There were 89 plays in the Week 9 matchup between the Tampa Bay Storm and the Arizona Rattlers at Amalie Arena on Sunday.
Play number 88 may have been the one to save the Storm’s season.
Eight seconds remained on a stopped clock, the score 56-56.
The Storm held possession. They were 28 yards from the end zone.
As the play came in from head coach Lawrence Samuels, Storm wide receiver T.T. Toliver approached quarterback Jason Boltus. The duo had already hooked up for a nine-yard touchdown pass on the Storm’s previous drive to give them an eight-point lead with 48 seconds to go, Toliver’s 100th receiving touchdown in a Storm uniform, making him the second player in Arena Football League history to record at least 100 receiving touchdowns with two separate teams
Now, with the game on the line, Toliver wanted the ball in his hands again. He was getting press coverage on his side of the field and thought he could beat his man in a sprint to the end zone.
“He told me he was going to go,” Boltus recalled from that on-field conversation. “I was like ‘okay.’”
Boltus took the snap from center and backpedaled five steps. At the end of his drop, Boltus reared back and launched a pass off his back foot into the end zone, hoping the 13-year AFL veteran would track it down.
Toliver had a couple steps on his defender. Boltus’ pass started to sail out of the side of the end zone. But before it could hit the protective padding at the top of the wall, Toliver snatched the pass out of the air, cradling the ball in both arms as he fought through a desperate attempt by the Rattlers’ defensive back to dislodge it.
“That was easy for me,” Boltus said. “He was pressed, and I knew he was going to win.”
With one catch, Toliver had erased eight weeks worth of frustration for Tampa Bay. After a final heave by Arizona quarterback Nick Davila was incomplete, the Storm had their first win of the 2016 season.
“We knew we were getting close each week,” said Toliver, who led all receivers in the 63-56 Storm victory with 182 yards on nine catches. “Last week, we just wanted to finish. That was our motto. Just finish the game, and we finished very well.”
The Storm are hoping to finish the season well too after a rough start.
They bring their new-found confidence into Portland Friday night to face the 0-8 Steel at the Moda Center.
“It’s a week to week process for us to get back on the right track, and this is the next step,” Samuels said.
Prior to the victory over Arizona, perennially one of the top teams in the AFL, the Storm stumbled in the final moments of a pair of potential victories. Trailing by two against then-undefeated in-state rival Orlando two weeks ago and driving for the go-ahead score, the Storm were stymied when Boltus’ pass was intercepted with 50 seconds left.
Last week, the Storm led Cleveland 63-56 with less than a minute remaining in regulation, but the Gladiators rallied to force overtime and won the game in the extra session by scoring a touchdown on their first drive and intercepting the Storm on theirs.
Tampa Bay’s victory over Arizona wasn’t just significant because it signaled the first mark in the win column for the Storm this season, but it was also the first time the Storm were able to execute at a key moment in the closing moments of a game.
“We learned how to finish,” Samuels said. “I think finishing was a big part from the previous two weeks, going to overtime the Cleveland week and then the close game the Orlando week. We just didn’t finish. We had opportunities to put them away, and we could have won easily those two weeks. But to play Arizona, which is one of the top-notch teams in this league and to come out with a victory in front of our fans, it was pretty huge for us.”
The Storm got their first victory of the season in Week 9.
They’ll head to Portland looking for their first road win in Week 10.
“We look at it as if we hadn’t won the (Arizona) game and both teams are going in with no wins,” Samuels said. “Although we did come out with a win, it was just one win. That’s the approach we’re taking. Our guys are still hungry enough to go out and compete at a high level because we need to.”