TAMPA – The Tampa Bay Storm controlled their own destiny in the 2014 AFL playoff picture, but were unable to overcome a surging Cleveland offense as they fell to the Gladiators 56-49 in front of a league-wide high this season, 14,770 fans Saturday night at AMALIE Motor Oil Field at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
With the Philadelphia Soul losing their contest earlier tonight to the Pittsburgh Power, 64-34, the Storm needed a win to secure the final playoff spot in the AFL. However Tampa Bay was unable to notch a victory in its last two weeks of the regular season, which would have given them the edge, as they came up short in earning a bid to the postseason.
“I appreciate the guys effort,” head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “We came up a little bit short. We had our opportunities; we again just came up short.”
The Storm maintained pace with the Gladiators for a majority of the contest, but Tampa Bay began to stumble in the third and penalties further brought them off course.
“You have to play the game and you have to follow the rules,” Samuels said. “We didn’t. When we needed to be disciplined, we’d get a penalty and it cost us the ball game. That’s something we’ll just have to correct next year.”
Wide receiver Joe Hills was a bright spot for the Storm Saturday though, as he continued his argument for why he deserves a spot on the AFL All-Arena team by not only continuing his touchdown streak with his 35th consecutive game with at least one touchdown, but by scoring two more before the end of the first half.
“Randy has trusted me and thrown me the ball a lot,” Hills said. “So I really attribute my success to Randy having trust in me.”
Hills finished with three touchdowns for 119 yards on the night.
The first of the trio of scores came when quarterback Randy Hippeard connected with Hills on a 23-yarder to lock the game at seven with 9:16 left in the opening quarter.
Tampa Bay continued to rival with the top team in the American Conference, as the two clubs remained neck-and-neck for the half’s entirety. That included an impressive 4th-and-goal situation where Hippeard was able to convert again to Hills for seven points. The play was challenged, but the touchdown stood. Amarri Jackson then ran for 40-yards off of a kickoff return and Hills was in the end zone to catch his third of the evening.
During the initial drive of the second half the Storm received a free pass after wide receiver Michael Lindsey fumbled a completion in Gladiators territory. The live ball was scooped up by Cleveland’s defense, but they also fumbled the ball and the Storm recovered it in the end zone. Tampa Bay did not make the same mistake twice, as Hippeard rushed for his first touchdown of the contest and a 35-35 score.
While the Storm had been successful on converting on fourth downs throughout the game, their luck ran out at the end of the third quarter when the ball was turned over on downs, leaving Cleveland deep in Tampa Bay territory to begin their drive. The Gladiators were then able to take a 14-point lead against the Storm.
“They stopped us once and that was pretty much was the game,” Hills said. “We knew it was going to be a shootout, they have a high-powered offense and we couldn’t stop them when we needed to.”
Cleveland continued to put the pressure on, while Tampa Bay did not help themselves with costly penalties, which inevitably saw the Storm come up on the losing side of the contest, as their playoff hopes ended in a 56-49 defeat.