ALBANY — A triumphant return from a former standout wide receiver and a few close plays going the other way doomed the Albany Empire in its first loss of the season, a 42-41 setback to the Baltimore Brigade Saturday night before a crowd of 10,287 at the Times Union Center.
Joe Hills, one of the greatest receivers in Arena Football League history, played for the Empire last year, but he switched uniforms during the off-season and caught four TD passes from Baltimore QB Shane Boyd to lead the Brigade’s offense.
Meanwhile, the league-leading Empire (6-1) trailed most of the night and failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities, especially some close plays that went against it. One of the biggest plays that hurt the Empire was Malachi Jones’ unsportsmanlike excessive celebration penalty after grabbing a 20-yard TD pass from Tommy Grady. Jones celebrated his key catch by sitting on top of the boards in the end zone. The officials called a penalty, and the Brigade had the option of taking the penalty on the PAT.
Adrian Trevino missed the extra long PAT, which would have tied the game with 5:35 left. That play ended up being the difference in the game.
But the Empire still had other chances. Arkeith Brown made an interception that gave the Empire the ball back with a chance to take the lead in the final minutes, but as he ran up the sidelines, he fumbled the ball. Empire head coach Rob Keefe challenged the fumble, believing Brown had made contact with the boards first, but the call stood.
Earlier in the game, the Empire lost another challenge, when it appeared Albany made a successful onside kick attempt, recovering Hills’ fumble. But the officials ruled Hills was down on contact.
“This is a possession game. That last thing you want to do is be behind the whole game like we were,” Jones said. “We will learn from this and get better.”
Jones took responsibility for his big penalty.
“I sat on the wall. It was selfish penalty. I was unaware that was an excessive celebration, and I take full responsibility for it. It was bonehead move,” Jones said. “We had some self-inflicted wounds.”
Empire defensive lineman Joe Sykes, the league’s all-time leader in sacks, made a big sack on Boyd just before the half, causing a fumble, but the Empire couldn’t take advantage, as Grady was intercepted in the end zone just before time expired.
“Playing from behind all game was tough,” Sykes said. “We just had to tackle better. It’s just a loss. It’s not over for us. We know we get everybody’s best shot.”
Keefe appreciated the play of his former standout player, as Hicks caught 13 passes for 137 yards and the four scores.
“Joe is a good player. He took advantage of some our young DBs,” he said.
“Joe’s been a great receiver for years,” Jones said. “I learned a lot from playing with him last year.”
Keefe stressed that the Empire made some mistakes yet still was in the game right until the end.
“This is going to make us better,” he said. “This stuff happens. What a great fight it was. No offense to Baltimore, but we felt like we lost this game. The opportunities were there, but they kept slipping away.”
Grady completed 17 of 24 passes for 284 yards and six TDs, but he was intercepted twice. Quentin Sims caught eight passes for 146 yards and two scores. Jones also had two TD receptions.
Boyd completed 24 of 37 passes for 261 yards and six TDs for the Brigade.
The Empire travels to Washington Saturday night.
Baltimore 14 14 14 0 — 42
Albany 7 14 14 6 — 41
A — Sims 30 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
B — Hills 25 pass from Boyd (Clark kick).
B — Hills 2 pass from Boyd (Clark kick).
A — Taylor 17 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
B — Hills 14 pass from Boyd (Clark kick).
A — Sims 47 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
B — Hills 5 pass from Boyd (Clark kick).
B — Collins 21 pass from Boyd (Clark kick).
A — Jones 17 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
B — Collins 34 pass from Boyd (Clark kick).
A — Benson 8 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
A — Jones 20 pass from Grady (kick failed).