Second Half Efforts Propel Empire into First Place
Turnovers and reversed calls become determining factors in the Empire win
In the first of two games that will determine first place in the league, the Albany Empire struck the first blow on Saturday night, defeating the Baltimore Brigade, 61-53, in front of 8,057 at the Times Union Center.
The game delivered on the amount of hype that was advertised and it started with the game’s very first play: Empire WR Malachi Jones caught a pass in the flat and after a twisting move ran down the field to score the game’s first touchdown to give the Empire a 7-0 lead. The Brigade, with the league’s leading offense, drove down the field, but could not finish the drive. QB Randy Hippeard’s attempted pass bounced off of the netting and into the arms of LB Terence Moore for his third interception in as many weeks. The Empire, though, turned the ball over on downs in their own territory and the Brigade struck with a Hippeard pass to WR Quentin Sims to tie the game at seven.
The see-saw battle carried into a high-scoring second quarter with the two teams trading touchdown after touchdown. Empire WR Joe Hills increased his touchdown reception streak to 87 games with a 13-yard reception from QB Tommy Grady to give the Empire a 14-7 lead. Baltimore responded with a Hippeard touchdown to WR Brandon Thompkins, who made a spectacular catch over the wall to tie the game at 14. Grady would connect with Jones on the next drive for the second time while Hippeard connected with Brandon Collins touchdown would give the Brigade a 21-20 lead. The Empire answered with a 45-yard score from Grady to WR Collin Taylor and the Brigade would take the lead again, 28-27, on another Hippeard to Thompkins connection.
The game’s most controversial moments soon followed. During the Brigade’s onside kick attempt, the ball looked to have been recovered by Empire DB Arthur Hobbs. Brigade LB Damiel Borel delivered a big hit on Hobbs and he recovered the loose ball. Initially, Borel was penalized for an illegal block, but the penalty was overturned after a conference by the officials. On the first play, Hippeard completed a pass to Collins, but he was stripped by Moore and the ball was recovered by Empire DB Brandon Stephens. The referees originally called Thompkins out of bounds, but Empire head coach Rob Keefe challenged the play. After further review, the call was overturned and the Empire would convert with another Grady-to-Jones touchdown. The first half ended with a field goal by Brigade K Mark Lewis to make the halftime score 33-31, Empire.
Both teams traded touchdowns to begin the second half, but two key moments changed the game. The first came when Empire WR Greg Carr stripped Thompkins on a kickoff return which would be recovered by Moore. Carr’s work on special teams was rewarded with a three-yard touchdown reception to give the Empire a 47-38 lead at the end of the third quarter.
The second game-changing moment came on the first play of the fourth quarter: Empire DL Brandon Sesay would strip sack Hippeard and fellow DL Darryl Cato-Bishop recovered the fumble in the end zone. For the second consecutive week, the Empire defense scored and they would take a 54-38 lead. Both teams would trade scores again in the quarter and after the Brigade got within eight points again, another onside kick attempt would be recovered by Taylor to seal the game for the Empire.
The two teams meet again in Albany next Saturday night (7pm; CBS Sports Network; Albany radio: ALT 105.7).
Potent Quotables: Empire WR Malachi Jones talked about the chance to play with QB Tommy Grady: “He’s one of the best to ever do it and having the opportunity as a young guy and to come here and play with one of the best definitely helps my game, it helps this team, and he’s our leader…” Empire DL Brandon Sesay talked about the attitude of the team: “it’s a winning mindset, the task at hand, one play at a time… respect everyone, fear no one…” Empire head coach Rob Keefe spoke about the team culture contributing to their winning ways: “The players see it: how hard we work, they see how tired we are… that’s what it’s all about. I’d do anything for these guys and in return, they’ll do anything for us.”
Ryan McCarthy has been an on-and-off Internet columnist and blogger since 1997. He has been an avid follower of Arena Football since 1990 when the Albany Firebirds were established. Ryan currently attends Regent University, where he is pursuing his Bachelors degree in Communications with a Journalism concentration. He anticipates graduating toward the end of 2019. You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @rwhoisryanmcc