By Mike Condon
CEDAR RAPIDS - It took just two plays for the Cedar Rapids Titans to take control and it took a big play by the defense in the final minute to seal the deal.
The Titans scored on the first two snaps of the game, then got a 25-yard fumble return from Tony Tucker with 23 seconds left for the clinching touchdown as the Titans broke a six-game losing streak with a 38-27 win over the Reading Express before a crowd of about 2,500 at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.
"Oh my God," exclaimed Titan quarterback Kenneth Black Jr. after the game. "This was a defensive win. They saved us, they really saved us."
Cedar Rapids' Devin King sacked Reading quarterback Tim Bailey in the end zone on the first offensive snap of the game. And, after Reading kicked the ball back to the Titans following the safety, Johnnie King III raced 30 yards on a draw play for a touchdown. That gave the Titans a 9-0 lead and they never looked back, but there were some anxious moments as Reading staged a furious rally in the fourth quarter.
The win was Cedar Rapids' first since a 52-40 home win over Chicago on March 23 and also kept the Titans' slim playoff hopes alive. Now 3-7, Cedar Rapids is still in the running for the fourth and final playoff slot in the United Conference. Reading, which edged the Titans, 51-47, two weeks ago at home, dropped to 2-8 after winning their last two contests following an 0-7 start.
Cedar Rapids Coach Kyle Moore-Brown was looking for a more consistent effort from all three phases of his team and they responded. The defense, which has been shaky over the past few weeks, held the Express to seven points in the first half, sacking Bailey three times and picking off one pass. They also recovered three fumbles, including the clincher from Tucker. Zxavie Jackson nailed Bailey from behind as the Express were trying to march for the go-ahead score. The ball bounced free and Tucker scooped it up, broke a tackle and scooted down the boards for the touchdown.
"I played with Tucker at Prairie View," Black said. "I never knew he was that fast."
Black scored on a 1-yard run late in the first quarter and hit Eric McCain with a 35-yard scoring strike, the only TD in the second quarter which gave the Titans a 22-7 lead at the break.
The run continued to start the second half. After being denied on their first series, the Titans forced a turnover when T.J. Simmons picked up a fumble near midfield, Four plays later, Black hit McCain for another touchdown, this time a 12-yard strike. Scott Enos added the extra point, upping the lead to 29-7. Reading broke the run with a 1-yard scoring plunge from fullback Mike Dell only to see the Titans respond with a 33-yard field goal from Enos, who had his second straight strong game since joining the Titans a few weeks back.
Cedar Rapids' 32-14 lead appeared safe but Bailey connected on a pair of touchdowns, the second a beautiful 45-yard strike to Ivory Bradshaw with 2:42 remaining to draw the Express with five at 32-27. Reading then held the Titans on defense, giving the offense a final shot.
It looked like Cedar Rapids could be on its way to another heartbreaking loss until Jackson and Tucker came through.
"Every week we gotta play for 60 minutes," Moore-Brown said. "The guys showed good professionalism tonight and I am proud of them. They fought hard and found a way to win."
Cedar Rapids played without running backs Travis Rhone and Andre Crenshaw, along with receiver Johnny Gray. All three were out with injuries.
The Titans will look to make it two straight wins Friday night when they host Bloomington (7-3). Kickoff is set for 7:05 p.m.