The Tampa Bay Storm entered the 2015 season looking to return to the playoffs after finishing 8-10 and missing out the previous year.
The Storm returned nine players from 2014 and added a mix of rookies and arena veterans, including new starting quarterback Jason Boltus, in the offseason.
Facing the defending American Conference and East Division champion Cleveland Gladiators in the season opener, though, a handful of costly mistakes plagued the Storm during a 60-44 loss in front of 9,727 at Amalie Arena.
“When you’re playing a team that went to the ArenaBowl, you have to execute,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “I can’t be down on them because the effort was there at times. We had our chances, we just turned the ball over. Turnovers killed us.”
Cleveland (1-0) capitalized on a pair of Storm giveaways in the first half to take control of the game. After scoring on its first two possessions, Cleveland got the ball back when Tim Cheatwood stripped Tampa Bay wide receiver Kendrick Ings on a jet sweep and Anthony Degrate recovered for the Gladiators at their own six-yard line. Five plays later, Cleveland quarterback Shane Austin found Andrae Thurman for a 24-yard scoring strike to put the Gladiators up 19-7.
On Tampa Bay’s next play from scrimmage, Boltus was sacked and stripped by Willie McGinnis. Joe Phinisee picked up the loose ball in the end zone to give Cleveland a 25-7 advantage.
“We just made too many mistakes,” Samuels said. “We’ve got to protect our guy. We can’t turn the ball and over, and then we’ve got to create turnovers.”
Tampa Bay (0-1) scored on two straight possessions and got a stop in the second quarter to cut Cleveland’s lead to four and get back in the game. Boltus connected with T.T. Tolliver on a 10-yard strike to bring the Storm to within 11. After James Harrell ended a Gladiators drive with an interception in the end zone, Boltus found Ings from 28 yards out on the ensuing drive to make it 25-21.
“I think momentum turned a little bit after the pick,” Harrell said.
Cleveland scored two touchdowns in the final 19 seconds of the first half to pull comfortably in front, however. Former Storm wide receiver Amarri Jackson capped a four-play drive by running into the end zone from eight yards out, the Gladiators going up 33-21 after a successful two-point conversion.
With Tampa Bay trying to get points on the board before the end of the half, Boltus fumbled as he was sacked by Degrate and Phinisee again recovered, this time at the Storm 10. Austin hit Dominick Goodman in the end zone on the last play of the first half for a 39-21 Cleveland lead at the break.
“Huge blow,” Harrell said. “That (sequence) took a lot out of us. But we kept fighting and came out of the second half fighting.”
Each team scored a touchdown in the third quarter: Austin finding Jackson from 20 yards out and Tampa Bay countering when Boltus hit a wide open Tolliver behind the Cleveland defense down the middle of the field for a 29-yard touchdown pass to make it 46-28 Gladiators.
“When you’ve got a young team, you want to stay as close as possible,” Tolliver said. “You don’t want the young guys to get down.”
Austin and Boltus each threw two touchdown passes in an evenly-played fourth quarter.
Tolliver, who needed 23 receptions entering Friday’s game to reach 1,000 for his AFL career, finished with 12 catches for 161 yards and three touchdowns. Jarvis Williams added 11 catches for 121 yards and two scores.
“We see the things we have to work on,” Samuels said. “That’s the thing, it’s glaring. We have to be able to protect our guy. We have to be able to rush the passer and we have to eliminate the penalties and the mistakes. Coverage-wise, we have to do a better job.”
Boltus, in his first game as the Storm starting quarterback, completed 30-of-54 passes for 383 yards and six touchdowns. Boltus’ 54 pass attempts are the second-most in Storm history.
“At times (Boltus) played well,” Samuels said. “Some plays, we just didn’t execute. It all comes down to execution in this game.”
Austin finished as the offensive player of the game after throwing seven touchdown passes. Jackson had two receiving touchdowns and a rushing score in his return to Tampa Bay. Goodman and Collin Taylor also had two touchdown receptions each for Cleveland.
The Storm fumbled five times and lost three. Boltus was intercepted once.
Cleveland had just the one turnover, Harrell’s interception.
Tampa Bay will try to get its first win of the season next Friday when it travels to Portland to face the Thunder. Kickoff is set for 10 p.m. (Eastern).
“We got that first one behind us,” Harrell said. “We’re ready for round two.”