Eight weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Storm let a 21-point, fourth quarter lead slip through their grasp against the Orlando Predators in the first installment of the 2015 War on I-4.
Saturday’s loss to Orlando at Amalie Arena was not any easier to stomach for the Storm.
Trailing by five with 42 seconds remaining in regulation, Tampa Bay pulled briefly into the lead when quarterback Jason Boltus plowed into the end zone behind his offensive line from a yard out to put the Storm ahead 62-61 in the back-and-forth meeting between the in-state rivals.
Orlando, though, drove the length of the field on its final drive, and offensive lineman Michael Simons provided the winning score, rumbling into the end zone from five yards out with 20 seconds to go to give Orlando a 69-62 victory.
With the win, Orlando (9-6, 3-1) increases its lead over the Storm (6-8, 2-2) in the American South Division.
“We just came up short,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “The guys came up short. They played hard.”
Tampa Bay had one final drive to tie the score or take the lead late, but after moving the ball to the Orlando 10-yard line with six seconds left, the Storm’s Julius Gregory was stopped a yard short of the goal line on the final play of the game.
It appeared at least one second should have been left on the clock after Samuels signaled for timeout, but the clock showed zeros across the board. The Storm challenged the final play, but only Gregory’s position with the ball could be reviewed, not time left on the clock.
After replay, officials determined Gregory did not cross the goal line with the football and the game was over.
“(The officials) can’t overturn that and there’s nothing they can do, but I think we got, honestly, I really feel like we got the raw deal on that,” Samuels said. “We’re at the one-inch line, and I’m pretty sure we get in next time.”
A season-high crowd of 15,835 watched Orlando move to 30-27 overall in the War on I-4 series.
“We’ve got to try to get the ball in the end zone there, maybe get one step deeper or me hang onto it for a second longer, let him get into the end zone,” Boltus said about the final play. “We’ll go back and look at the film. That’s all we can do.”
Tampa Bay kicker Craig Peterson put the Storm in the lead 56-54 with 4:25 to go in regulation after booting a 28-yard field goal.
Former Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard threw his seventh and final touchdown pass with 3:25 to go, hooking up with LaMark Brown to put Orlando ahead 61-56 and set up the wild finish.
Boltus finished 25-of-38 for 363 yards, six touchdowns passes and two rushing scores.
T.T. Toliver was Boltus’ main target, the AFL veteran catching 10 passes for 174 yards and four touchdowns.
The Storm got their first turnover on downs in the third quarter to pull in front in the third quarter.
After Hippeard tossed a touchdown pass to offensive lineman Ryan Cave to put the Predators up 47-40 on their first drive out of halftime, Boltus found Emery Sammons on an 18-yard touchdown pass midway through the third.
Peterson’s extra point was blocked, keeping Orlando in front 47-46.
But not for long.
The Storm defense tightened, forcing a wayward Hippeard pass on fourth down at the Orlando 19 to give the ball back to Tampa Bay.
Two plays later, Boltus hit Gregory in the end zone from 10 yards out for a 53-47 Storm advantage going into the final quarter.
Tampa Bay forced another turnover on Orlando’s next drive, Nick Williams stripping Larry Brackins on a fourth down catch and James Harrell, in his first game back after missing a month of the season due to injury, recovering at the Orlando 18-yard line.
Boltus, however, was picked on the next play, Orlando’s Terence Moore jumping high in the air to tip a pass and scrambling to snag the ball out of the air.
Brackins atoned for his miscue moments earlier by hauling in Hippeard’s strike from 10 yards out to put Orlando back in the lead 54-53 following the successful extra point by Mark Lewis.
“We didn’t play well,” Samuels said. “I don’t think we did a lot of things well. We had a chance to put them away and we made mistakes, just like we did last time we played these guys.”
Tampa Bay and Orlando entered halftime tied 40-40.
The Storm scored on six of their eight first-half possessions.
Boltus connected with Toliver on touchdown passes of 27, 36, 14 and 13 yards to close out the opening 30 minutes. Toliver’s fourth scoring grab came with 37 seconds to go before halftime and leveled the score.
Tampa Bay had a chance to take the lead into the break after Hippeard was stripped of the ball by the Storm’s Everett Dawkins, who recovered the fumble at the Predators’ 2.
A dead-ball penalty moved the ball back to the 12, but the Storm pushed back to the one-yard line. With one final chance to score before halftime, Sammons was brought down short of the goal line on a sweep.
Boltus bulldozed his way behind his offensive line to sneak into the end zone from a yard out for Tampa Bay’s opening touchdown. After Hippeard tied the score 7-7 on a 31-yard touchdown pass to Kendal Thompkins, the Storm’s Kendrick Ings grabbed the ensuing kickoff six yards deep in his own end zone, wiggled out of a would-be tackle at the 2 and weaved his way through Orlando’s kick coverage for a 56-yard kickoff return touchdown and a 14-7 Storm lead.
Orlando recorded touchdowns on six of its seven first-half drives.
Hippeard connected on 12-of 13 passes before halftime for 19 yards and four touchdowns. Brandon Thompkins caught two of those first-half touchdown passes.
The 80 combined points between the two teams in the first half were the most ever in the War on I-4 series.
Hippeard finished 24-of-33 for 346 yards and seven touchdowns. Brandon Thompkins had two touchdown catches and a rushing score to lead the Predators offense.
Tampa Bay returns to action Saturday, July 18, when they travel to New Orleans to take on the Voodoo (8 p.m. kickoff). The Storm have four games remaining in the regular season, three against American South division opponents.
“We’re not out of it by far,” Samuels said. “We’ve got four games to play, and we can go and win all of them.”