Lions fend-off third quarter surge from Orlando, defeat Predators 61-43

by Alex Husting

The 6-2 Columbus Lions are heading back to the NAL Championship game for the third time in four seasons after defeating the 4-4 Orlando Predators 60-43. The Lions are now 3-1 in NAL first round playoff games and 1-0 in home playoff games in the NAL.

Scoring began with a Dylan Barnas deuce to make it 2-0 to start the game and put the Lions at the five to start their first drive. This was the only time the Predators would score in the first half, with all of their first half drives ending in a turnover on downs or a turnover forced by the Lions defense. 

The first quarter was a low scoring affair, with the Lions scoring the only touchdown of the quarter when Espinosa found Desmond Reece in the corner of the end zone on the opening drive.

The MVP of the first quarter for the Lions was Rodney Hall Jr. the recent NAL Defensive Player of the Week. Hall intercepted Predators quarterback Patrick O’Brien twice, including a tipped pass by the defensive linemen which Hall had to dive into the wall for the catch.

The second quarter saw the scoring finally open up for the Lions with a rushing touchdown from Desmond Reece on the very first play of the quarter to make it 12-2. 

On the very next drive, Predators quarterback Patrick O’Brien lost the football in the middle of his throwing motion, sending the ball flying backwards and into the end zone where Ken Washington recovered for the easy score to make it 19-2.  

A goal line stand from the Lions defense gave Espinosa and the offense the ball with under two minutes remaining. They wasted little time finding the end zone again with a deep throw to Antwane Grant from Espinosa to make it 27-2 with 54 seconds to go.

The Predators tried once again to find the end zone before half time but the Lions defense came up with another goal line stand, stopping O’Brien just short of the end zone as time expired.

The Predators came alive in the second half, scoring 18 unanswered in the third quarter. They opened the quarter with a long touchdown drive that culminated with a Desmond Maxwell touchdown run and a deuce from Dylan Baras. 

The Lions turned it over for the second time tonight on the following drive when Desmond Reece caught a pass inside the five but was stripped of the football. The Predators once again marched down the field, this time scoring with a O’Brien touchdown run and yet another deuce from Baras to make it 27-20 late in the third quarter. 

The Lions and Predators each exchanged touchdowns to start the fourth quarter, making it 34-27 early in the fourth. The Lions took control with twelve unanswered points, including a deuce from Tristan Reynolds and an interception by Marvin Ross which led to a Reynolds field goal, making it 46-27 with seven minutes to go. 

The Predators continued to attack on offense but they had no answer for Espinosa and the offense, with the Lions holding on to win 61-43 and advance to the NAL Championship game.
Outside of an 18 unanswered points by the Predators in the third quarter, the Columbus Lions dominated most of this game with the combination of a high scoring offense and turnovers defense. 

Mason Espinosa led the way for the Lions on offense with 23 completions for 280 yards and six touchdowns. This was also his seventh straight game without an interception. He three at least two touchdowns to three different receivers. His top target was once again Antwane Grant, who led the way with nine catches for 117 yards and two scores. Desmond Reece stepped up in place of Romond Deloatch, finishing the game with eight receptions for 89 yards and two scores, along with a rushing touchdown.

On the defensive side the Lions held the Predators running game in check, with O’Brien and Maxwell combining for just 30 yards. Outside of a big 17 yard run from O’Brien early in the first quarter, the Predators struggled to find big gains on the ground. 

O’Brien finished the game with 24 completions on 38 attempts for 282 yards and three touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions. The majority of the Predators aerial attack came from D.J. Meyers and Prince Shonola. Meyers led the way with 12 receptions for 141 yards but Shonola was not far behind with nine catches for 114. Each receiver caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. 

The Lions defense forced five turnovers from the Predators offense, a number of which came in Lions territory and completely shifted momentum. The 25 point deficit was too much for the Predators to overcome as they had no answer for the Lions offense in the fourth quarter.

With the win tonight, the Lions will be heading to Albany, New York for the second time this season as they will take on the 7-1 Albany Empire. The Empire defeated the Carolina Cobras 55-41 in their first round matchup and now the Lions will meet them for the third time this season. 

Kickoff for 2021 NAL Championship game is set for 7 p.m EST on August 14. The game can be watched live with CTV Beam, at or on the NAL’s official Youtube channel


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