Pettrey Field Goal Delays Midnight for AFL's Cinderella
CLEVELAND - An improbable season in Cleveland has hit another stratosphere. How many times do you win when your quarterback throws five interceptions? It's enough to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals apparently.
A remarkable defense and clutch kicker were enough in front of a deafening crowd at Quicken Loans Arena Saturday. As the buzzer went off, Aaron Pettrey's kick from midfield soared high into the rafters and through for a 39-37 Cleveland Gladiators win over the Philadelphia Soul. And so the Arena Football League's best story continues for another night.
"It's huge for our organization to go to round two," coach Steve Thonn said. "Anyway we can get there, we got there."
Afterwards, when asked about his thoughts leading into the kick, Pettrey had a simple answer.
"Make the kick," Pettrey said.
Saturday was a slugfest from the start. Receivers locked up, crossing routes filled, hands up on the line. Welcome to the Arena Football League postseason, Cleveland.
"They really contacted our guys," Thonn said. "That's the first game where our guys got hit every time they went in motion."
Unlike against the Tampa Bay Storm when Cleveland moved down the field with ease, there would be no such luck at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday - for either team. On Cleveland's first play of the game, Shane Austin was hit on his throw. As a result, it hung a little bit, leading to a Rayshaun Kizer pick, his first of four. It didn't get any easier as Kizer had two more chances at a pick on the Gladiators' second drive.
Limited separation by the receivers nearly all night kept Austin in hot water. Thyron Lewis can't get any space on a little move to the right in the end zone. Interception.
In the red zone, no one is open so Austin just slings one high over Goodman's outstretched hands. It bounces off the bar. To Kizer. Interception.
Austin, perhaps assuming his crossing options would be as open as they were in Tampa, slings one over to Goodman. Goodman sits in an army of white jerseys. Interception.
On a fourth quarter goal line stand, the motion receiver goes right. He's never open. No matter, Austin throws. Interception.
Cleveland's defense kept it in it, as it had for so much of the regular season.
"Obviously, we were struggling big time on offense and our defense kept getting us opportunities," Thonn said. "Our defense is the one that won the game for us."
Even without leading ballhawk Marrio Norman, gone to the NFL.
"It's definitely a damper," defensive back Dominic Jones said. "But that's the beauty of this team. We've been patching it all year. If you look at our transactions and our starting lineups from game to game to game, it's been plug and chug all year."
Philadelphia cruised to an easy touchdown late in the first quarter. Two plays, 30 yards. That wouldn't happen again.
"Earlier in the game, I wanted to show them something that we really weren't playing for the remainder of the game," Jones said. "So early on, they got a couple of easy looks. That was kind of on purpose. We wanted them to think, here, this is what we're going to be in the rest of the game, so they can think that's how it going to be - and then twist it up on them."
The Gladiators began their resurgence with a blocked extra point, with Jones taking it back all the way. That kept Cleveland within four.
Dominic Jones, remember that name.
Following Austin's second pick, defensive back Joe Phinisee was able to answer. On a lob into the end zone, it looked like Philadelphia's V'Keon Lacey had it. Lacey did, for a shining second. But it gleamed there for the taking. So Phinisee took it for an interception.
"Thanks to the weight room, Joe was able to pull that thing away, someway, somehow," Jones said.
And so Cleveland, nearly left for dead, took a lead. On third down, Austin missed a wide open Goodman on a lob. No matter. On fourth, he went right after Goodman again. Goodman slanted and Austin uncorked a laser that Goodman flung himself after for a 15-12 lead.
Cleveland's defense held once again at its own 11 to take the three-point lead into the half. Jones disrupted a short five-yard route. Then, Phinisee came up with a couple of big stops in the end zone.
The second half started the same way. There was Phinisee again, smacking the ball out of Lacey's hands on a would've, could've, should've incompletion. Then on fourth down, it was Jones, flinging himself in front of the receiver and deflecting the ball to the ground.
Then, it was an Austin pick.
Cleveland held tight with a goal-line stand.
Then another pick, this time leaving Philadelphia five yards out. The Soul took advantage to the tune of a 19-15 lead.
"Yes, you're not playing a great game," Thonn recalled telling Austin. "But look at the score. We're right in it."
Austin this time got something going, leading Goodman on a sideline route right into defensive back Kent Richardson. All of Goodman's positive momentum came to a sickening halt as their bodies collided. Somehow Goodman held on. Somehow no one was hurt. Austin capped the drive by finding a wide-open Collin Taylor.
Philadelphia tied the score at 22 with a field goal.
Then there was Austin's fifth pick, an ill-advised throw to a completely closed off in-motion receiver. Would that be too much to come back from?
Derrick Ross, Philadelphia's legendary running back who had been contained most of the night, bounced off a tackler into the end zone. 29-22 Soul.
But Austin was firing now. He found Lewis near midfield, and then unlike earlier when he threw into trouble, he took a hopeless looking pass play and darted his way into the end zone to tie the score at 29.
Cleveland's defense was still hot. The Gladiators tipped the first two Soul passes at the line, sending the crowd into a delirium at the one minute warning. The third down pass was wild from Dan Raudabaugh as he left Emery Sammons flopping backwards at a pass thrown well behind him. Fourth down saw LaRoche Jackson clamp down perfectly on the in-motion wideout.
"Action Jackson," Jones said. "We can cover. Not only can we hit you, but we can cover too."
Cleveland seized the moment with a quick score as big, burly Jason Jones pushed Austin over the threshold on a scramble.
But Sammons would capitalize on a rare mistake by the defense, as a defensive back fell over in pursuit, and Sammons coasted into the end zone. Philadelphia went for two, thus taking a one-point lead.
But anyone who has watched Cleveland this season knows you can't leave Cleveland with 20 seconds on the clock.
"The good thing was we had the ball," Thonn said. "So when they went up by one, I was telling everybody, hey, we're in a good situation."
And now they're in the Americnan Conference Championship Game.
Jonah Rosenblum is a Northeast Ohio-based journalist who writes features for the Cleveland Jewish News and covers high school sports for Lacrosse Magazine and The Plain Dealer. A proud Cleveland resident, Rosenblum previously headed the media relations department of the Chicago Rush and interned for the Arena Football League. You can follow Jonah on Twitter @jonahlrosenblum.