The Columbus Lions had all the momentum in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s inaugural National Arena League championship game against the Jacksonville Sharks.
Having clawed back from a scoreless first half, the Lions had the ball inside the red zone against the Sharks with just 12 seconds left and down only six points.
However, a botched snap between center Ryne Holland and quarterback Mason Espinosa led to the Lions fumbling the ball away to the Sharks, preserving the 27-21 Jacksonville win and the NAL championship trophy.
Espinosa acquitted himself well in the game, a redemption of sorts for him after losing his starting job to backup Darren Daniel in the first game of the regular season against the Sharks after throwing three first-half interceptions.
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He found the Lions’ top three receivers all season – newly-minted NAL Offensive Player of the Year Michael Reeve and fellow wideouts Jarmon Fortson and Tristan Purifoy – for three second-half touchdowns to pull Columbus back within single digits after a scoreless first half, the first such occurrence for the powerful Lions offense in several years.
The Sharks were the only team to find the scoreboard in the first half, taking a 13-0 lead to the locker room. Fullback Derrick Ross, far and away the NAL’s leading rusher this season, got the scoring started in the first quarter with a one-yard touchdown run.
Jacksonville’s second score came on a trick play, as quarterback Damien Fleming passed behind the line of scrimmage to Mo Williams, who then threw to an open Mo Ruffins in the end zone for the two-score advantage.
Fleming suffered an injury during the second half, but his backup, Arena Football League veteran Jason Boltus, didn’t skip a beat, throwing two touchdown passes in his first two drives.
After Fortson’s touchdown to bring Columbus within six at 27-21 with less than three minutes left, Lions cornerback Chris Pickett intercepted a Boltus tipped pass in the end zone to give the Lions a chance to go ahead late.
The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak by the Lions, dating back to an April 29 regular season loss at Jacksonville and including a thrilling 52-50 come from behind playoff win at Lehigh Valley on June 26.
Columbus finished 10-4 on the season but 0-3 against the Sharks.