football. Against good football teams, you can't afford to put yourself in those situations, especially the way our defense was playing. Unfortunately I feel responsible for this game and how it turned out because it shouldn't have ended that way.”
Omaha's defense turned in a solid game of its own in the loss, holding the Locos to just 145 total yards and allowing only one true touchdown drive. The Nighthawks stymied the UFL's top running back duo of Shipp and DeDe Dorsey, two of the UFL's top three rushers. The pair combined for just 54 yards on 27 carries.
“I thought the defense played at a really, really high level today,” Omaha coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. “I thought they got after it well. I told the team the only way we can't win today is to turn the ball over, and that's what we did.”
Both defenses turned up their play in the second half. Las Vegas gained just 45 yards after halftime, but took advantage of the short field provided by four Nighthawks turnovers in the second half. Omaha gained just 77 yards themselves after halftime.
Fassel said riding his defense has become a solid strategy that has now extended to five consecutive wins following a season-opening loss. The Locos now have forced a league-high 17 turnovers.
“The fundamentals of winning football games is stop the run, be able to run, create turnovers, don't turn the ball over, and pressure the other team's quarterback. That's it,” Fassel said. “We've got a slogan: 'Protect the ball and protect the quarterback.'”
After a scoreless first quarter, Nighthawks' running back Maurice Clarett put Omaha on top 7-0 with his first professional touchdown on a 1-yard run with 10:52 left in the second period. It was Clarett's first touchdown since the 2003 Fiesta Bowl during his freshman season at Ohio State and marked the Nighthawks' first rushing score of the season.
Las Vegas answered on its next possession, putting together its best drive of the night. After picking up just one first down on their first four possessions, the Locos drove 63 yards in 13 plays with quarterback Drew Willy scoring on a 1-yard sneak to make it 7-7 with 5:34 left before the half.
The Locos' remaining schedule leaves them in prime position to return to Omaha for the UFL Championship Game on Nov. 27. Las Vegas will host 2-3 Sacramento next Saturday before a bye week and a trip to 1-4 Hartford on Nov. 20. But Fassel maintained his team isn't ready to start letting its thoughts drift to the postseason yet.
“You look at it and you say, 'OK, we've enhanced our position to go to the championship game,' which is where we want to get to. But that is second to our goal to get better every game. We don't want to take a step back. We want to get better. I'm not going to let them go through the motions.”