Gladiators Fall to Force in Playoffs 50-41
The Cleveland Gladiators were the #2 ranked team in the American Conference this season, but on Sunday (July 31) they came up a little short to the visiting Georgia Force in a 50-41 playoff loss. The game was not without drama, however, and the final outcome was in questions until the final seconds of the game. I’ve always said that you never, ever leave an Arena Football game until the clock hits all zeros, and this game was a perfect example of that.
The two teams traded scores for most of the first half and it looked like Cleveland would take a 21-14 lead into the locker room at halftime, but that’s when thing changed dramatically. Georgia was moving the ball downfield and, after an incomplete pass from quarterback Darnell Kennedy to Maurice Purify, it appeared that time had expired, but officials asked that two seconds be put back on the clock. The Force then set up for a field goal try. The 41-yard attempt by Carlos Martinez was wide left and bounced off the nets. It was recovered by Cleveland’s Robert Redd, who took off for the opposite end zone. When he got boxed in by several Georgia players he lateralled the ball back to Joe Phinisee. Phinisee subsequently fumbled the ball, which was picked up by Georgia’s Mike Johnson, who returned it two yards for a touchdown. The extra point was missed so the score at halftime was 21-20 in favor of the Gladiators.
The Cleveland offense, which had operated quite well in the first half behind rookie quarterback Kurt Rocco, failed to produce any points in the third quarter. Georgia, on the other hand, scored twice in the third. The first score came on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Kennedy to Purify (the PAT was missed). Then, Rocco appeared to throw and incomplete swing pass for Cleveland, but the officials ruled it a live backwards pass. The ball was picked up by Georgia’s Ahmad Hawkins, who returned it 40-yards for a touchdown. The Force led 34-21 at the end of the third quarter.
On the first play of the fourth quarter Kennedy connected with Purify again, this time from seven yards out, increasing the Georgia lead to 40-21.
At this point, Cleveland head coach Steve Thonn made a quarterback change. Veteran John Dutton took to the field for the first time since game one of the season when he suffered an injury and was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the regular season. Dutton immediately went to work and led the team on a five-play drive that culminated with a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Troy Bergeron. The extra point was no good, but Cleveland cut the Georgia lead to 40-27.
The Cleveland defense was able to hold Georgia to a 21-yard field goal on their next possession, making the score 43-27. The Gladiators answered with a 3-yard touchdown from Dutton to Robert Redd. Fullback Russell Monk ran for the two-point conversion leaving Cleveland down by just eight points at the One-Minute Warning, 43-35.
The ensuing onside kick by Cleveland was no good and Georgia recovered the ball at the Gladiators 10-yard line. After two incomplete passes and a five-yard false start penalty, quarterback Darnell Kennedy scrambled 15 yards for a Georgia touchdown, increasing their lead to 50-35 with 36.5 second remaining. Cleveland answered with a 7-yard touchdown from Dutton to Bergeron with 25.3 seconds left in the game. The extra point was blocked, leaving the Gladiators down by nine points 50-41.
Cleveland again went for an onside kick, but it was no good. Georgia was then able to run out the clock and preserve the win.
After the game, Cleveland head coach Steve Thonn gave his thoughts on the season ending loss. “Basically, it sucks,” Thonn said. “We wanted to win the whole thing. We had home field advantage here for this first game and we wanted to get to the next game (at Jacksonville). We wanted to come out and play well in front of our home fans. It just wasn’t one of our better games. (The season) is going to end sometime, but you just don’t want it to end like that. I think we made a pretty good comeback and we had a chance at the end to tie it up, but we just dug ourselves in too deep of a hole.”
An announced crowd of 4,948 fans were on-hand at the game. The low number could possibly be attributed to the fact that the MLB Cleveland Indians were hosting the Kansas City Royals just across the street at the same time as the Gladiators game.
Cleveland starting quarterback Kurt Rocco completed 15 of 20 passes for 164 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He was also sacked four times. John Dutton completed eight of 12 passes for 114 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the final quarter of play. Wide receiver Troy Bergeron caught 10 passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns and Robert Redd caught 8 passes for 97 yards and three touchdowns.
Georgia quarterback Darnell Kennedy completed 18 of 35 passes for 202 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and was sacked once. He also ran four times for 20 yards and another touchdown. Wide receivers Larry Shipp caught eight passes for 82 yards and one touchdown while Maurice Purify caught seven passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
Two touchdown plays were challenged during the game, one by each team. The first occurred in the second quarter when it appeared that Georgia defensive back Tracy Belton had intercepted a pass in the end zone. He and Cleveland wide receiver Robert Redd wrestled for the ball as they went to the ground and the officials ruled that Redd came up with the ball. Georgia challenged and the play was upheld.
The second was the Ahmad Hawkins return for a touchdown in the third quarter. Cleveland challenged whether the pass was actually thrown behind the line of scrimmage. Again, the call on the field was confirmed and the play stood as originally called.
Prior to the start of the game, the team unveiled its Eastern Division Championship banner in the rafter of Quicken Loans Arena.
THONN’S PREVIOUS PLAYOFF RUN
The last time Cleveland head coach Steve Thonn led a team into the AFL playoffs was the 2008 Grand Rapids Rampage. The team won its last three regular season games and barely qualified for the post-season with a record of 6-10. However, in the playoffs, they won back-to-back road games. They defeated the Arizona Rattlers 48-41 and the Chicago Rush 58-41. The Rampage eventually lost to the San Jose SaberCats 81-55 in San Jose. The SaberCats would go on to lose to the Philadelphia Soul 59-56 in ArenaBowl XXII.
Georgia defensive back Ahmad Hawkins, who returned a fumbled lateral pass 40 yards for a score in the game, played for Steve Thonn on the 2008 Grand Rapids Rampage team.
I have been covering Arena Football games for ArenaFan.com since 2003, but this was the first time I have ever actually covered a playoff game. I have attended playoff games before as a fan including ArenaBowl XV in 2001 when Grand Rapids defeated the Nashville Kats 64-42, but writing a game article for a playoff game was a first for me. My thanks to Cleveland General Manager Phil Tesar and Media Relations Coordinator Sean Wyatt for allowing me and my son, Abram, to come and cover the game.
The Arizona Rattlers host the Chicago Rush in the National Conference Championship game on Saturday, August 6 at 8 PM EST and the Jacksonville Sharks will host the Georgia Force in the American Conference Championship game on Monday night, August 8 at 8 PM. The Jacksonville-Georgia game will be televised nationally on the NFL Network.
The two conference winners will meet in ArenaBowl XXIV on Friday, August 12. The AFL Title game will also be broadcast on the NFL Network.
Randy Snow covered the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League for ArenaFan from 2003-2008. He also covered the Fort Wayne Fusion of arenafootball2 in 2007. He currently runs a web site called www.theworldoffootball.com and is the coordinator of Operation Gridiron Airlift, which has sent over 500 footballs to U.S. troops serving overseas since 2008. Randy lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.