Jason Boltus broke a 56-56 tie with 56 seconds remaining, the Tampa Bay Storm quarterback delivering a perfect strike to T.T. Toliver from the six-yard-line to send the Storm to a 63-56 victory over South Division and cross-state rival Jacksonville on Friday at Amalie Arena.
Tampa Bay set a franchise record for points in a half after putting 56 on the scoreboard through the first 30 minutes.
The Storm scored just once after halftime, but it proved to be the pivotal touchdown, Boltus’ connection with Toliver the difference in an important division win.
“We went to our veteran, T.T. Toliver,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “He made a great catch. That was close. These guys, they came through tonight.”
Tampa Bay’s Alfred Phillips broke up a fourth down pass on Jacksonville’s final possession with 12 seconds left to seal the win for the Storm, who move to 5-6 overall and 2-1 in the Southern.
“Scared me, but that was huge,” Samuels said. “Our guys, I thought we had a great week of preparation. Hats off to my team and the staff, I think they prepared very well. I thought we did a good job against a good team.”
Boltus threw five first half touchdown passes and added another rushing. Boltus’ favorite target in the first half was Julius Gregory, who had three touchdown catches and seven total for 80 yards.
Boltus was 13-for-16 in the first half for 160 yards.
The Storm scored on all six of their first-half possessions.
The previous Storm high mark for points in a half was 50 against Grand Rapids on May 6, 2005. The Storm’s 56 first half points also eclipsed the franchise record for first-half points, 47, established on June 24, 2000, at Grand Rapids.
Tampa Bay’s 56 points in the first half is the third highest total scored in a half in Arena Football League history.
“We were just clicking as an offense,” Gregory said. “All week, we went no huddle, no huddle, fast pace, fast pace. It carried over into the beginning of the game.”
Tampa Bay and Jacksonville (6-6, 1-3) traded scores back and forth in the first quarter, both teams putting up three touchdowns to make it 21-21 after one.
Boltus hit Gregory on touchdown passes of 30 and 5 yards, and Kendrick Ings returned a kickoff 56 yards for the Storm’s third touchdown of the quarter. Ings now has two kickoff returns for scores this season.
Tampa Bay broke the game open in the second.
Four seconds into the quarter, Boltus connected with Emery Sammons, his second touchdown catch of the season, from four yards out to put the Storm up 28-21.
Tampa Bay took a two-score lead immediately after, Ings recovering a loose ball off the net on the ensuing kickoff and returning into the end zone from a yard out to make it 35-21 Storm.
“(Ings) is just an awesome player,” Samuels said. “The young guy’s really coming into his own…That was huge for us, gave us a chance to actually build the lead. Hats off to his effort getting downfield, hats off to my special teams, those guys played hard tonight.”
Scoring passes from Boltus to T.T. Toliver for 33 yards and Gregory for 10 in the second kept the Storm in the lead by two touchdowns.
Jacksonville cut the deficit with 47 seconds to go before halftime, Sharks quarterback Tommy Grady finding Joe Hills from 21 yards out to make it 49-42.
The Storm, though, benefitted from another big kickoff return by Ings, who brought the ball out to the Sharks’ 21-yard line with 38 seconds left on the clock. Boltus took the Storm down the field and called his own number from the three-yard-line, powering up the middle on a quarterback sneak with 21 seconds left in the half for a 56-42 Tampa Bay lead at the break.
Jacksonville worked the ball down to the Storm 16 with one second left in a last, desperate attempt to score before the half, but Grady misfired on a pass to Hills in the end zone.
The Storm scored more points in the first half against Jacksonville than they had for the entire game in eight of 10 contests entering Friday.
Grady went 12-of-18 with five touchdowns for Jacksonville in the first half. Hills had six catches, four for touchdowns, and 112 yards in the opening 30 minutes.
Tampa Bay and Jacksonville combined for 98 points in the first half, the second highest total all-time in AFL history.
Neither team scored in the third as each had just one full possession in the quarter.
Tampa Bay held Jacksonville on downs after the Sharks opened the second half with the ball.
The Storm had a chance to create more separation on their following possession, but Boltus was picked off in the end zone on a 2nd and goal from the two-yard-line to end their only turn with the ball in the third.
Tampa Bay had another opportunity to put the game away in the fourth, but Boltus again was picked in the end zone from the Jacksonville 2.
“We had chances to put them away,” Samuels said. “We made some -- I want to say it was bad on both ends -- quarterback decisions and receiver routes, basically the receiver’s route made the quarterback decision…But, the guys came through. I think they played big time, and we’ve got to just keep it going.”
The Sharks, meanwhile, got closer on Hills’ 5th touchdown grab of the night with 12:22 left in the game on a fourth and goal from the Storm 4. Julian Rauch missed the extra point to keep Tampa Bay in front by eight points.
After Boltus’ second pick, Jacksonville drove the ball to the Tampa Bay 3 and inched closer when Hills caught touchdown No. 6 of the night with a little more than 2:30 to go. Grady hit Hills on the two-point conversion pass to tie the game 56-56.
Toliver’s touchdown gave the Storm the lead for good, and Tampa Bay held Jacksonville on downs on the Sharks final drive to preserve the win.
“(Phillips) made a great break on the ball,” Samuels said of the game-sealing play by his defensive back. “Big play.”
Boltus finished 22-of-34 for the game for 243 yards and six passing touchdowns.
Boltus had seven touchdowns total.
“We keep (Boltus) upright, that’s what we’re going to do all season,” Gregory said. “We’ve just got to build from here, let this catapult us to the next game.”
Gregory was the leading Storm receiver, hauling in nine catches for 89 yards and three scores.
The Storm defeat Jacksonville for the second time this season and snap the Sharks’ five-game win streak.
Tampa Bay had lost three of four entering Friday’s game.
“We proved that we can bounce back from all kind of adversity,” Samuels said. “I’m hoping that this victory kind of springboards us.”
Tampa Bay returns to action Friday, June 19 at Cleveland, kickoff set for 7 p.m. The Storm will be looking for their first win against the Gladiators after two previous losses this season.