Georgia Force line backer Matt Marcorelle (11) celebrates after sprinting his fumble recovery in for a touchdown against the Cleveland Gladiators during the home opener of arena football action at the Arena At Gwinnett Center in 2012.
DULUTH -- It's safe to say much of the 2012 opener against the Cleveland Gladiators won't be very prominent on the Georgia Force's season highlight reel, but they won't argue with the bottom line.
Larry Shipp's three receiving touchdowns and a defensive effort that created five turnovers from the visiting Gladiators were enough to help the Force open up on the right note with a 41-39 win before 6,573 fans at The Arena at Gwinnett Center on Monday night.
"Most teams play a preseason (exhibition) game, but we never did," said Shipp, who finished the night with seven receptions for 124 yards and the three scores. "So, that was like our preseason game. ... We made a lot of mistakes, but we're going to clean it up week by week."
Indeed, the Force were able to overcome plenty of mistakes of their own, including four turnovers and four missed extra points by the normally sure-footed Carlos Martinez.
In fact, the game started very inauspiciously for the Force when Martinez's opening kickoff sailed wide of the net, giving Cleveland the ball at 20-yard line.
But Tracy Belton stepped in front of John Dutton's attempted bomb to Thyron Lewis on the game's first snap for an interception -- the first of two on the night for the third-year veteran out of UMass -- that gave the Force the ball at their own 2.
Four plays later, Darnell Kennedy lofted a pass towards the left sideline that Larry Shipp first bobbled, but gathered in against the sidewall before squeezing past a Cleveland defender and into the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown, giving Georgia a 7-0 lead just 3:07 into the game.
The lead reached 22-13 by halftime, and the Force had as much as a 28-13 after Shipp wrestled away R.J. Archer's first pass as a Force quarterback from Clevelend's Derrick Boyd for a 45-yard touchdown with 8:49 left in the third quarter.
But Archer struggled the rest of the way by throwing six straight incompletions after his initial TD toss.
And after Cleveland answered with a 19-yard scoring strike form Dutton to Lewis to pull to within 28-19 with 4:21 left in the period, the Gladiators got another chance when an Archer pass was batted into the air, allowing Jalil Carter to pick it off at the Georgia 3.
Dutton ran in for the score on the next play to cut the Force lead to 28-26 with 1:59 left in the quarter.
Archer's struggles continued with four straight incomplete passes to turn the ball back over to Cleveland at the Georgia 20-yard line 10 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Three plays later, Dutton had found Lewis for a 20-yard score, and the Gladiators had their first lead of the game at 32-28 with 12:58 remaining.
But Kennedy returned on Georgia's next possession, and completed 6 of 9 passes on a 10-play, 45-yard drive that ended when he hooked up with Shipp for his third TD reception of the night, a 4-yard catch that vaulted the Force back in front at 34-32 with 6:16 left.
"As long as there's time on the clock, you've got to believe you can win the game," said Kennedy, who completed 16 of 29 passes with two interceptions for 163 yards and three touchdowns. "It was big for our offense (to answer Cleveland's TD). It was big for our team to see us put in that position and to be able to answer the bell."
The Georgia defense the answered the bell by creating its fifth turnover of the night -- and fourth interception -- when Jeremy Grier picked off a Dutton pass and tip-toed down 17 yards down the left boards for a touchdown that gave the Force breathing room at 41-32 with 2:10 remaining.
Cleveland did pull as close as two points again after Derik Steiner's 1-yard TD run with 57 seconds remaining, but a head's up play by Leroy Vann, who batted the ensuing onside kick out of bounds, allowed the Force to gain possession and run out the clock.
It was exactly the kind of late-game poise Force coach Dean Cokinos was looking for in the team's season opener.
'"In the end, the Arena game usually comes down to the last few minutes," Cokinos said. "And our offense responded, and our defense responded. That's really the positive of this game is that we played the final five minutes well. We scored, we scored on defense and we drove the ball on offense to ... run the clock out. That's not easy to do."