TAMPA – Not only was Lawrence Samuels making his head coaching debut in the Tampa Bay Storm’s 62-57 win against division rival, the New Orleans VooDoo, but a number of key moments made the victory all the more memorable Friday at Amalie Motor Oil Field at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Fighting with Tampa native Stephen Garcia for the starting role, the season-opener proved to be a fresh start for quarterback Randy Hippeard. After coming to the Storm upon an injury to their starting quarterback in 2013, Hippeard got his first career win with Tampa Bay, which was highlighted by four touchdown passes to Storm newcomer Justin Hilton.
“We were just taking advantage of what the defense was giving us,” Hilton said. “I thought Hippeard played sharp and made some good decisions. We weren’t trying to do more than what the coach scripted out for us.”
The season-opening win was also a grade-A example of just what the team is striving for this year, finding the perfect mesh of old and new.
“That was the plan from the start,” Samuels said. “We wanted to upgrade in all positions and a lot of guys stepped up big.”
As for Samuels’ first career win as a coach, he remained humble, celebrating the players performance over his own.
“It feels great,” Samuels said, “but I’m just happy for the team. It was a big confidence booster for us.”
Hippeard connected with Hilton to score the first points of the 2014 Arena Football League season with a 24-yard touchdown pass. The catch extended Hilton’s touchdown streak, which carried over from last year, to three straight games.
Before the end of the first quarter the VooDoo responded with a 21-yard touchdown of their own, but Tampa Bay immediately started the second with back-to-back scores.
First Dexter Jackson rushed for 15 yards to put the Storm ahead 13-7. Then on the ensuing kickoff, the ball bounced off of the net in the endzone and out of a New Orlean’s receiver’s hands to Rod Isaac for the score. The VooDoo challenged the calling on the field of a touchdown, but it stood, as Tampa Bay jumped out to a 13-point lead.
“One thing coach always tells us on kickoff is to just run,” Isaac said. “I was just running as fast as I could and saw the ball hit off the bar and saw him fumbling with it. I didn’t recover it the first time, but when I did the second time I just tried to keep my feet inbounds and saw the referee throw up his hands for a touchdown. I was ecstatic.”
Before half time the Storm’s Hippeard and Hilton connected for two more touchdowns for a total of three by the midway point of the game, while New Orleans added four. However the VooDoo missed three extra point attempts and a two-point conversion, which kept them trailing 34-31.
New Orlean’s Kurt Rocco 37-yarder to L.J. Castile gave the VooDoo their first lead of the game with a 38-34 score, but again Hippeard threw his fourth touchdown of the game to no other than Hilton to go back in front by four points.
Then on the one-yard line VooDoo’s Rocco was tackled by a Storm defender and hurt on the play. He did not return with a shoulder injury, yet backup Ryan Perilloux still managed to get the job done with a one-yard run for a 45-41 lead.
It was the last time New Orleans was able to hold a lead in the contest however as third-year wide receiver, Michael Lindsey, ran for his first touchdown of the season with 2:36 left in the third quarter. Prior to the touchdown, the Storm converted on fourth down, which opened up the opportunity for Lindsey.
“Coach always emphasizes finishing the game strong,” Isaac said. “We wanted to show in the fourth quarter we ran a tight game, we will like to get tighter as we go on, but it was a great victory for the team.”
Tampa Bay followed that with a fumble recovery deep in Storm territory as Perrilloux lost control of the ball. Defensive back Chris Smith recovered and ran for 42 yards for a 10-point lead with 11:33 remaining in the game.
New Orleans attempted a late rush as a 25-yard pass from Perrilloux brought the VooDoo within four, but Andrew Helmick’s touchdown reception with 3:40 remaining in the game solidified their fate. Despite one last touchdown with 43 seconds remaining, Perrilloux and the VooDoo could not recover an onside kick to fall 62-57.
UP NEXT – Tampa Bay travels to San Antonio to face the Talons next Friday at 8:30 p.m. EST. It will be the first meeting between the two clubs since 2013 when the Storm lost to San Antonio 68-42. The Talons also lead the all-time series 5-1. The Storm then return home on Saturday, March 29 when they face I-4 division rival, the Orlando Predators.