Prior to Sunday afternoon's home game against the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, making the Professional Indoor Football League playoffs had become a three-step process for the Columbus Lions.
Each step involved winning the game in front of them and Columbus was successful in taking Step 1, knocking off Lehigh Valley, 59-48, at the Columbus Civic Center.
"This team has always had confidence about how well it can play," said Lions coach Jason Gibson, whose team snapped a franchise-record four-game losing streak with the victory. "We just needed to get the monkey off our back. We barely were able to dress 20 players today with all the injuries we had and we still were able to win. Coming into the game, I just wanted us to play good defense and play well at home and we did that."
The Lions had no turnovers in a game for the first time all season and forced the Steelhawks to turn the ball over three times. Coming into the game, Columbus had the most takeaways in the league (24), but also had the most giveaways (27) as well.
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Also, the Lions' kicking game -- which was last in the league in field-goal percentage, extra-point percentage and points from its kickers -- got a good performance from newcomer Craig Camay. Camay -- the Lions' fourth kicker this season -- made all eight of his extra-point attempts and added a 33-yard field goal as well.
"Before the game started, I told them we wanted to make all of our extra points and have no turnovers and we did," said Gibson. "The offense still isn't where we need it to be, but it's a start."
With the win, Columbus (4-6) also stopped a franchise-record four-game winning streak for Lehigh Valley (6-5) and the Lions are 1½ games out of the fourth and final playoff spot with two regular-season games to go.
Quarterback Marcus Jones led the way for the Lions, accounting for six touchdowns and 246 yards of total offense. Jones -- who started the year as the Lions' backup quarterback, earned the starting job and then lost it to the now-departed Brian Harris -- was 10-for-26 passing for 151 yards and two touchdowns and added another 95 yards and four touchdowns on 14 carries.
The 95 rushing yards are the most by any player in a game in the PIFL this season and the four rushing touchdowns are tied for the most by any player in a single game.
"When I wasn't starting, I just wanted to help the team," said Jones, who also has played some at wide receiver this season. "I've tried to be a selfless kind of player my whole career and I'm going to do whatever the team needs. Today, I knew what to expect because I'd been starting earlier in the year and I felt like I did well. We came out hot."
After allowing the Steelhawks to score on their opening drive of the game, the Lions' defense clamped down, getting six stops -- three interceptions, two missed field goals and a turnover on downs -- in the first half despite having a lineup that often included a wide receiver (Daniel Lee) and a wide receiver/linebacker (Jarmon Fortson) playing defensive back.
Meanwhile, the Lions' offense -- keyed by Jones' runs and timely passes -- clicked well enough to race out to a 35-7 halftime lead. Jones had touchdown runs of 1 and 11 yards and a 30-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Dupree. Linebacker/fullback Ryan Babb scored on a 3-yard run and defensive lineman Josh Gipson picked off a pass and returned it 20 yards for another touchdown.
"The way we played in the first half is the way our fans are used to seeing us play," said Gibson. "We just have to get back to playing that way and we'll be fine."
Glenwood product Cody Pearcy caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Jones to make it 42-7 Columbus early in the third quarter, but the Steelhawks started to claw their way back into the game, pulling to within 45-21 going to the fourth quarter.
Lehigh Valley kept coming in the fourth quarter and following a successful onside kick, quarterback Adam Bednarik hit Torieal Gibson with a 33-yard touchdown pass to get the Steelhawks back to within 52-42 with 2:33 remaining, but the Lions stopped the two-point conversion to keep it a 10-point game.
Columbus recovered the subsequent onside kick and Jones scored his fourth rushing touchdown of the game on a 1-yard run to make it 59-42 with 46 seconds to go, but Lehigh Valley got one final touchdown on a 21-yard pass from Bednarik to Collins with 23 seconds left.
However, the Lions fell on the Steelhawks' onside kick and ran out the clock to keep their playoff hopes alive. Dupree was Jones' top target, finishing with five catches for 56 yards and a touchdown, and Fortson led the Lions' defense with 10 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup.
Bednarik finished the game 25-for-38 for 355 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions for the Steelhawks. Gibson had 10 catches for 159 yards and three touchdowns and Tom Gilson finished with eight catches for 136 yards and four scores in the loss.
Columbus is back in action Saturday, hosting the Albany Panthers (5-4) with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
"We're still not perfect offensively and we've still got a lot of work to do," said Gibson. "But are we better today than we were yesterday? Yes, we are, and that's just what I want."
Sunday at Columbus Civic Center
Lehigh Valley 7 0 14 27--48
Columbus 14 21 10 14--59
LV--Tom Gilson 23 pass from Adam Bednarik (Evan Selman kick), 12:53.
Col--Marcus Jones 11 run (Craig Camay kick), 7:45.
Col--Jones 1 run (Camay kick), 1:58.
Col--Ryan Babb 3 run (Camay kick), 9:34.
Col--Josh Gipson 20 interception return (Camay kick), 6:56.
Col--Maurice Dupree 30 pass from Jones (Camay kick), 0:10.
Col--Cody Pearcy 28 pass from Jones (Camay kick), 12:41.
LV--Gilson 30 pass from Bednarik (Selman kick), 10:11.
Col--Camay 33 FG, 5:36.
LV--Gilson 5 pass from Bednarik (Selman kick), 3:42.
LV--Torieal Gibson 7 pass from Bednarik (Selman kick), 8:32.
Col--Jones 2 run (Camay kick), 5:51.
LV--Gilson 30 pass from Bednarik (Tyrone Collins pass from Bednarik), 4:08.
LV--Gibson 33 pass from Bednarik (Pass failed), 2:33.
Col--Jones 1 run (Camay kick), 0:46.
LV--Gibson 21 pass from Bednarik (Run failed), 0:23.