ATLANTIC CITY — The Atlantic City Blackjacks couldn’t keep pace with the Albany Empire on Saturday night.

A series of costly mistakes, including a huge miscue on special teams, led to a 54-35 loss before an announced crowd of 4,386 at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

“When we’re playing a great team like that, we can’t afford to hurt ourselves, and that’s what happened,” Blackjacks coach Ron James said. “Most of our mistakes tonight were self-inflicted.”

The Empire seized the momentum in a tight, exciting game by recovering a fumbled kickoff return in the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter.

The Blackjacks (2-3) led 28-27 at halftime and appeared on the verge of handing the Empire (5-0) their first loss.

Albany took its first lead at 34-28 on Tommy Grady’s touchdown pass to wide receiver Malachi Jones.

Adrian Trevino’s ensuing kickoff bounced off the net in the back of the end zone. Kendrick Inges, who had scored the first kickoff return TD in franchise history in the first half, bobbled the football and Empire defensive back Juwan Offray recovered it to put the Empire ahead 41-28.

“I took my eye off the ball, plain and simple,” Inges said. “I had already done it once and was anxious to make another big play. But I needed to secure the ball first. I didn’t do that and it cost us.”

Atlantic City cut the gap to 41-35 early in the fourth quarter on Randy Hippeard’s TD pass to wide receiver Rashad Still — Hippeard’s fourth TD pass of the game — but the Blackjacks couldn’t come up with a defensive stand.

That was a problem throughout the game for Atlantic City. The Empire scored on their first seven offensive possessions and added TDs on special teams and defense.

“It was a back-and-forth game at that juncture, and we thought it was going to come down to the last possession of the game,” James said. “Trying to score on every possession is key, and when you give the ball up like we did, it’s costly.”

The clock initially ran out with the Empire leading 48-35, but the officials ordered an additional 30 seconds. Empire defensive lineman Joe Sykes scooped up a Blackjacks fumble and raced 21 yards for another TD.

Grady completed 24 of 31 passes for 228 yards and five touchdowns, including three to Jones. Hippeard was 24 for 32 for 246 yards and four TDs for the Blackjacks.

The Blackjacks got off to a terrific start.

Hippeard hit Inges for a TD to open the game. Albany answered with a TD, but a missed extra point left the Blackjacks ahead 7-6.

Inges fielded the kickoff, broke a couple of tackles and sprinted up the middle for a 56-yard TD that was the first kickoff return for a score in team history.

Inges scored four touchdowns via three receptions and the return.

“My teammates did a good job of blocking for me on that play,” Inges said.

“All I needed was a seam. They created one for me, I hit it, and the rest is history.”

The loss left the Blackjacks in fifth place at 2-3 behind the Empire (5-0), Washington Valor (3-2), Philadelphia Soul (2-2) and Baltimore Brigade (2-2).

The Blackjacks next face the Brigade at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Boardwalk Hall.

“The final score tonight wasn’t indicative of how close the game was,” James said. “But in all fairness, they (the Empire) outplayed us. We just have to eliminate the mistakes and come back strong next week.”

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