Both the Columbus Lions and Florida Tarpons said the team which won the turnover battle would win the AIF semifinal game Saturday night at the Columbus Civic Center.
With three first-half Florida turnovers, that proved true as the Lions punched their ticket to the AIF championship game with a 79-66 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
The Lions picked off Tarpons quarterback Chris Wallace, who at age 40 played in his final game Saturday night prior to retirement, twice, caused a turnover on downs and recovered a fumble to take a 50-34 lead into halftime.
“Offensively, if you had told me you’d score 50 points in the first half on a quality team like Florida, I’d have told you that you were crazy,” Lions coach Jason Gibson said.
The teams swapped scores back and forth to start the game, then Damian Daniels intercepted a Wallace pass midway through the first quarter.
“We knew (Wallace) likes to go down the field,” Lions defensive coordinator Rayshun Reed said. “He holds the ball until the last possible second before he lets it go, so defensive back wise, we knew we’d get to third down sometimes and we’d be ready for throwing it deep. We were prepared for the spots he likes to go on third down, and we were there a lot of times.”
Quarterback Casey Kacz wasted no time making good on the possession change, finding Reeve for his second of three touchdowns in the first half and giving the Lions a 13-6 lead.
Reeve led all Lions with three touchdown receptions – all in the first half – and 94 yards receiving on the night, reclaiming the familiar spot atop the wide receiver heap he claimed most of the first part of the season.
Florida’s Joshua Young, however, led all receivers on the night with 164 yards on 10 receptions, six of those going for touchdowns.
“A lot of teams have been playing high, trying to rob me on the post, and I score a lot on that,” Reeve said. “They tried to play me one-on-one. That’s a matchup we like, and I’ll take it every day.”
The defensive backs weren’t done yet in the half, however.
Roshawn Marshall intercepted a Wallace pass on the fourth play of the second quarter to give Columbus the ball. Kacz needed only three plays to march the Lions down the field and score on a 10-yard pass to John Harris, giving the Lions a 20-12 lead.
Florida answered the touchdown and scored on a deuce to reclaim a one-point lead at 21-20, but Columbus answered again, this time with Kacz finding Reeve for his third receiving touchdown of the half and a 27-21 lead.
On the ensuing Florida possession, the defensive line stepped up, pressuring Wallace and forcing a long field goal attempt that failed. Logan Ingle and Kendrick Washington both sacked Wallace on the drive, backing the Tarpons up from their own 20 to their own 9 on fourth down.
“We went over some adjustments in the practice, but we wanted to come out early and get a feel for the game,” said Reed. “We got some things working early as far as getting a read on what they were trying to do, so it wasn’t necessary to go in and change anything, we just needed to make the plays.
“We made enough to get through to the championship.”
After Kacz found Harris for his second touchdown of the half to put Columbus ahead at 34-21, kicker Trey Crum made good on his first of two deuces on the night, giving the Lions a 36-21 lead.
Defensive back Chris Smith forced a fumble on the next Tarpons possession and returned it 18 yards for the score, putting Columbus ahead 43-21 heading into the final minute of the first half.
“I gotta tell you, they were focused from the time they got here,” Gibson said of his team. “I was worried all week long; I’m a worry nut, that’s what I do. When I got to the field, there were two small incidents that let me know they were serious and were ready to play.”
The offense refused to let the Tarpons back in the game in the second half, answering each Florida touchdown until the Tarpons scored late on a successful onside kick.
Kacz suffered a minor injury late in the game, and quarterback Cecil Lester spelled him for the final drive of the game. The ball never left his hand as the Lions were able to run out the clock on three handoffs to Lester’s former Albany Panther teammate, Larry Edwards, and preserve the victory.
“I felt butterflies,” Lester said. “I didn’t want to drop the ball, especially at crunch time. I’ve been doing it for so long, though, it’s second nature.”
The Lions now prepare to face the Western Michigan Ironmen in the AIF championship, set for Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Civic Center. Western Michigan defeated Lehigh Valley, which played with Columbus in the PIFL last season, 42-35 in the other AIF semifinal matchup on Saturday.
“I knew it was going to be Western Michigan,” Gibson said. “They have a top notch quarterback in Alex Carter, who played for Nashville (Venom in the PIFL) last season. When you have a top quarterback, you can play. I’m excited to be playing someone new, but I’m also excited they have to come all the way from Michigan to here.
“The fans here are unbelievable. I’ve had players tell me this is a great place to play. This is what it’s all about.”
Lions 79, Tarpons 66
Saturday at Columbus Civic Center
F – Joshua Young 4 pass from Chris Wallace (kick failed), 11:47.
C – Michael Reeve 20 pass from Casey Kacz (Trey Crum kick), 10:34.
C – Reeve 8 pass from Kacz (kick failed), 5:16.
F – J. Young 30 pass from Wallace (kick failed), 3:39.
C – John Harris 10 pass from Kacz (Crum kick), 11:23.
F – J. Young 30 pass from Wallace (Alex Irastorza kick), 9:29.
F – Irastorza deuce, 9:29.
C – Reeve 4 pass from Kacz (Crum kick), 7:17.
C – Harris 13 pass from Kacz (Crum kick), 1:45.
C – Crum deuce, 1:45.
C – Chris Smith 18 fumble recovery (Crum kick), 1:00.
F – J. Young 25 pass from Wallace (Irastorza kick), 0:39.
C – Aaron Wheeler 9 run (Crum kick), 0:31.
F – J. Young 4 pass from Wallace (pass failed), 0:05.
C – Dion Small 4 pass from Kacz (kick failed), 10:29.
F – J. Young 4 pass from Wallace (kick failed), 7:33.
C – Jarmon Fortson 9 pass from Kacz (Crum kick), 3:57.
F – Danny Young 2 pass from Wallace (run failed), 14:04.
C – Larry Edwards 4 run (Crum kick), 11:51.
C – Crum deuce, 11:51.
F – Rob Taylor 15 run (pass failed), 8:17.
C – Kacz 1 run (Crum kick), 4:10.
F – Tristan Purifoy 22 pass from Wallace (Wallace pass to J. Young), 1:50.
F – Taylor 39 pass from Wallace (pass failed), 1:00.
Records: Columbus 10-0, Florida 8-2. Next: Florida, end of season; Columbus, home vs. Western Michigan in AIF championship game, Saturday at 7 p.m.