LAS VEGAS — It almost came too easily for the Utah Blaze at the beginning of Sunday afternoon's Arena Football League game against the Las Vegas Gladiators. The division-leading Blaze opened up a quick 18-point lead over last-place Las Vegas.
But it hardly ended up being a walk in the park. The Blaze blew all of their big lead and then some but still managed to escape with a 57-47 victory at the Orleans Arena.
The Gladiators "played like a team that was desperate for a win," said a relieved Blaze coach Danny White after his team improved to 4-1.
It wouldn't have happened without three clutch fourth-down conversions for touchdowns and a successful onside kick.
The Gladiators outscored the Blaze 23-7 in the third quarter to actually enter the final period with a 40-37 lead. Utah regained the advantage on its next drive, but it wasn't easy. On a fourth-down play, Blaze QB Joe Germaine hit Siaha Burley for a 21-yard score, giving Utah a 44-40 edge with 12:20 to play.
That's when White took a calculated risk. He had Blaze kicker Steve Videtich attempt an onside kick — which worked just the way it was drawn up. Utah's Ryan Dennard recovered at the 15-yard line. Again, it wasn't easy, but the Blaze capitalized when Germaine hit Dennard for a 25-yard score on 4th-and-10. It was the third touchdown pass by Germaine on fourth down for the game and it gave the Blaze a 51-40 lead with 8:57 to play.
"The onside kick was executed perfectly," said White. "That was the thing that saved us. Otherwise that game goes right down to the wire and the last possession wins."
Las Vegas coach Danton Barto, meanwhile, said his team wasn't surprised by the onside kick.
"It's frustrating because we work on it every week (in practice) and we knew it was coming," said Barto of the game-changing play.
Both teams scored one final touchdown, but it was the successful onside kick that gave Utah some breathing room down the stretch.
Germaine completed 20-of-35 passes for 316 yards and seven touchdowns, but he also made a costly mistake in the third quarter that allowed Las Vegas to get back into the game. On Utah's first offensive play — right after the Gladiators had cut the gap to 30-24 with a touchdown — Germaine was sacked in the end zone for a safety by the Gladiators' Khaleed Vaughn. Las Vegas then took the ensuing Utah kickoff and drove down the field for a score, giving them 16 consecutive points to start the second half and a 33-30 lead.
"Safeties are huge," said White. "You're better off fumbling in the end zone and letting them recover, because it's nine points we gave them instead of seven ... Joe knows on first down you don't take any chances when you are standing in the end zone if there is any uncertainty at all. You don't stand there with the ball."
Still, the Blaze were able to overcome the miscue to earn their fourth victory in five games. Utah is now 1 1/2 games ahead of its nearest competitors in the AFL's Western Division — San Jose and Los Angeles, which are both 2-2.
"It was a credit to our guys that we were able to take the momentum back after we had lost it," said White.
"It was tough," said Burley, who finished with eight catches for 163 yards and four touchdowns for the Blaze. "These guys had nothing to lose and they were hungry."
Las Vegas dropped to 1-4 with the loss, but the players and coaches said they felt better about how they played than in their previous setbacks.
"I'm encouraged by the way the guys kept fighting," said Gladiators quarterback Shaun King, who threw six touchdown passes.
Las Vegas got off to a terrible start, but didn't quit. The Blaze already had a 14-3 lead when defensive back Clarence Lawson made the defensive play of the game for Utah. Lawson caused Las Vegas' Kevin Prentiss to fumble, picked it up and returned it 24 yards. On the very next play Germaine hit tight end John Culp for a 15-yard touchdown. Videtich's extra point gave the Blaze a 21-3 lead at the end of the opening quarter.
Utah managed just one touchdown in the second quarter, however. The Blaze had to settle for a 20-yard Videtich field goal on the final play of the first half to give them a 30-17 lead.
Utah will now have a short turnaround this week, as it will play Friday in Austin against the Wranglers. That game will end a stretch of four road games in five weeks for the Blaze.
BLAZE BRIEFS: Announced crowd was just 5,416 in the 9,000-seat Orleans Arena, although fewer than half the seats appeared to be filled ... Rookie defensive back Michael Davis, who was just activated from the practice squad on Friday, made his first start. He nearly had an interception but dropped the ball in the end zone. Still, White was pleased with Davis' play for the most part ... Receiver Aaron Boone sat out the game. He probably could have played, but was the least healthy of the Blaze's receivers with two sore ankles, so he was a scratch.