The Tampa Bay Storm have developed a reputation as the Arena Football League’s most resilient team through the first month and a half of the 2017 season.
The Storm have also shown a penchant for responding to any adversity sent their way.
Saturday, both traits were on full display in Tampa Bay’s come-from-behind 53-47 victory over the Washington Valor in front of 9,275 at AMALIE Arena, the Storm’s fourth-consecutive win.
Tampa Bay enters its second bye week of the season with a 5-1 record, its best start since winning seven in a row to open the 2001 season.
“We’ve got a tough team,” Storm head coach Ron James said. “They win every different way you can pick, and they understand the situations well.”
Once again, the Storm worked the one-minute drill at the end of the game to perfection to secure the win. After Washington tied the score 47-47 with 37.7 seconds to go and were unable to recover an onside kick attempt on the ensuing kickoff, the Storm took over at the Valor 15-yard line and proceeded to move the ball down toward the goal line while taking time off the clock. Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard connected with wide receiver Joe Hills down to the two-yard line for an important first down. Hippeard then took two knees to force Washington to burn its final two timeouts. Facing 3rd and goal from the Valor 6-yard line, Hippeard misfired on a throw into the end zone for Kendrick Ings, but a pass interference call gave the Storm a new set of downs. On 1st and goal with eight seconds remaining, Hippeard rolled to his right and found a tightly-covered Hills in the corner of the end zone, and Hills hauled in the game-winning score while falling into the wall.
“When I look over at the bench and we’re in those situations, nobody flinches,” James said. “Everybody’s very positive about what we’ve got going on. They understand how we’re going to play it out. And really it’s just a matter of how it’s going to end for us, which receiver’s going to get a touchdown or which situation we’re working for.”
The Storm overcame a sloppy first half to prevail over the Valor (1-4) for the second-consecutive week. Ings returned the opening kickoff for what looked to be a touchdown, but he fumbled the ball before crossing the goal line, handing the ball over to the Valor on a touchback. The Storm let another touchdown fall by the wayside trailing 20-14 when LaMark Brown was wide open in the end zone but dropped the ball as he was about to make contact with the wall. On the next play, Hippeard threw behind a wide-open Brown streaking down the right sideline on fourth down for a defensive stop for Washington.
“We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” James said. “We were the team that wasn’t playing with poise in the first half.”
The Valor took a 26-14 lead with 50 seconds left in the half when former Storm receiver T.T. Toliver hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Erik Meyer.
Tampa Bay scored an important touchdown before the half, Hippeard dropping a pass perfectly in stride for a streaking Hills on a fourth and 10 play for a 35-yard touchdown to end the first half.
Washington led 26-20 at the break.
Coming out of halftime, the Storm produced potentially the biggest play of the game, Michael Lindsey coming from behind to pop the ball loose from Washington return man Cameron McGlenn on the opening kickoff and Storm kicker Mark Lewis scooping the ball up for a key turnover.
Three plays later, Hippeard found Ings in the end zone for a five-yard touchdown to tie the score 26-26.
“(The fumble recovery) was enormous but also because Lindsey throughout the game brings such great energy and makes a lot of plays on special teams and at the end of the game had to play both ways,” James said. “…We gave him the game ball. It’s easy to see that he was a difference maker for us.”
The two teams traded scores throughout the second half. After Meyer hit Julius Gregory for a 10-yard touchdown pass to put Washington back in front, Hippeard connected with Ings again for a 12-yard catch and run to make the score 33-33.
Meyer’s two-yard completion to Charles McClain on the first play of the fourth quarter pushed Washington back in front 40-33. Hippeard found Ings again on the Storm’s next possession for the third-consecutive drive the two hooked up for a touchdown to tie the score again.
Ings finished with 50 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
“It speaks volumes that (Ings) could come back and score touchdowns and kind of shake (the fumble on the opening kickoff) off,” James said.
The Valor were driving for another go-ahead score, but Meyer coughed up the ball running for the goal line and the Storm’s Alvin Ray Jackson fell on the fumble for a key recovery. Hippeard hit Hills for a nine-yard touchdown reception with 2:50 to go to give the Storm their first lead at 47-40.
“We’re a second half team,” Lindsey said. “We haven’t played our best game yet. When we do play our best game, there’s going to be some trouble.”
Bernard Morris, in at quarterback for the injured Meyer, led Washington on a game-tying drive late but left 37 seconds on the clock for the Storm.
As they’ve proven throughout the early part of the season, the Storm are near unbeatable with possession of the ball and less than a minute to go driving for the winning score.
“Hippeard has (the one-minute drill) down pat,” Hills said. “I don’t really know what they taught him in Orlando or wherever he comes from. He’s definitely on top of the game when it comes to that one-minute drill.”
Like Ings, Hills also had three touchdown catches and extended his consecutive regular season game streak with at least one touchdown reception to 74.
Hippeard finished 19-of-31 for 233 yards and seven touchdowns to zero interceptions. For the season, Hippeard has thrown 39 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
The Storm have a week off before returning to AMALIE Arena to take on Baltimore on June 3.