The Tampa Bay Storm snapped a four-game losing streak by defeating the Los Angeles KISS 38-34 in the regular season home finale at Amalie Arena, the Storm’s first victory in nearly a month and a half.
Before the conclusion of Tampa Bay’s victory, however, Cleveland defeated Spokane by 17 points, clinching the fourth and final playoff berth in the American Conference.
Tampa Bay will not qualify for the postseason for just the fifth time in franchise history.
“I’m glad that we got a win,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “These guys deserve the win. We know we dug ourselves a hole, and it’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to get in the dance. But, I’m happy for these guys. They’re very resilient. We didn’t play our best, but we made enough plays to win the game.”
Jason Boltus connected with AFL veteran receiver T.T. Toliver on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds remaining in the game for the winning score. On the deciding play, Toliver got behind the KISS defense and Boltus hit him in stride to cap a nine-play, 42-yard drive that put the Storm in the lead for good during a back-and-forth second half.
Toliver’s touchdown was his second of the night. He finished with 40 yards on four catches.
Boltus was 20-of-39 passing for 221 yards and three touchdown tosses.
Nick Addison picked off Danny Southwick’s desperation heave on the final play of the game – Tampa Bay’s third interception of the evening -- to cement the Storm win.
“The second half, we moved the ball,” Samuels said. “We did a good job of executing in pressure situations, and that’s good for this young team to carry on.”
The Storm and KISS traded scores in the second half, each team taking turns with the lead.
Trailing by four after the break, Tampa Bay (7-10) went ahead 17-14 on a perfectly-placed fade pass from Boltus to Julius Gregory in the back corner of the end zone on the Storm’s first possession of the second half.
Gregory finished the night with five catches for 28 yards.
Los Angeles (4-13) regained the lead on its opening possession after halftime, Southwick capping a 45-yard drive by tossing an eight-yard pass to offensive lineman Miles Mason.
On a fourth and goal from the one-yard line, the Storm went back in front on Undra Hendrix’s rumble into the end zone early in the fourth quarter for a 24-20 lead.
“It’s a blessing,” Hendrix said of scoring. “I’ve been working all my career to get this opportunity to play at this level, and my hard work is showing off.”
Los Angeles wouldn’t go away, though, moving back in front 27-24 on its next play from scrimmage, Southwick finding Donovan Morgan along the boards and Morgan bouncing off the wall without being contacted and outracing the defense for a 46-yard catch and score.
Hendrix’s second touchdown of the evening on the Storm’s ensuing drive put the Storm back in front temporarily, but Los Angeles retook the lead with just over four minutes to go, Southwick firing downfield to Tom Gilson, who hauled in the pass at the goal line over a Storm defender for a 34-31 KISS advantage.
The Storm remained undaunted, though, and Boltus methodically moved the team down the field, throwing the winning score in the waning seconds to break the season-long losing skid.
“Coach is always talking about finishing, finishing, and that’s what we did in the fourth quarter,” Hendrix said.
The Storm scored on all four of their second-half possessions after recording points on just two-of-five first-half drives.
“We got comfortable, started protecting Boltus, and when he gets protected, he can make his reads and throw the ball,” Hendrix said. “On the runs, the offensive line blocked and the receivers blocked.”
An AFL season-high 16,308 came out to Amalie Arena to watch the Storm on Fan Appreciation Night.
“I’m glad we got a win in front of our fans,” Samuels said. “Our fans supported us throughout the year. I’m just happy that our guys came out on top in front of them to show them that we’re still here and we’re still playing Storm football.”
Tampa Bay’s defense kept the Storm within striking distance in the first half.
The Storm D intercepted two passes, recovered a fumble and recorded a turnover on downs to deny Los Angeles on four of its six first-half possessions.
James Harrell sparked the defensive effort by picking off Southwick’s second pass of the game at the Storm four-yard line.
Boltus immediately brought the Storm down the field, and Craig Peterson booted a 25-yard field goal to put Tampa Bay ahead 3-0 early.
The Storm defense stopped the KISS from getting a first down on their next drive, and Boltus increased Tampa Bay’s advantage to 10-0 with a five-yard scoring strike to Toliver.
The touchdown was Toliver’s team-leading 34th of the season. Toliver now has 35 for the season following his game-winning sore.
Los Angeles finally got on the board with 14:30 to go in the first half, Mason rushing into the end zone from two yards out to cut into the Storm lead.
Alfred Phillips kept the Storm in front temporarily with an interception in the end zone for his third pick of the season.
Los Angeles went into the break with a 14-10 advantage, however, when Southwick connected with a wide-open Morgan on a 20-yard touchdown pass with just under six minutes to go in the half.
The Storm’s Dexter Jackson recovered a fumble on the final play of the first half to prevent more damage.
“The defense practiced great all week,” Hendrix said. “They were really whipping our butt at practice, so I knew in this game they were going to be big for us.
“And they were.”
After opening the game by scoring on its first two possessions, Tampa Bay failed to put up points on its last three drives of the half.
Emery Sammons was Tampa Bay’s leading receiver, hauling in six passes for 82 yards.
Morgan finished with a game-high 100 yards receiving and two scores for the KISS.
The Storm will miss out on the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years.
“It hurts,” Samuels said. “I’m so used to making the playoffs, I can’t remember the last time I was out of the playoffs as a player. It hurts, but I look at all the promise that the team carries. We have some young guys and we have some leadership that should be back next year, and I believe that we’ll fix all the things that went wrong.”
Tampa Bay has one game remaining in the regular season. The Storm travel to Orlando to face the Predators on August 8 where they are looking to avenge a pair of close losses earlier in the season to their intra-state rival.