TAMPA, Fla. - Tampa Bay defensive lineman James McClinton had already made one impact play on special teams in the Storm’s final home game of the season against Portland, blocking an extra point on the Steel’s first drive of the game to keep the Storm in front by a point.
His second major special teams play, however, may have just been the biggest play of the season for Tampa Bay.
Portland, trailing 41-40, set up for a potential game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining. McClinton, though, got a heavy push up the middle at the snap and stuck his hand up to deflect the 25-yard attempt from Ernesto Lacayo, setting off a raucous celebration among the 8,958 in attendance at Amalie Arena and preserve a one-point 41-40 victory for the Storm.
“I made an adjustment,” McClinton said. “Instead of trying to hit the gap (on the final play), I pressed him. He was giving it up (earlier). I was just shooting the gap as quick as possible (on previous attempts), trying to get through the gap. I just made those adjustments, got my hands up and bam.”
Tampa Bay (2-13) never trailed in the game, but Portland rallied in the fourth quarter and appeared to be in position to steal a victory in the closing seconds. After a Storm turnover with 4:06 to go, the Steel (2-13) simultaneously milked the clock and moved the ball toward the goal line. Rather than try to punch the ball into the end zone, Portland opted to set up for the field goal, allowing the Steel to take all but three seconds off the clock.
As Lacayo lined up his potential game-winner, Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels stood on the sideline, his eyes closed.
“The guys, they fought,” Samuels said following the victory. “They knew we could get pressure on that, and they did it. I’m just proud of our guys for playing a full 60 minutes.”
In losing 12 of their first 13 games, the Storm followed a familiar pattern: stay close early, fall behind through a series of second-quarter miscues and play catch up the rest of the game. Against Portland, the Storm learned what it felt like to play with a lead the whole game, scoring 21-straight points in the second quarter to take control.
After Portland answered Tampa Bay’s opening-drive touchdown with one of its own – a missed extra point kept the score 7-6 in favor of Tampa Bay – the Storm drove down the field and pushed their lead to eight points after quarterback Adam Kennedy, playing for an injured Jason Boltus, found Prechae Rodriguez in the end zone from 10 yards away.
On the ensuing kickoff, Nick Addison stripped Portland returner Shaine Boyle, and James Harrell recovered at the Steel 16-yard line for the Storm. Two plays later, Kendrick Ings took a handoff around the left end at the four, weaving his way through a wall of blockers and falling into the end zone to make it 21-6 Storm.
Portland was unable to advance the ball out of the shadow of its own end zone the next time it had the ball, turning the ball over on downs and giving it to the Storm again in prime position at the four. After a Jimmy Gordon rush gained a yard, Kennedy spotted a wide-open T.T. Toliver along the side wall in the end zone and lobbed a pass to the 39-year-old AFL veteran to put the Storm up 28-6.
“I thought we were clicking on all cylinders the first half on offense, but, like I said before, we’ve still got some things to work on,” Samuels said. “We’re a team. We’re still motivated to play, and, hey, who knows what’s going to happen down the stretch?”
Portland started its comeback on the final play of the first half when quarterback Shane Austin snuck into the end zone from a yard out to cut the deficit to 28-13. The Steel got the ball to open the second half and wasted little time, scoring on a Rashaad Carter three-yard run over the left side to make it 28-19 (extra point was missed).
The two teams traded scores, Tampa Bay pushing the lead to 35-19 when Kennedy found an unguarded Toliver on a fourth down play from six yards away and the Steel coming right back with an Austin to Nick Truesdell scoring connection.
That combination combined again for a 23-yard touchdown to get the Steel within two points early in the fourth quarter.
Tampa Bay countered, Kennedy hitting Lacey for a critical 21-yard touchdown pass with 8:05 to go to extend the lead, the score set up by a recovered onside kick by Addison at the Steel 13. The lead remained eight, however, as the snap on the extra point was bobbled.
Portland continued to fight, Truesdell scoring for the third-consecutive drive, taking a short out route, cutting back into the field and fighting through a trio of tacklers to break into the open and race 45 yards for a score. Portland opted to kick the extra point and still trailed by a point.
The Storm had a chance to close out the victory on offense, but Kennedy was picked off by Matt Pierce with a little more than four minutes to go, setting up the dramatic finish.
Said Samuels: “I’m just proud of our guys for playing the final play."