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Gladiators rally last to turn away Shock

Arena Football League games are often zany affairs and the Spokane-Cleveland battle Saturday night was every bit of that and more.

There were five lead changes in the final 2 minutes, 6 seconds, with Cleveland’s Brent Holmes delivering the decisive blow in a back-and-forth contest, returning a kickoff 56 yards for a touchdown that clinched the Gladiators’ wild 72-68 win in front of 9,974 stunned fans at the Arena.

Spokane (2-2) dropped its second game at home. After three close losses, Cleveland (1-3) finally broke into the win column.

Spokane took the lead 68-65 when Kyle Rowley zipped a 4-yard touchdown pass to Raul Vijil with 8.2 seconds remaining.

On the ensuing kickoff, Holmes caught the ball cleanly off the net and burst up the middle. Holmes was barely touched as he raced into the end zone with 1.6 seconds left.

“I’ve never had this feeling where we pretty much had the game won and they return a kick with almost no time left,” linebacker Kevin McCullough said. “It was devastating, but we’re going to come back and learn from it.”

Holmes had returned two kicks for just 14 yards before breaking the winner.

“He actually came up to me and said, ‘I took one out of your book,’ said Vijil, an accomplished kick returner. “He made a great play, and they played to the end. That’s what you have to do in arena football.”

Spokane had one last chance when a penalty on the Gladiators was enforced after the kickoff. From Cleveland’s 23, Rowley floated a deep pass into the end zone for receiver Markee White, but the ball fell to the turf as White and a defensive back wrestled for position. Shock offensive coordinator Matt Sauk chased after the officials as they exited the field, protesting that there should have been pass interference.

“It was pretty wild, all the way down to the last play when we threw it up to Markee, thinking the flag should have been thrown, but they didn’t call anything,” said Shock receiver Huey Whittaker, who caught three second-half touchdown passes. “We have to live with it.”

Rowley tossed nine touchdown passes and Cleveland counterpart John Dutton had six. Both quarterbacks were intercepted twice and each team had a momentum-turning fumble.

There were 18 penalties, including two infractions that erased Cleveland turnovers in the second half. Another penalty wiped out Spokane’s recovery of an onside kick in the final minute.

“It seemed like every time we made a good play, there was a penalty,” Spokane coach Rob Keefe said. “You can’t do that. That’s just playing sound football.”

Spokane was probably fortunate to be down just 38-34 at half.

Rowley was intercepted twice, the latter returned by Victor Williams for a touchdown late in the second quarter.

Spokane visits Arizona (2-2) on Friday.

Gladiators 72, Shock 68

Cleveland 21 17 0 34 —72
Spokane 14 20 14 20 —68

CLE—Nelson 46 pass from Dutton (Denny kick)

CLE—Holmes 24 pass from Dutton (Denny kick)

SPK—Hall 10 pass to Rowley (Rowan kick)

SPK—Todd 1 fumble recovery (Rowan kick)

CLE—Nelson 13 pass from Dutton (Dutton kick)

SPK—Thompson 2 pass from Rowley (Rowan kick)

CLE—Williams 22 INT return (Denny kick)

SPK—Vijil 39 pass from Rowley (Rowan kick)

CLE—Williams 2 run (Denny kick)

SPK—White 34 pass from Rowley (Rowan kick)

CLE—FG Denny 41

SPK—Whittake 11 pass from Rowley (Rowan kick)

SPK—White 4 pass from Rowley (Rowan kick)

CLE—Nelson 6 pass from Dutton (Denny kick)

CLE—Monk 48 run (Denny kick)

SPK—Whittaker 2 pass from Rowley (Rowan kick)

CLE—Williams 8 pass from Dutton (Denny kick)

SPK—Whittaker 2 pass from Rowley (kick fail)

CLE—Celson 23 pass from Dutton (kick fail)

SPK—Vijil 4 pass from Rowley (Rowan kick)

CLE—Rowan 56 kickoff return (Denny kick)

First downs 18 25
Rushes-yards 4-51 2-43
Passing yards 285 365
Passes 25-39-2 30-45-2
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-yards 10-46 8-53

Individual Statistics

Rushing–Cleveland, Monk 2-50, Williams 1-2, Johnson1-minus 1. Spokane, Thompson 2-43.

Passing–Cleveland, Dutton 25-39-2-285. Spokane, Rowley 30-45-2-375

Receiving–Cleveland, Nelson 7-129, Johnson 9-65, Holmes 6-64, Tadisch 2-19, Williams 1-8. Spokane, Whittaker 1-149, White 8-112, Vijil 7-96, Hall 1-10, Thompson 3-8.