ALBANY — On a day when the Atlantic City Blackjacks put all their cards on the table, the Albany Empire needed some exceptional performances to hold them off. Quentin Sims delivered.
Sims not only caught five touchdown passes, but he also recovered two Atlantic City onside kick attempts, including one for a score and the other late in the game, to propel the Empire to a 63-61 victory Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 9,417 at the Times Union Center.
The league-leading Empire improves to 8-1, while the Blackjacks drop to 3-6.
“I’ve had five touchdown catches before, but never have I scored six touchdowns, and I never returned a kickoff for one,” said Sims, who caught seven passes for 91 yards. “When I’m on the hands team, I always look to see if there is space near me, and if there is, I try to run through it,” he added. “They [the Blackjacks] used a lot of man coverage. There are a lot of eyes on Malachi [Jones] to begin with, so it definitely opened up some space for me.”
“Q [Sims] is an unbelievable player,” Empire head coach Rob Keefe said. “He’s a professional. He’s such a pro and a model employee. He’s got ice in his veins, and he knows where the ball will be at all times.”
The Empire scored on every possession, except when it was running out the clock at the end of the game. Veteran quarterback Tommy Grady was 18-for-27 for 229 yards and seven TD passes. He was extremely careful not to turn the ball over.
“I wanted to make sure to secure the ball today,” Grady said. “The way Atlantic City was scoring on every possession, I wanted to take care of the ball so we could score on every possession, too. Atlantic City is a good team, and they’ve got some very good players.”
The teams traded scores throughout the first half, but the Empire desperately needed a score before intermission after the Blackjacks recovered one of their onside kick attempts to grab a 35-27 lead.
With time running down, Grady hit Sims for a 15-yard TD, and then found Collin Taylor for the conversion pass that tied the score 35-35 at halftime. The Empire needed the two-point conversion to make up for a rare missed PAT by veteran kicker Adrian Trevino.
The Empire’s defense came up with a key turnover when Cheatham Norrils intercepted a pass that was deflected by Tevin Homer. Grady then connected with Sims to give the Empire a 49-42 lead.
“It started when coach put us all in the right position to make the play,” Norrils said. “Then Tevin tipped the ball, and I was able to catch the ball in the air. Our defense is always grinding.”
Keefe knew that special teams would play a huge role in the game. Albany successfully returned four of the five Atlantic City onside kick attempts.
“Five-for-five would have been nice. We practice that all the time,” Keefe said. “Our offense is scoring at will. I knew those onside kicks were coming. I’ve known [Atlantic City head] coach [Ron] James for a long time. A lot of teams figure that’s the only way they can stay in the game with us.”
Keefe was hoping his defense would slow down the Blackjacks a little more, but he was glad his team came up with some big plays.
“We don’t want to panic,” he said. “We got that pick when we needed it, when it matters the most. We work on that tipped-ball drill every week. We’re battle tested,” he said. “We’re 8-1, but the last three games could have gone either way.”
Jones caught nine passes for 114 yards and two TDs. Homer and Terence Moore combined for 8.5 tackles to pace the Albany Empire defense.
For Atlantic City, Antwane Grant caught 11 passes for 177 yards and four touchdowns. Rashad Still added six catches for 77 yards and two scores. Quarterback Warren Smith, subbing for injured starter Randy Hippeard, completed 24 of 34 passes for 329 yards and seven TDs. He also ran for another score.
The Empire travels to Philadelphia next Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. game and then has a bye week. Albany visits Columbus July 14 before returning home for its final regular-season game against Philadelphia July 20 at 7 p.m.
Atlantic City 21 14 7 19 — 61
Albany 20 15 7 21 — 63
Alb — Jones 18 pass from Grady (Trevino kick)
AC — Brown 19 pass from Smith (Lewis kick)
Alb — Jones 15 pass from Grady (kick failed)
AC — Grant 38 pass from Smith (Lewis kick)
Alb — Sims 7 pass from Grady (Trevino kick)
AC — Grant 30 pass from Smith (Lewis kick)
Alb — Sims 29 pass from Grady (Trevino kick)
AC — Smith 7 run (Lewis kick)
AC — Grant 15 pass from Smith (Lewis kick)
Alb — Sims 16 pass from Grady (Taylor pass from Grady)
AC — Brown 1 run (Lewis kick)
Alb — Benson 1 run (Trevino kick)
Alb — Sims 12 pass from Grady (Trevino kick)
AC — Grant 4 pass from Smith (kick failed)
Alb — Sims 11 kickoff return (Trevino kick)
AC — Still 5 pass from Smith (pass failed)
Alb — Sims 11 pass from Grady (Trevino kick)
AC — Still 14 pass from Smith (Lewis kick)
Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected] or @BobWeiner58 on Twitter.