By Spencer Lee
CLEVELAND — The pieces came together for four quarters, and it was as though the season had started anew.
With a unique gameplan, a great showing from the entire defense and a highlight-filled game from “The Cleveland Cannon,” the Cleveland Gladiators (1-3) notched their first victory, 48-34 over the Washington Valor (1-2) at Quicken Loans Arena Friday night.
“Let’s go ahead and take it for what it was,” said Gladiators coach Ron Selesky after the game. “It was win. We’re 1-0 this week. We hopefully took steps to learning how to finish out a game.”
That had been the bugaboo for the Gladiators in their three losses to start the season: Battle closely for three quarters, take a lead, have one hiccup that costs them said lead, come back in the end and fall just short.
Not this time. The Gladiators fell behind 27-21 heading into halftime when they failed to convert a fourth down deep in their own territory. But instead of falling farther behind, Gladiators rookie defensive back Terry Johnson intercepted former AFL MVP Erik Meyer on the Washington’s first drive of the second half, and the defense forced four-and-outs on the next two defensive possessions, thanks to some much-needed pressure from the front four and blanket coverage from the secondary.
“We try to aim to be like that all the time: Lights out. [We] try to be aggressive at all times,” said Fredrick Obi, who finished the night with two-and-a-half tackles, three pass deflections and an interception of his own. “We were making some plays. I’m happy about that.”
Although the defense laid the foundation for the win by holding the Valor to only seven points in the second half, it was quarterback Arvell Nelson who electrified the Gladiator fans and became Washington’s worst nightmare in the second half.
It started with a third down. Cleveland trailed 27-21 coming out of halftime and the defense had just given Nelson an opportunity to tie the game. As Nelson took the snap, the Valor defensive line collapsed the pocket from his right. Nelson spun away from the first sack attempt, but ran right into the arms of Washington defensive end Reggie Wilson. However, Wilson’s momentum carried his body away from Nelson, and the former Glenville Tarblooder escaped his clutches. With a block from wideout Brandon Thompkins, Nelson sprinted up the left wall 43 yards for a rushing touchdown, his second of the game.
His encore came with 6:02 left in the fourth. Clinging to a 41-34 lead, the Gladiators faced fourth-and-10 from their own 11-yard line. Nobody was open when he dropped back, and pressure came from the middle. With another spin and a heave, he had avoided the sack. And with that coveted arm strength, the pass got to the back wall, where receiver Collin Taylor was boxing out Tracy Belton. Taylor caught it over the shoulder, and the win was sealed.
“These guys look up to me. They trust me,” Nelson said. “I just want to put them on my back and lead them as they look toward me. I feel like I’m one of the leaders on this team and I want to do my job.”
Nelson finished the night with 303 total yards (60 rushing) and five touchdowns (two rushing) with an interception, out-dueling the legendary Meyer, who threw for 175 yards and four touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Gladiators used a unique approach offensively, running the ball from 10 yards and in. They ended the night with 67 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Taylor led the team with 68 receiving yards on four catches and a touchdown. Thompkins added seven receptions for 60 yards and a score, extending his streak to 33 consecutive regular season games with a touchdown, the second-longest active streak. Quentin Sims caught four passes for 56 yards with both a receiving and a rushing touchdown.
Greg Carr finished the night with nine receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns to lead Washington. Roger Jackson added six catches for 55 yards and a score and T.T. Toliver caught three passes for 21 yards with both a receiving and a rushing touchdown.
Now is the true challenge: The bitter rival and reigning ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul. They are undefeated in two games and play Baltimore on Saturday. Gladiators will face them at The Q next Saturday instead of the listed Friday due to the Cavaliers Playoff Watch Party.
A total team effort won this game for the Gladiators. But Coach Selesky said the team needs to stay humble heading into next week.
“One day at a time,” he said. “We’ll take a day off tomorrow and enjoy [the win]. I think we came out of this one healthy finally, which is a rare thing around here, so we’ll be ready to play Philly.”