The Columbus Lions overcame a slow start to defeat the New Mexico Stars 49-37 at the Columbus Civic Center on Saturday night in the first round of the American Indoor Football playoffs. It was the lowest scoring game for Columbus so far this season.
Columbus won the coin toss but deferred its option to the second half, giving the Stars the first possession of the game. New Mexico made good on it, scoring on a seven-play drive as quarterback Percy Turner found Jamal Price on a 9-yard pass to put the Stars up 7-0 with 10:13 left in the opening quarter.
The Lions answered the opening Stars touchdown, needing only two plays to tie the game as Casey Kacz found John Harris for a 29-yard strike to knot the game at 7-7.
New Mexico did one better on their next drive with a one play pass and score from Turner to Charles Johnson, putting the Stars back on top 14-7 midway through the first quarter.
The teams alternated scores to end the first quarter, and the Stars had a golden opportunity to take the biggest lead by any team in the AIF this season over Columbus but couldn’t cash in. Kacz threw six of his 15 incompletions on one drive at the end of the first quarter into the start of the second quarter, and the Lions turned the ball over on downs to New Mexico, already trailing the Stars 21-13.
“They were playing a tough defense,” Kacz said. “We like to go over a top a lot, and they played a defense where it was tough to go over the top. They had one guy back and two guys robbing deep routes, so we had to make some adjustments. Give credit to them for playing well in the first half.”
With a chance to go up by two possessions, however, New Mexico coughed the ball up on the second play of the drive, with Shonquez Nelson recovering a fumble to give Columbus the ball back. Kacz found Michael Reeve for the 8-yard touchdown to pull the Lions back within one at 21-20.
New Mexico made it 28-20 late in the second quarter on a long, methodical drive that chewed up more than six minutes off the clock, culminating in a Turner two-yard keeper for the score.
The Lions scored on a John Harris touchdown pass from Kacz with just seven seconds left on the clock but failed on a two-point conversion attempt. The Stars were able to get the ball down deep inside Columbus territory for a field goal before the end of the half, putting New Mexico ahead 31-26 at halftime. It was the first time all season the Lions trailed going into the locker room.
“They came out with a pretty good game plan,” said Lions veteran defensive back Damian Daniels. “They wanted to slow the game down, keep everything in front, and make plays. We made a lot of mistakes in the first half and had a lot of penalties.”
The Lions ended the half with five penalties for 27 yards, compared to just two for 15 yards for New Mexico.
“They’re a good team,” said Lions coach Jason Gibson. “We missed some tackles, made some mental mistakes, and had a bunch of penalties.”
In the second half, however, the Lions familiar defense stepped up, allowing just six points. Daniels had two interceptions, tacking onto his indoor football career record total.
“We went into halftime and a couple of vets called each other out,” Daniels said. “I wanted to make sure with me being one of the captains of the team, I wanted to play a part.”
Kacz and the offense scored 23 unanswered points in the second half en route to the victory. All three touchdowns in the second half came on Kacz quarterback sneaks.
“Any way we can score is great,” Kacz said. “If I have to sneak it every time, I’ll do it every time for the team. We just want to get in the end zone.
“We have such a good offensive line that every time we run a sneak, they’ll drive their guys back 3, 4, 5 yards if we need it. They blocked great all night on passes and on runs, so credit to those guys for being so strong up front.”
After the Kacz scores, the final points of the game for Columbus came off a deuce from kicker Trey Crum, who was playing in his first professional game in five years. He was the 2010 SIFL Special Teams Player of the Year with the Lions, helping them to the league title that year.
“I was trying to shake the rust off,” Crum said. “It was tough and it was frustrating, but I knew to keep staying with it and I knew it was going to come.”
Now the Lions turn their attention to a rematch with the Florida Tarpons, a team that gave Columbus their closest game of the regular season in a 68-54 win at home on April 22. The winner of that game next Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Columbus Civic Center advances to the AIF championship game against the North Division winner.
“I’m excited for that. I know Florida can’t wait for that,” Kacz said. “We’re a better team than when we played them, but I know they’re also a better team than when we played them.”
“It’ll be another battle,” Gibson said. “They have to travel, and we don’t. I look forward to the challenge against another well-coached team with good players and a good quarterback.”
“It’s going to be a tough test,” Daniels said. “That was our toughest game so far already and they’ve been waiting on us all season.
“It’s going to be a (heck) of a game.”
Lions 49, Stars 37
Saturday at Columbus Civic Center
N – Jamal Price 9 pass from Percy Turner (Brian Weems kick), 10:13.
C – John Harris 29 pass from Casey Kacz (Trey Crum kick), 8:49.
N – Charles Johnson 30 pass from Turner (Weems kick), 7:45.
C – Jarmon Fortson 6 pass from Kacz (kick failed), 5:23.
N – Kurtis Green 30 pass from Turner (Weems kick), 4:00.
C – Michael Reeve 8 pass from Kacz (Crum kick), 8:38.
N – Turner 2 run (Weems kick), 2:29.
C – Harris 6 pass from Kacz (pass failed), 0:07.
N – Weems 26 FG, 0:00.
C – Kacz 6 run (Crum kick), 13:04.
C – Kacz 1 run (Crum kick), 9:08.
C – Kacz 1 run (Crum kick), 9:14.
C – Crum deuce, 9:14.
N – Turner 1 run (pass failed), 3:34.
Records: Columbus 9-0, New Mexico 6-2. Next: New Mexico, end of season; Columbus, home vs. Florida in AIF divisional championship game, Saturday at 7 p.m.