By Spencer Lee
CLEVELAND — After four years serving as the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Gladiators (0-1), head coach Ron Selesky was pleased with what he saw from his team in the first quarter of his debut, as his defense forced with a four-and-out on their first possession and an interception in the end zone by defensive back Rayshaun Kizer on their second possession.
But it was his offense that stalled in the critical moments of the team’s 46-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Storm (1-0) on Saturday night. Two turnovers on downs and a pick-six by Tampa Bay defensive end Caesar Rayford off a bobbled pass by wide receiver Larry Brackins was not what Selesky had in mind for the unveiling of the 2017 Gladiators.
“It always takes offense a little longer to mesh and click,” the first-year head coach said. “When you’re working with people that haven’t played together before, when things go wrong, it’s kind of highlighted.”
While the Storm had plenty of offensive struggles of their own early on, quarterback Randy Hippeard put on a show at Quicken Loans Arena in the final three quarters, scrambling out of harm’s way and throwing for 205 yards and six touchdowns, including three to veteran wideout Joe Hills, who has now caught a touchdown in an AFL-leading 69 consecutive regular season games.
Newly acquired quarterback Shane Boyd did not disappoint in his Gladiators debut, forcing Hippeard into a shootout with 288 passing yards and five touchdowns of his own. The stellar play from the two AFL veterans made the game exciting through three quarters. But clinging to a 26-21 lead, Tampa Bay’s Dexter Jackson tripped up Boyd on fourth down as time expired in the third quarter, putting the pressure on the Gladiators defense for the rest of the game.
Hippeard eluded the pass rush multiple times on the ensuing drive, scrambling and completing pass after pass until he slung a touchdown on the run to Kendrick Ings to add some insurance at 32-21. Then, after Boyd hit Larry Brackins on a screen pass for a rushing touchdown to cut the lead to four, Hippeard became Houdini, dipping by the rush, scrambling left and hitting Hills wide open at the wall to increase the lead again to 39-28.
Boyd continued the duel as far as he could with two more touchdowns to Brackins and Brandon Thompkins, but Hippeard was too much, throwing a dagger to LaMark Brown for another score with Glads linebacker Derrick Summers pulling him down by the jersey. Cleveland never recovered.
“You’re never out of the game [in the AFL]. We didn’t play our best tonight, but we were still in the game and still had a chance to win,” Boyd said. “Even all the way up until a couple minutes left… We had Hippeard in our hands and he just wound up making an amazing play and tossing the ball up. So if he didn’t get that ball off, and we go down and score, now I’m standing here with a victory.”
For the game, the Gladiators defense forced three sacks, five pass deflections, three turnovers on downs and an interception, but it wasn’t enough in Selesky’s eyes.
“We started out well on defense, but when we needed a stop there in the second half, though, we couldn’t get it.”
Offensively, Thompkins led the receiving corps with eight catches for 98 yards and touchdown, while Brackins finished with eight receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. Collin Taylor scored the first two touchdowns of the season for the Gladiators, extending his franchise record to 33 consecutive regular season games with a receiving touchdown.
The Gladiators will be back at The Q next Saturday night to host the Baltimore Brigade. Kickoff at 7pm on 92.3 The Fan.