'WHEELERS 58, BISMARCK 20
MOLINE — The Quad City Steamwheelers were not about to fumble away a rematch with the Bismarck Bucks.
Fumbles foiled the local Indoor Football League team's visit to North Dakota in late April, but those same sort of takeaways Friday night helped nudge the 'Wheelers closer to a playoff berth with one regular-season weekend remaining.
With QC's defense recovering three first-half fumbles, including one returned 47 yards for a touchdown by Kewan Alfred, the 'Wheelers stuck the Bucks, 58-20 at the TaxSlayer Center.
Bismarck (2-11) added a pair of fourth-quarter turnovers, and suffered nine scoreless possessions in all, to mark easily the best defensive game of the season by the 'Wheelers.
IFL passing leader E.J. Hilliard also delighted a Military Appreciation Night crowd, throwing 4 first-half TDs and rushing for three more scores in QC's home finale.
The pressure to hold serve at home was on the 'Wheelers (6-7) with Nebraska (6-7) winning late Thursday at San Diego (1-12).
Beating Bismarck (2-11) allowed the 'Wheelers to remain in the sixth and final playoff spot, thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker over Nebraska gained two weekends ago with a goal-line stand in overtime.
The 'Wheelers can move into the No. 5 playoff seed tonight, with Tucson (6-6) at league-leading Arizona (12-0). If Tuscon loses, QC owns a head-to-head tiebreaker there, too.
The 'Wheelers visit Tucson in next Saturday's regular-season finale. The defending champion Iowa Barnstormers (11-1) also host Nebraska, with a Nebraska defeat or QC win clinching a playoff berth for the 'Wheelers.
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In another big game tonight, Sioux Falls (10-2) visits Iowa with the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye on the line. QC could be rematched in a playoff opener with whichever earns the No. 3 seed, depending on the outcome of final regular-season games next weekend.
Even though QC's offense misfired with a field-goal miss on Friday's opening drive, there was little doubt to the outcome by halftime.
The 'Wheelers scored the game's first 28 points, the last TD coming on Alfred's fumble return.
La'Kel Bass also recovered a fumble on the goal line, and IFL recovered fumbles leader Antonio Marshall added another to foil another first-half possession by Bismarck.
Marshall later added a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone. Nose guard Anthony Pruitt recovered the last of four fumbles on a quarterback sack by Alfred to end Bismarck's last drive.
The Bucks managed only 11 first downs, 5 before intermission, with a field-goal miss and another turnover on downs overshadowing a pair of long, second-quarter TD passes to Fredrick Abraham.
Meanwhile, the 'Wheelers offense enjoyed a trio of one-play scoring drives, two of them on Hilliard scoring strikes to Davenport Central grad Keyvan Rudd. On the other, the QC QB found wide-open IFL scoring leader Quinton Pedroza.
Hilliard also found Carlos Wiggins in the first-half barrage, which saw QC take a 41-13 into intermission.
Augustana grad Jacob Stytz added a third-quarter field goal to a pair of Hilliard TD runs to account for QC's second-half scoring.