Lions fall to visiting Jacksonville in season opener

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The Columbus Lions’ home dominance came to an end Friday night at the hands of the Jacksonville Sharks.

Buoyed by an uncharacteristic four Columbus turnovers, all in the first half, the Sharks took a lead as big as 27 points and cruised to a 56-41 win in the inaugural game of the National Arena League at the Columbus Civic Center.

The Sharks fired the opening salvo on the very first play from scrimmage by either team. Jacksonville quarterback Tommy Grady, the 2012 Arena Football League Most Valuable Player, found Moe Williams for a touchdown, giving the Sharks a 7-0 lead with just 70 seconds off the clock.

The Lions responded on the next possession, however, with a more methodical 8-play, 38-yard drive that was capitalized by a Mason Espinosa pass to Michael Reeve. Lindsey Wolfe’s extra point gave Columbus the only lead it would have during the game at 7-6.

After a Jacksonville field goal, the Lions fumbled the ball on the ensuing possession. Columbus went on to turn the ball over three more times in the second quarter, all off Espinosa interceptions.

“It’s about turnovers, realistically,” head coach Jason Gibson said of the game’s outcome. “If I get (four) turnovers, I’m winning by 40. That was the turning point.”

The Sharks cashed in on the extra possessions, with Derrick Ross scoring twice on red zone runs and former Lion Marvin Ross returning an interception back for a touchdown, giving Jacksonville a lead as big as 40-13 with a minute left in the first half.

On the ensuing possession for Columbus, Gibson elected to bench Espinosa in favor of backup Darren Daniel, who marched the Lions down the field and found Reeve for his second touchdown of the night to cut the deficit to 40-20 at the half.

“I was pleasantly surprised by Darren,” Gibson said. “He’s had rotator cuff problems in practice, and didn’t take a lot of reps. He played really well and got us going.”

The Lions’ defense stiffened in the second half, only allowing two Sharks touchdowns but only managing three touchdowns themselves on offense.

Reeve led all receivers with 101 yards and a pair of scores, while newcomer Tristan Purifoy had two second-half receiving touchdowns and 79 yards. Daniel finished 13 of 26 for 146 yards and 4 touchdowns in relief of Espinosa, who was 10 of 17 for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns, but 3 costly interceptions.

“We won the second half, but we can’t turn the ball over,” Gibson said. “I’m not really disappointed. We had a big fourth down stop, held them to two field goals … if you do that in arena football, you oughta win. We turned the ball over four straight times, which put us in too big of a hole we couldn’t get out of.

“They got in the red zone a bunch, and they didn’t score. I thought we did some good things defensively. After the second series, I went to my coaches and said we’re going to be pretty good.”

The Lions take to the road for their next game on Sunday, Mar. 26 at Corpus Christi. They return home to face the Georgia Firebirds on Sunday, Apr. 2 at 4 p.m.

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