Winning a meaningful game thew hard way
ANAHEIM, CA - The Los Angeles KISS have never played in a game with this magnitude in the history of the franchise. Sure every team will be playing when the final week concludes the regular season, but last night already had the feel of a playoff game with so much on the line to stay in LA to start the playoffs. Over 8000 fans knew what was at stake, and the KISS fed off of the vibes for the first 53 minutes of the game.
Up 49-28 with seven minutes left in the game, nearly everyone in the Honda Center felt as if this game was in the books. For some, it could have been their first time attending an Arena league game, where in all reality no lead is safe at any point. Fans got a good sense of what the league is all about, and the Gladiators threw everything and the kitchen sink to save themselves from falling behind in the four seed race. They executed three onside kids, succeeding on two of them. The final onside kick near the final minute turned into some sort of pinball game, ricocheting off of everyone before somehow and in some way Nick Seither grabs a short kick that traveled more than 40 yards into the end zone, cutting what was a sure win for the KISS into a two point deficit with even the Gladiators having an opportunity to tie the game.
The KISS though did just enough. They scored enough points in the final minute. They made enough plays and stops when needed in the final 60 seconds to hold on by the skin of their teeth. Its defense did just enough to stop a potential momentum shift. The Gladiators scored 33 points in the fourth quarter. They needed 36 though to come away with a victory, as the LA KISS were able to walk out of the game 63-61 winners.
“Tonight felt like a playoff atmosphere,” wide receiver Donovan Morgan said. “This game pushed us a lot tonight. We did a great job of executing and give the hard way something this organization has ever done before and that is winning back to back games and seven wins in one season. Tonight was a good night to be on the right side of things.”
It is so strange to think that the KISS would even be in a position with how the final minutes turned this game into. Before large leads by the KISS in every win would never turn into game changers for their opponents. Cleveland though answered the bell with their special teams. Four straight onside kicks were all the difference, making the final minute a nail biter. Lucky for the KISS, after the fumble return for the touchdown in the final minute by Cleveland, the Gladiators got too greedy where Quentin Sims pushed off his defender while snagging a two point conversion. It was called back for pass interference, and that play alone was all the difference for the KISS to escape.
“All those onside kicks put us in a real tough spot,” head coach Omarr Smith said. “I have to relook at our special teams and regroup ourselves so we can eliminate all of those chances.”
Nathan Stanley’s 317 yard and eight touchdown performance arguably could be his best performance as a starting quarterback. At first he was giving all the love to Donovan Morgan, who finished with a team high 126 yards and four touchdowns, but he got everyone involved. DJ Stephens was clutch when needed, also catching for over 100 yards with his three touchdowns. Smith also has not let go of getting his fullback involved, with Rory Nixon catching three big passes for 41 yards, one of his longest a 19 yard snag going untouched. Stanley made sure that the offense was unpredictable, and his entire receiving core was on the same page on nearly every snap.
“Over the last few weeks with Stanley back when we break out of the huddle we make sure we are still communicating,” Morgan said. “When Stanley heads under the snap he is pointing at everyone and looking at the defense. This gives us a chance to see how we need to run our routes. At the end of the day, Stanley makes sure that we are all doing what we are supposed to do because we are real thorough when we talk in the huddle, and after the huddle we are seeing eye to eye with everything.”
Many people did have the feeling as if this was Cleveland’s game from the start, as both teams managed to trade touchdowns for the first 30 minutes. The second half became a tipping point for the KISS to make a statement, even with things beginning to slip away. This was their first win against a prime opponent since the same Gladiator team back in week 3. A win tonight gives the KISS sole possession of fourth place in the playoff picture, jumping over Cleveland by half a game. With Jacksonville losing to Portland last night, and with the Gladiators only having one more game, the KISS have complete control of the final spot to host that first round home game they have been dreaming of by just winning one of their two final games this season. It is hard not to really get a sense a change has begun to take place in Los Angeles. Their seventh win this season also matched their win total over their first two seasons, and in a longer schedule. The KISS still refuse to look ahead, but wrapping up a big accomplishment in the next two weeks can make this team one of the surprise squads heading into the playoffs. A win tonight is a good start to build off of that confidence.
“To say that we not only have a chance to play in the playoffs, but to have a home game in the first round is huge for all of us on our team,” Morgan said. “For me I have been here since day one, and for me its words that can’t describe what we have all been through before. We can be better than those other teams who have finished in the middle of the pack and have won the Arena Bowl like the 2006 Chicago Rush that ended 7-9. We still have a lot of work to do though.”