SALT LAKE CITY - The Utah Blaze closed out the season on a high note, earning a 48-46 victory over the Cleveland Gladiators (4-14) in front of 7,106 fans at EnergySolutions Arena.
The 2013 campaign was capped off with another outstanding defensive effort, as the Blaze (7-11) forced six turnovers on the night and won their final two games.
Utah sprinted out of the gates, needing just two plays to score on the game's opening possession. Quarterback Tommy Grady took his first snap and launched a 39-yard completion to LaVaughn Macon. A play later, the Blaze signal caller dumped it off to Ben Stallings for a one-yard touchdown to give Utah an early 6-0 lead.
The Gladiators took a 7-6 lead after the two teams traded interceptions. On Cleveland's opening series, rookie Arness Ikner snatched Chris Dieker's pass out of the air and returned it 28 yards before lateralling the ball to David Hyland, who came just two yards shy of the end zone. On the ensuing drive, Grady was intercepted by Marrio Norman and Dieker found Thyron Lewis for a 27-yard scoring completion.
Cleveland would build a 13-6 advantage as Grady was sacked and fumbled the ball on the following drive. The Gladiators recovered the loose ball and Dieker converted the turnover into points off a four-yard rushing touchdown. Utah's defense answered the call early in the second quarter, as linebacker Tony Tatum intercepted Dieker's pass aand sprinted 25 yards to the end zone for the score.
The Gladiators regained the lead on the ensuing series as Dieker launched a 30-yard touchdown pass to Carlese Franklin. Utah responded with a five-play, 27-yard series that was capped off with a rushing touchdown by Stallings, who rumbled seven yards before diving over the goal line to even the score, 20-20.
With less than a second remaining in the half, Cleveland called a timeout and lined up for a field goal in an attempt to break the tie. As the ball came off of the foot of kicker Craig Camay, Lavon McCoy managed to get his hand in the air and blocked the kick. The loose ball continued to bounce down the field before David Hyland finally recovered it in the end zone for the touchdown, giving the Blaze a 27-20 lead at halftime.
Utah opened the third quarter with an onside kick attempt, but Joe Phinisee recovered for Cleveland and returned it 14 yards to the end zone to tie the game. The Blaze quickly responded and needed just four plays to regain the lead as Grady hit Mario Urrutia for an 11-yard touchdown.
The Blaze defense stood its ground on the ensuing possession, limiting Cleveland to just four yards on 10 plays while coming up with three tackles for loss.
Danny Southwick -- a former Utah prep star -- stepped in at quarterback for the remainder of the game after Dieker was injured on the drive. The Gladiators elected to give up possession by booting a 56-yard field goal out of bounds on fourth down. Three plays later, Grady lofted a perfect 20-yard touchdown pass to Urrutia for a 41-27 advantage.
Cleveland posted two unanswered scores to open the final quarter, beginning with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Southwick to Lewis. Marrio Norman registered his third interception of the game during Utah's next possession and Southwick hit Lewis again for the score, this time from 35 yards out.
LaVaughn Macon responded for the Blaze moments later, returning the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Macon received the ball off the net and sprinted 54 yards to the end zone, shaking would-be tacklers before finally crossing the goal line to give the Blaze a 48-39 lead.
Southwick found Lewis for a final time with 1:30 remaining in the game to cut Utah's advantage, 48-46. The Gladiators attempted a late onside kick, but the Blaze recovered and ran out the clock to seal the victory.