The Tampa Bay Storm know winning every division game is key to winning the division title.
The journey got off to a good start with a 63-28 win over the Jacksonville Sharks on Saturday night in front of 11,124 fans at Amalie Arena in the Storm’s first divisional game of the season.
“Any time you play a divisional opponent it’s important to get a victory because of the tiebreakers that come down at the end of the year,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said.” My hats off to them the way we played.”
The Storm moved into a tie for first place in the South Division with the victory and Orlando losing to Cleveland on Saturday night. The win also helped move the Storm back to .500 this season.
“We had to get a win this week,” defensive lineman Dexter Jackson said. “We couldn’t go into a bye week at 2-4.”
Tampa Bay (3-3, 1-0) scored 35 straight points between the second and third quarters after Jacksonville initially took a 14-7 lead while holding the Sharks (1-5, 0-2) scoreless for nearly 20 minutes.
Jason Boltus, the leading passer in the AFL entering Saturday’s game, continued his steady play finishing with 240 yards while throwing for six touchdowns. He also ran for a two-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
The Storm led 42-14 after the Storm defense held the Sharks scoreless in the third quarter. The defense forced a fumble for the fourth straight game.
After T.T. Toliver scored a 38-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14 with just more than a minute remaining in the second quarter, the Sharks failed to get a hand on the ensuing kickoff and it was recovered in the end zone by Rick-J Hill to give the Storm a 21-14 lead.
The Sharks never recovered after that.
“It’s so funny how this game works,” Samuels said. “Anytime you get an extra possession, it’s huge. The ball off the net was huge. Our kicker is starting to kick the ball to the net so it gives us a chance to get those plays.”
James Harrell intercepted a Tommy Grady pass on the next Jacksonville possession and the Storm capitalized on the turnover when Toliver caught a 2-yard pass on the final play of the first half to give the Storm all of the momentum entering the locker room.
“Defense causes turnovers and we’re putting points on the board,” Samuels said. “That’s what it’s all about. … We’re going to continue to get better. Like I said at the beginning of the year, we’re a young team, we’ve got a lot of new guys playing for us and they’re playing hard for us and they’re competing for us. They never give up. We finished tonight.”
It was Harrell’s fourth interception this season. He also recovered his second fumble of the year in the third quarter.
Joe Hills, in his first game back at Amalie Arena playing against his former team, finished with two catches for 18 yards but he was ejected in the final minute of the first half when he threw a punch when emotions became heated between the two teams. Storm linebacker Rick-J Hill was also ejected for throwing a punch.
Alfred Phillips led the defense with seven tackles and also made his first interception of the year.
Toliver continued to shine on offense making nine catches for 96 yards while scoring four touchdowns.
Julius Gregory had another solid game making seven catches for 82 yards while also scoring a touchdown. He also found himself playing some on the defensive side of the ball as well.
“Coach told me to stay focused and keep grinding, keep grinding, keep grinding my time will come and when my number was called, I played like I was ready,” Gregory said.
The Storm will have a bye next week before travelling to Orlando on May 16 for the first War on I-4 matchup of the season.
“We are starting to show some signs of being a pretty good team in this league,” Samuels said.