Ironclad defense saves Lions in 58-28 season-opening win over Nighthawks

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerMarch 10, 2013 

Three interceptions inside the opponents' 10-yard line and a lost fumble in its own territory.

Four turnovers like those usually spell doom for a football team, but the Columbus Lions were able to overcome their offensive mistakes long enough to earn a 58-28 victory over the Knoxville (Tenn.) Nighthawks in both teams' season opener Sunday afternoon at the Columbus Civic Center.

"Playing good defensive football is something we wanted to get back to and we did that today," said Columbus coach Jason Gibson, whose team scored two defensive touchdowns and forced four turnovers. "But the biggest thing I'm sitting here thinking about is all of the turnovers we had on offense. You can't have as many turnovers as we did today and be successful on a consistent basis in this league. Defensively, we're ahead of where the offense is and it's usually that way in camp. But we can't play this way offensively and win a lot of games."

Lions quarterback Garrett Sutphen finished the game 10-for-22 for 135 yards with three interceptions and two touchdowns through the air. He added three carries for 12 yards with a lost fumble and a touchdown as well.

"We just didn't make the right throws," said Gibson. "We missed a lot of things out there today. We weren't making the right reads and throws. It's a timing issue. There's no continuity out there yet."

Lions backup quarterback Marcus Jones came into the game in the fourth quarter and led two scoring drives, capping off one himself with a 1-yard run and the other with a 6-yard touchdown pass to lineman Brandon Thomas.

"I knew I wanted to get (Jones) in for a series to see how he'd do," said Gibson. "I planned on playing him. I hate to take somebody out right after they turned the ball over (Sutphen's last series ended on a lost fumble), but we were struggling and I wanted to get (Jones) a look."

Following a missed field goal on its opening possession, Columbus (1-0) got a sack from linebacker Justen Rivers to force Knoxville into a long field-goal attempt. The attempt was short and the Lions' LeRoy Vann picked up the ball and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown. Chandler Brooks made the first of his seven extra points to give Columbus a 7-0 lead just over five minutes into the game.

Knoxville (0-1) answered with a scoring drive of its own to tie things up midway through the quarter, but the Lions took the lead for good on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Sutphen to Maurice Dupree with 3:08 to go in the opening period. On the Nighthawks' next possession, the Columbus defense held again -- with Rivers getting his second sack of the contest -- and the Nighthawks tried another field goal. This time, Rives blocked the field goal and recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown and Brooks' extra point made it 20-7 Columbus after one quarter.

Brooks made an uno on the subsequent kickoff -- giving the Lions a 21-7 lead -- and after Knoxville drove to the Lions' 7-yard line, defensive back Marvin Bohannon scooped up a Nighthawks fumble and rambled 38 yards for a touchdown to put Columbus up 28-7 with 6:16 to go before halftime. The Nighthawks scored on a 7-yard pass from Josh McGregor to Deandre Brown with 45 seconds remaining in the quarter, but the Lions drove back down the field, Sutphen hit paydirt on a 2-yard run and Brooks added the extra point and an uno to send Columbus into the locker room with a 36-14 halftime lead.

The Nighthawks had a bit of momentum going in the third quarter, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive to cut the Columbus lead to 36-21 and picking off Sutphen in the end zone, but the Lions' defense stopped Knoxville on downs at the Columbus 12 to regain control of the game. On the Lions' next possession, they went 38 yards in four plays to score, this time on a 24-yard pass from Sutphen to Dupree. Brooks made the extra point and Columbus led 43-21 with 1:05 to go in the period.

After a Lions fumble early in the fourth quarter, the Columbus defense came up big again, as Anthony Shutt picked off a McGregor pass and returned it all the way to the Nighthawks' 9-yard line. Three plays later, Jones took it in himself from one yard out to pad the Lions' lead. Brooks made the extra point and his third uno of the game and Columbus was up 51-21 with 5:03 showing on the clock.

Shutt got his second pick of the game on Knoxville's next drive, taking it back to the Nighthawks' 6. On the next play, Jones found the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Thomas wide open in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown and Brooks made his final PAT to put the Lions up 58-21.

"A win's a win and I'll take it," said Gibson. "However, if you play your butt off in all three phases and just lose because the other team played better, I can deal with that. I have trouble dealing with things when we don't play well in all three phases of the game. We'll have to go back and work harder on our offense this week."

Columbus hits the road next week, traveling to Albany to take on the defending Professional Indoor Football League champion Albany Panthers. It's the first of three straight road games for the Lions and kickoff at the Albany Civic Center is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday night.

The Lions' next home game won't be until April 20, when Columbus hosts the Richmond (Va.) Raiders.

at Columbus Civic Center

Knoxville 7 7 7 7--28

Columbus 20 16 7 15--58

First Quarter

Col--LeRoy Vann 46 missed field goal return (Chandler Brooks kick), 9:58.

Knox--Deandre Brown 3 pass from Josh McGregor (Alex Walls kick), 6:29.

Col--Maurice Dupree 16 pass from Garrett Sutphen (Kick failed), 3:08.

Col--Justen Rivers recovers blocked field goal in end zone (Brooks kick), 0:00.

Second Quarter

Col--Brooks Uno, 15:00.

Col--Marvin Bohannon 38 fumble return (Brooks kick), 6:16.

Knox--Brown 7 pass from McGregor (Walls kick), 0:45.

Col--Sutphen 2 run (Brooks kick), 0:12.

Col--Brooks Uno, 0:12.

Third Quarter

Knox--McGregor 2 run (Walls kick), 11:37.

Col--Dupree 24 pass from Sutphen (Brooks kick), 1:05.

Fourth Quarter

Col--Marcus Jones 1 run (Brooks kick), 5:03.

Col--Brooks Uno, 5:03.

Col--Brandon Thomas 6 pass from Jones (Brooks kick), 2:58.

Knox--Johnny Thomas 10 pass from McGregor (Walls kick), 1:00.

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