By Tim Peterson
(Anaheim) – The KISS led by 21 points midway through the fourth quarter and then had to hold to survive a 63-61 win over Cleveland Saturday night before 8,069 at Honda Center.
With the victory the KISS improved to a .500 record at 7-7 on the season and can earn a home game in the first round of the playoffs if they win just one of their last two games.
It wasn’t easy though by any stretch for LA. Leading 49-28 with 7:56 left, the Gladiators (7-8) staged a furious rally and almost pulled out a win. Cleveland recovered two onside kicks including one that Nick Seither returned 12 yards for a score to cut the lead to 56-54 with one minute left.
Arvell Nelson also fired three touchdown passes to Quentin Sims of 41, 14 and 19 yards in the fourth quarter and ran one in himself from a yard out.
The game wasn’t secured for the KISS until Donovan “Captain” Morgan recovered an onside kick following Nelson’s last TD strike to Sims with 13 seconds left and LA ran out the clock.
Nelson finished with 332 yards passing completing 21 0f 31 with six touchdowns and one interception for Cleveland. Sims had 12 catches for 197 yards and five touchdowns. Nathan Stanley, who fired three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to help keep Cleveland at bay, completed 25 of 37 for 317 yards and eight touchdowns for the KISS. Morgan caught three TD passes and DJ Stephens four.
Nelson threw touchdown passes to Sims and Collin Taylor and ran for one himself as Cleveland took a 21-14 lead after one quarter. Stanley countered with a pair of touchdown passes to Morgan – both from six yards out.
Stanley connected with offensive lineman Colin Madison for a four-yard score to get the KISS even in the second quarter but the Gladiators responded with a Nelson TD strike to Sims for seven yards to go back up by seven.
Stanley hit Stephens, who just did get into the endzone in the right corner on an 11-yard TD toss with three seconds left in the half to tie it at 28.
Stanley capped a drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge to open the third quarter to give the KISS their first lead of the night. Then the defense stopped Cleveland on downs.
Stanley found Stephens again for a nine-yard strike to put the KISS up 42-28.
The KISS again clamped down on the Gladiators on downs and then the Stanley to Stephens connection clicked again for a touchdown and after a 21-0 second half run the KISS was up 49-28 and looked to be cruising.
But the Gladiators stormed back until finally being quieted by Morgan’s recovery.
“Our process is we’re trying to become a competitive football team. We’re growing,” said KISS head coach Omarr Smith. “DJ (Stephens) had a great game. Sometimes defenses will try to take Donovan (Morgan) away so DJ stepped up. We talk about the whole growth process. A couple of weeks ago DJ had a bad game and we talked about how we need him as a football player and to grow. He did that tonight.”
The KISS has two games remaining but both of them are on the road against Jacksonville and Portland. The win over Cleveland gives them the tie breaker should the teams finish with the same record. One win will secure a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
“I think we all feel pretty strong about it. We’ve been coming together a lot more as a team and working together as a team. We’re pretty confident. I think we’re going to get this done.” Stephens said.