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PORTLAND TAKES ON JACKSONVILLE IN SEARCH OF FIRST 2016 AFL WIN



COURTESY: CLEVELAND GLADIATORS - Portland Steel quarterback Shane Austin gets off a pass during Monday's Arena Football League game. The Steel, who lost 55-48 in overtime, play Saturday on the road again, facing the Jacksonville Sharks.A late arrival, limited practice time, injuries to almost every one of his receivers, travel back and forth across the country … quarterback Shane Austin (and the Portland Steel) have had everything but normalcy — and a win — this season.

“It is what it is,” Austin says, on the eve of his next, and only second, 2016 Arena Football League game at the helm of the Portland offense. “Got to find a way to be just a little sharper. But at least the packing and unpacking and living out of a suitcase is just about over.”

The Steel (0-6) will play their sixth of seven straight road games on Saturday, facing the Jacksonville Sharks (2-4) at 4 p.m. OT.

Austin has lived his own vagabond football life the past two months, criss-crossing the country to attend Canadian Football League camps in pursuit of a roster spot with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. That didn’t quite work out, and so Austin, who had a little preseason time with the Steel, rejoined the team in time for a couple of practices before making his Portland debut on Monday. He passed for six touchdowns but had four interceptions.

This week, he got to practice a whopping once with the Steel — on Thursday — before their Friday morning flight to Florida.

Still, he was good out of the chute in Monday’s 55-48 overtime loss to the Cleveland Gladiators, a game that was both frustrating and promising for Portland.

The Steel weren’t happy with losing game they could have won by making a point-after kick at the end of regulation, but their improved performance, with Austin under center, seemingly gives them some momentum going into the Jacksonville game.

The 26-year-old Austin, in his fourth AFL season, showed the ability to make throws, run when he needed to and develop some chemistry with receivers, especially Tom Gilson (16 catches at Cleveland) and Tyrone Goard (14 receptions).

Gilson and Austin were teammates three years ago in Philadelphia and for a while last year in Cleveland, and it showed.

“Our receivers are great,” Austin says. “Tom’s a reliable, sure-handed guy, which is great to have.”

Goard, who is about 6-4, “gives us a big target,” the QB adds.

Injuries in the Cleveland forced the Steel to use a couple of defensive backs at wide receiver at times. And other players, notably defensive back/return man Terrence Mitchell (concussion), were hurting, too.

“Guys were dropping like flies,” Austin says.

Somehow, though, the Steel battled with the Gladiators early and battled back late, before falling in OT.

“Guys played their hearts out,” Austin says.

The 6-1, 200-pound QB from Santa Monica, California and the University of Hawaii got the Steel going, completing his first nine passes.

“We knew what Cleveland was going to bring defensively with their zone, and we took what they were giving us,” Austin says. “We kept throwing the short passes and working our way down the field.”

The Gladiators pulled ahead 48-28 in the third quarter, and it looked like they could/would coast to the home win at Quicken Loans Arena. But, nuh-uh.

“There was no quit in our team,” Austin says. “And we just focused on one play at a time.”

Austin hooked up with Goard, DB-turned-WR Christian Wise and then Goard for touchdowns, the latter coming on the final play of the fourth quarter.

“Perfect time management,” Austin says. “In this game, you don’t want to give the other team time to come back and score on you.”

Austin says he knew from experience that a comeback was doable, even from 20 points down.

“It’s crazy. As long as there’s time on the clock in this game, anything can happen,” he says.

While he threw 56 passes, completing 36 for 363 yards on the 50-yard field, his scrambling also came in handy, as he ran five times for 22 yards.

“That’s something I want to continue to improve,” he says. “It’s something the defense will have to cover as well as the pass.”

The Steel won the coin toss before overtime, and let Cleveland go on offense first, so they would know exactly what they needed to do. When the Gladiators got seven points on their possession, Portland needed seven to tie, eight to win. Both Steel coach Ron James and Austin say without hesitation Portland would have gone for a 2-point conversion in search of a quick victory.

The final play was jump-ball type of pass and route to Goard, but the ball arrived a bit short and just enough off target that the Steel receiver didn’t have a good shot at it. Cleveland defensive back Marvin Ross did, and he made the grab in the end zone for the game-ending interception.

“Tyrone was cramping up and wasn’t able to jump like he normally does, and their safety made a nice play — he kind of had a hold of Tyrone, but he did make a nice play. Just wish I had put a little more on that one,” Austin says.

Overall, Austin was able to get the Steel offense in gear better than Portland’s other 2016 starters (Danny Southwick, the first three games), Kasey Peters (one game) and Darron Thomas (one game). But Austin had enough missed throws to keep it from being a winning debut.

“There’s a little rust to scrape off, a couple things to clean up,” he says. “Now it’s just a matter of getting more on the same page with the other guys on offense.”

One of his interceptions came on a well-covered tight-end screen. “Shouldn’t have thrown that one,” Austin says.

Another came in the end zone on a “gimmick play,” a rollout toss. While it didn’t work, it came at the end of the first half, and Cleveland wasn’t able to capitalize on the pick to pick up any more points of its own. “We managed the clock well there, too,” he says.

Austin can’t rule out that he might leave the Steel again before the end of the season, if the CFL or another good offer comes his way. That’s the nature of the business and the way of life in the AFL.

“You never know. But I just try to stay in the moment,” he says. “I’m here now, and all my focus is on Portland.”

And, believe or not, for a team that shares the bottom of the league standings with the 0-6 Tampa Bay Storm, the Steel are in a good place, he says.

“The confidence is high. The guys feel good about where we’re at,” he says.

Portland has had two near-misses this season — last week at Cleveland and in Game 2, a 53-50 loss at Orlando on April 9.

Austin wasn’t there for the first close loss, which also went down to the wire.

He doesn’t want it to happen again.

“I’m used to winning, so it’s unacceptable to lose,” he says. “Last week, we didn’t get the main stat we wanted. It’s not good enough for me, so we’ve got to continue to improve.”

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