SUWANEE — After scoring just a field goal in the first quarter two weeks ago, Dean Cokinos decided to make a change at quarterback.
Out came season-long starter Brett Elliott and in came Darnel Kennedy to begin the second quarter. His first three drives, all touchdowns. He ended the game throwing five TDs on 12 of 20 passing for 130 yards and the Force won at Tampa Bay 58-40. The next week, Kennedy made his first start of the season and it ended with a second road win. With an extra quarter to work, Kennedy threw seven touchdowns, racking up 373 yards on 21 of 32 passing.
Those two appearances earned Kennedy another road start. This time at Cleveland. This time in the playoffs.
“It’s been fun,” Kennedy said. “I am a competitor at heart so being on the sideline watching and not being able to help my team like I expect is kind of hard. But being in the game it’s a good thing. I love my teammates and the opportunity.”
For head coach Dean Cokinos the change at the quarterback spot is more an indication of depth at the position than lost faith in Elliott.
“You evaluate all your players on a weekly basis,” Cokinos said. “The fact of the matter is, we have two starting quarterbacks who can play in this league. You play the best guys who give you the best chance to win on a weekly basis.”
And this week, the stakes are a bit higher.
Georgia travels to Cleveland in the playoffs’ first round, a rematch of a game the Force lost 62-48 on June 11. The Force fell behind 21-7, including a interception return for a touchdown off Elliott, in the first quarter and never fully recovered.
“We were pretty much in the game here and there, but a couple of mistakes here or there cost us the game,” Kennedy said. “We kind of started slow and were kind of lethargic.”
But the lethargy is gone according to Kennedy. With the playoffs arriving, the former Alabama State player said the atmosphere at practice changed.
“You can feel it now. You could feel it Monday at the first practice,” Kennedy said. “It’s the playoffs, it kind of magnifies everything.”
The Force are 1-1 in rematch games coming off a loss this season. They were swept by Jacksonville and beat Orlando on the road the second time around. The Force are 6-3 on the road, tied for the best road record in the American Conference, but they face a Cleveland team with just two home losses all season. The Gladiators also boast the third best defense in the scoring-happy AFL.
“They are good at home,” Cokinos said. “We got a good feel for the arena and what kind of crowd we are going to see the last time we were up there.”
This time, every bit of help matters.
“You are one of eight teams now, four in each conference, this is what you play for,” Cokinos said. “That is one of your first goals is to qualify for the playoffs. There are only four games going on this weekend and we are one of the four games. The journey was the season, now it’s time to go play.”