Steady Gladiators Best Orlando, Advance to ArenaBowl
CLEVELAND - Last weekend, the Cleveland Gladiators offense didn't resemble an ArenaBowl unit. Fast forward one week as Cleveland quarterback Shane Austin appeared fully refreshed.
"That definitely gave me some motivation," Austin said. "You put up some bad numbers like that last week and you get a little chip on your shoulder."
With Philadelphia, which had given Cleveland fits all season long, safely in the rearview mirror, the Gladiators returned to their old formula.
Smooth offense, save the big plays for the defensive side.
"Philly did a good job against us last week," coach Steve Thonn said. "When we watched film, we couldn't put it all on Shane. It was like, hey, we didn't get open."
And as Austin played pick-free football, Cleveland clinched its first-ever ArenaBowl appearance with a 56-46 win over Orlando.
"It's a great feeling. It feels like a lot of weight off our shoulders," said wide receiver Dominick Goodman, whose Gladiators had gone 22-32 without a playoff win in his three previous years in Cleveland. "Especially with the year that we had last year and the couple of years I've been here, we had the team and it just didn't happen. This year, with everyone coming together and everyone on the same page, it's a wonderful feeling, especially going to the ArenaBowl."
Not a trip mind you, since it's coming to Cleveland.
The precision passing started early. Collin Taylor wove a tight little route through the middle and Austin hit the seam. Then, with the line closing in and intended target Thyron Lewis bottled up in the end zone, Austin roamed right and hit Goodman with a perfect lob. 14-7.
Then, the next drive, it was Lewis on a laser and Goodman in the perfect spot along the right wall of the end zone. 21-14.
Then, after a goal line fumble gave Cleveland a possession edge, Austin showed tender touch, stepping up strong and lobbing light to Goodman. 35-21.
The teams stalled at 35-28, with three scoreless drives to begin the second half. On the final one, the Predators lurked in the red zone, but were turned away, thanks in large part to two pass breakups from defensive back Dominic Jones.
"They got two trees," Jones said. "They've got (Larry) Brackins and (Greg) Carr. We knew they were going to go to those guys. Statistically, they go to those guys about 80 percent of the time in the red zone. So, we played our statistics right. I know the ball is coming my way."
Whereas for much of this season, it's been the defense picking up the offense after a pick or fumble, saw the offense pick up the defense after numerous blown fourth down chances.
"Our offense has played pretty well, it's been overshadowed a little bit," Thonn said. "We expect the offense. It's Arena Football. You got to score a lot of points."
They needed to score and respond , as Orlando finished four of five on fourth down, several times silencing a vocal crowd of 14,543.
"It's a conference championship. Both teams are here for a reason," Jones said. "Obviously, we gave up more than we'd like."
The offense was never bigger than in the fourth quarter.
The crowd was up after Tom Gilson's sudden emergence and spin out of a tackle for a touchdown.
"When he broke that tackle and got in, it was a great play, and we needed it at that time," Thonn said.
The Gladiators led 42-28. Soon it was fourth and five. A big chance to put the game away.
The defensive backs had Orlando quarterback Bernard Morris' options bottled up. They just didn't have Morris bottled up. He ran free for a score.
So what did Cleveland do?
LaRoche Jackson bided his time on the return, after fumbling off the net. He darted left and right, never quite picking up speed. Still he got past midfield. One play later it was Austin to Lewis.
And then for a flourish, Austin, up nine with seconds remaining, tossed up a shovel.
As it wobbled up there, it dawned on a near-sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena that Lewis was open once again.
"(The cornerback) blitzed, I just pitched it over and T-Lew made a great catch," Austin said. "That was all she wrote."
The doubters could cry. The oddsmakers could sulk.
Cleveland could host an ArenaBowl?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
"We knew we were going to do some good things this year," Thonn said. "You can't imagine something like this."