The 60th installment of the War on I-4 is one the Tampa Bay Storm would like to have back.
In Week 7 of the 2016 season, the Storm, winless at the time, were pushing late for the go-ahead score against the undefeated Orlando Predators at Amway Center. The Storm trailed 42-40 and took possession of the ball at their own eight-yard line with 3:42 remaining in the game.
The Storm advanced the ball past midfield by the 1:25 mark of the game, their potential game-winning drive progressing steadily.
On a third down play, Tampa Bay quarterback Jason Boltus took a three-step drop and threw a high, arching ball off his back foot into the end zone for T.T. Toliver, who had a step on Orlando’s Varmah Sonie.
Toliver leapt into the air to haul in the pass. The beaten Sonie raised his right arm in desperation, getting his hand between the ball and Toliver’s chest, ripping the ball away from Toliver’s hands before he could complete the catch and preserving the lead for the Predators.
On the next play, facing fourth down, Boltus was flushed out of the pocket and, with nobody open, heaved a ball down field. The Predators’ Kent Richardson cut in front of a Storm receiver to make the interception with 39 seconds remaining.
Orlando took over on downs and ran out the clock on the 42-40 victory to drop Tampa Bay to 0-7.
The Storm would get their first victory of the season two weeks later at home against Arizona.
But the missed opportunity in Orlando continues to haunt them.
This Friday, in the last of three meetings this season between Tampa Bay and Orlando, the Storm will look to get a measure of revenge.
The 10-2 Predators host the 1-10 Storm in the 61st meeting between the two franchises.
“I think we do kind of owe them from the last time, but we didn’t execute in the end when we had them on the ropes,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “We’re trying to improve. Week to week, we’re trying to improve, get better each week. By August, we’ll be a complete team.”
Orlando has won five consecutive meetings in the War on I-4 rivalry with Tampa Bay. The Storm haven’t defeated the Predators since a 35-34 victory at Amalie Arena in Week 15 of the 2014 season.
“On the field, we hate them, and they hate us,” Storm wide receiver and kick returner Michael Lindsey said. “Off the field, we’re all friends, but on that field, we want blood. We want to get at each other. We’re going to go hard and be ready.”
Lindsey said from the moment a player first arrives to play for the Storm, they’re indoctrinated into the history and importance of winning the rivalry grudge match against their backyard neighbor.
“As soon as you get here, once they let you know that we play Orlando, it’s War on I-4,” Lindsey said. “We don’t like them. It isn’t buddy buddy, There’s no shaking hands, no smiles, no nothing. When we get there, we don’t like them, and they don’t like us. So let’s just be ready to play.”
The Predators lead the overall series 33-27, taking a comfortable series lead thanks to their current win streak against the Storm.
“We owe them every time we play,” Samuels said. “It’s the War on I-4. It’s a special game. I think it’s probably the best rivalry in the AFL. Our guys understand all the aspects of the game, everything going into it…It was a special game when I was a player, and it’s still a special game as a coach.”
Storm wide receiver T.T. Toliver, who has climbed to the top of the AFL’s total receiving yards and total catches lists in consecutive weeks entering Friday’s game, has seen the rivalry from both sides. The 12-year AFL veteran spent parts of six seasons with Orlando from 2007 to 2013. He returned to Tampa Bay for the start of the 2014 season and has remained with the Storm since.
Toliver said there’s extra motivation for him this week against the Predators, but he’s more focused on helping the Storm end their three-game losing streak.
“Motivation to me is just going out there and playing hard, giving all that I’ve got,” said Toliver, who can pass Barry Wagner (21,042 career all-purpose yards) and become the league’s all-time leader for all-purpose yards with 70 yards Friday against Orlando. “If I can motivate the rest of the guys to come out there and play four quarters just like I can, I’m down for it. We’ve just got to come out here and compete. The last couple of weeks, it feels like we haven’t even been competing. If we can come out here and play four quarters and start fast, the sky’s the limit for us. That’s what we’ve got to work on, and that’s what we’ve got to do Friday.”
Since beating Arizona on June 3, the following three games have been a broken record for the Storm. In each game, the Storm have fallen behind by a large margin early and haven’t been able to overcome the deficit despite outplaying their opponent in the second half.
“Lately we’ve been starting slow,” Toliver said. “I feel like if we start fast and just play flawless offense, we can beat anybody.”
The Storm were embarrassed in the season opener versus Orlando, losing by 51 points to their rival. The fact they fell by only two points in the second meeting against the Predators shows the growth the team is making.
“These guys are getting better every day,” Lindsey said. “They’re coming to practice, getting better, working on their craft. When we played them the first time, it didn’t go as well, but the second time shows how the team has improved.
“To me, the third time is the charm.”