The familiar bugaboos that have plagued the Tampa Bay Storm all season – namely, untimely turnovers, red-zone struggles and coverage breakdowns – were once again present in the Storm’s 67-34 loss to the Jacksonville Sharks in front of 8,418 fans at Amalie Arena.
Jacksonville, aided by a pair of interception returns for touchdowns, scored 28-consecutive points from midway through the first quarter to near the nine-minute mark of the second to take a commanding 34-7 lead and eventually send the Storm to their second-consecutive defeat.
The Sharks (5-5, 4-2) scored on all five of their first-half drives and first seven drives overall. Jacksonville led 47-14 at halftime.
“We did not show up, at all, in all phases of the game,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “I think it was a lack of focus from some of the guys. We’ve got to eliminate some of the distractions around here. We’re going to sit back as a coaching staff, and we’re going to evaluate this game and evaluate each and every one of them.”
The Storm fell to 1-9 on the season (0-5 in conference).
After Jacksonville opened the game with a 16-yard touchdown connection from quarterback Tommy Grady to receiver Tiger Jones, the Storm took their only lead of the game when Jason Boltus found T.T. Toliver for a 17-yard touchdown reception – Toliver’s first of three touchdown catches -- and Delbert Alvarado added the extra point to make it 7-6 Tampa Bay.
Joe Hills put Jacksonville back in the lead on the Sharks’ next drive with a four-yard touchdown hookup, and on the ensuing Tampa Bay possession, Jacksonville’s Jordan Miller intercepted Boltus’ pass and returned it 28 yards to make it 20-7 Sharks. On the play, Boltus hit Julius Gregory in stride, but Gregory couldn’t hang on and deflected the ball up into the air for the Sharks’ defensive lineman to pick out of the air and rumble in for the score.
“We came out too slow, and you can’t win games like that,” Storm wide receiver Phillip Barnett said. “We’ve got to come out a lot faster, especially against a good team like Jacksonville.”
Tampa Bay moved the ball down to the Sharks’ three-yard line on their next drive but came up a yard-and-a-half short on a Boltus run on a fourth down play. Hills caught his second of four touchdown catches after Jacksonville took over on downs for a 27-7 Sharks lead.
Jacksonville extended its advantage to 34-7 when Boltus threw a pick six to Greg Reid on the first play of the Storm’s next drive.
Boltus finished the night 22-of-41 for 284 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We executed in practice, and there’s no excuse on the offensive side for us to even have mistakes the way we’re making mistakes,” Samuels said. “I take full responsibility for that, and I’ll make sure I correct it come next week.”
Toliver became the Arena Football League’s all-time leader for career receiving yards with his second touchdown catch in the second quarter to get the Storm back on the scoreboard at 34-14. Toliver came into the Jacksonville game needing 27 yards to pass Damian Harrell (15,134 total career receiving yards) for the most receiving yards in league history. Toliver’s 13-yard touchdown reception with 4:23 to go in the first half was enough to push Toliver to the top of the leaderboard.
Toliver finished the evening with eight catches for 124 yards and three touchdowns. He now has 15,232 career receiving yards over his 13-year AFL career.
“(The record) means a lot, but at the end of the day, we want to win,” Toliver said. “1-9, that’s not acceptable. At the end of the day, records are made to be broken. Getting the record doesn’t feel that good with a loss, but I’m going to keep working and keep trying to get better.”
Toliver is nearing another career milestone as he needs just five more catches to surpass Harrell (1,164 career receptions) for most career receptions in AFL history. Toliver currently has 1,160 total catches.
“He’s a special guy,” Samuels said. “That’s one of them that gives us effort day in and day out. He deserves it. He deserves everything that’s coming to him. I know he’s going to continue to fight with me.”
John Brown carried up the gut from a yard away to capitalize on Tampa Bay’s opening drive of the second half and cut Jacksonville’s lead to 47-21. The Sharks answered with a one-yard Dexter Jackson touchdown plunge and a two-yard scoring connection from Grady to Hills.
Tampa Bay scored 13-straight points in the fourth quarter. Boltus hit Barnett on a 22-yard touchdown pass and followed with a 12-yard strike to Toliver with 5:18 to go.
On the final play of the game, the Storm were pushing for one more score near the goal line, but the handoff between Boltus and Brown was fumbled and Reid ran it back 48 yards into the end zone.
“We started late,” Barnett said. “…If we practice better, we’re going to start scoring earlier in the games.”
The Storm will try to end their losing skid next Saturday at home against the L.A. Kiss (7:30 p.m. kickoff).