Ron James’ celebratory move was to find a television. No matter that the Utah Blaze had just handily won their home finale Friday night, that children were running through strands of confetti that rained down at EnergySolutions Arena.
The head coach had to make sure that Arizona lost. After the Rattlers’ failed two-point conversion and onside kick, he breathed a little easier. His team’s 83-63 win over the Cleveland Gladiators now came with a tie for the division lead.
“We got a good shot at getting [the division title],” James said.
After having the full backing of Utah fans Friday, who numbered 13,083 to mark the team’s largest crowd since 2008, the Blaze (12-5) now need to knock off the league-leading Philadelphia Soul on the road to clinch the National Conference West.
The audience at EnergySolutions Arena saw a superlative performance from Tommy Grady. With the AFL’s single-season touchdown record already in hand, the 6-foot-7 quarterback calmly seized three more: most yards in a season (5,579), most completions (483), and most touchdowns in one game (tied with 12).
But there were moments of luck as well.
The nets helped. Boy, did the nets help. Three times the Blaze bounced kickoffs off the yellow-framed rebound nets and recovered to regain possession. Each time, the Blaze scored a touchdown — totaling more than the 20-point margin of victory.
With his team leading by only a touchdown in the second quarter, linebacker Antwan Marsh jumped of the friendly bounce off the net.
Grady connected with Jeremy Kelley on the very next play. Immediately after that, it was Kelley’s turn to recover the kickoff, securing possession at the bottom of a pileup. Again, Grady needed only one pass to score, this time zipping the ball into the hands of receiver Tysson Poots.
“Things happen like that,” Grady said. “It’s crazy. Luckily, tonight we got more rolls than they did.”
Those two touchdowns came in a span of 1:12, giving the Blaze a 35-14 lead. The Gladiators — now losers in seven of their last eight games — had looked the weaker team even after a 14-14 first quarter, needing 16 plays to Utah’s six. Down three scores, they were in no position to seize control of the game.
After Grady threw a pick-six in the third quarter, Cleveland (7-10) recovered an onside kick and scored a touchdown seven plays later. Trailing only 55-49 with most of the fourth quarter left, the Gladiators looked like they had shot.
Utah proceeded to score four more touchdowns, including one off a kickoff recovery, and limited Cleveland to only 76 more offensive yards. Even so, the celebration was limited.
“They weren’t jubilant,” James said of his players. “They were workmanlike. … This could have been a trap game for us.”
If the Blaze can clinch the division title, they’ll be a No. 2 playoff seed — and likely draw the Rattlers in a first-round game. After splitting the season series, the playoff opener would double as a de facto rubber match.
Storylines Blaze 83, Gladiators 63
R Blaze quarterback Tommy Grady ties the AFL single-game record with 12 TD passes.
• Utah now leads the division with one game left in the regular season.
• The Blaze will finish the regular season against AFL-leading Philadelphia.