By: John Letasky, Billings Gazette and 406 Mt Sports

BILLINGS — The Billings Outlaws were able to shut out all the background noise.

It turns out Outlaws players weren’t even thinking about playing against a hall of fame coach on Saturday, having a game forfeited against them the week before while warming up on the road, or a change in leadership with a new interim Arena Football League commissioner.

Instead the Outlaws were focused on going 1-0 for the week as has been their goal all season and put together an impressive 54-35 victory over the Salina (Kansas) Liberty (2-1) to improve to 4-0 Saturday in front of just over 1,700 fans at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.

Billings was clicking on all cylinders of the game against the Heron O’Neal-coached Liberty. O’Neal led a previous version of the Outlaws to three league championships while coaching the team to a 67-17 record from 2006-10.

O’Neal, who in his tenure with the former Outlaws had a 43-3 record at the Metra, came into the game with a 3-0 record against the current Outlaws franchise, which was rebooted in 2022, as coach of the Liberty. It was his first time coaching against the Outlaws at the Metra, although he had led the Colorado franchise against the now-defunct Billings Wolves in the Indoor Football League at Metra.

Current Outlaws players said they didn’t let the mystique of facing O’Neal affect their preparation or game plan.

“No disrespect, but we were just focused on this week,” said Billings quarterback Isaac Harker, who threw for three touchdowns, one to Karonce Higgins, another to Terrence Ames Jr., and another to Duane Brown.

Derrick Harvey Jr., who had one of two Outlaws’ pick-sixes to give Billings a 35-14 lead with 9:51 on the clock in the third quarter, had the same thoughts as Harker on facing O’Neal.

“We focused on what we have to do to win the game,” he said. “It didn’t affect us that much.”

About an hour before the game, Outlaws coach Cedric Walker said that both teams were informed that the AFL was shifting from ironman rules, where a majority of players play both ways, to free substitution.

Walker said that was “unacceptable” to occur that close to game time but gave his team credit for fighting through the rules change.

“It was a good game for both teams,” he said. “Coach O (O’Neal) had his team ready to go.”

Harker said the Outlaws will adjust to the new free substitution rules and carry on.

“It is different. It affects us, but just changes things,” he said. “Our guys were ready to play both ways and that means we are ready to play free substitution. It was unexpected, but sometimes you have to roll with the punches.”

The Outlaws were dominant from the start. Billings received the ball first and drove down to the Salina eight-yard line before Harker was intercepted. However, two plays later John Whiteside recovered a fumble in the end zone and the Outlaws were up 7-0 after kicker Bailey Giffen started an incredible night with a successful conversion kick.

Defensively, Billings did plenty of damage as Higgins had a five-yard interception return with 27 seconds left in the third quarter to give the Outlaws a 45-21 advantage.

Omar Hemphill-Toledo also had an interception for Billings on the last play of the first half and the Outlaws took a 28-14 lead into the break.

Harvey gave credit to the coaching staff for drawing up the plays and the defensive line for “getting pressure on the quarterback (Charles McCullum Jr.) to make him throw it up.”

“Our coaches scripted a great game plan,” said Harvey. “We did a lot of scouting so that we were in the right place at the right time.”

The Outlaws also scored on the ground as Hunter Swoboda had a three-yard TD run in the second quarter to give Billings a 28-14 lead with 11 seconds in the first half remaining.

Giffen was perfect on seven point-after attempts and also made a 19-yard field goal and had another two points on a kickoff when he sent the ball through the uprights with 14:53 left in regulation to give Billings a 47-21 advantage.

It was the Outlaws’ first physical game since a 49-12 victory at the Everett (Washington) Wolfpack on May 5. The Outlaws were to play at Rapid City (South Dakota) on May 11, but the Marshals players forfeited the game prior to kickoff as players were warming up in a salary dispute.

“That motivated us more,” said Harvey of the Marshals forfeiting. “We love football and our fans and wanted to play for them. It was easy to come home and play and we wanted to get a win in front of our fans.”

The first-year, relaunched AFL has also been rocked by other scheduling changes, teams dropping out and bad TV deals that spurred a change in leadership this week when former NFL coach Jeff Fisher was named interim commissioner.

Through it all, Outlaws players say they have remained focused.

“We have great management and (owner) Steve (Titus) takes care of us and coach Walker does,” said Harvey. “We haven’t had any problems and are well taken care of.”

Offered Harker: “We are pretty sheltered from it. Titus takes care of us. It was disappointing not to play (vs. Rapid City) but we have a big-picture viewpoint and worked for a big win tonight.”

The Outlaws will visit Dodge City, Kansas, to play the Southwest Kansas Storm on May 25.

“We won. We are 1-0 (for the week) and have some time off to get ready for Southwest Kansas and we’ll go from there,” said Walker.

Source: https://406mtsports.com/extra/billings-outlaws-arena-football-league-salina-liberty/article_691df6ca-1593-11ef-8b9b-4b97892aa5d5.html