The start of the 2017 Arena Football League season did not go according to the plan for the Tampa Bay Storm offense on Saturday night.
On its first drive, the Storm went four and out. The second drive ended when quarterback Randy Hippeard was intercepted in the end zone.
But after working the opening game kinks out early, the Storm offense regrouped.
And then it took over the game.
The Storm scored on six-consecutive possessions after coming up empty on its first two drives to open the 2017 season with a 46-40 road victory over the Cleveland Gladiators in front of 12,865 at Quicken Loans Arena.
Tampa Bay wins its season opener for the first time since 2014.
The Storm took control late in the third quarter after both teams traded touchdown to open the second half. With Tampa Bay holding a 26-21 lead, Jordan Miller sacked Cleveland quarterback Shane Boyd on fourth-and-13 to force a turnover on downs and give the Storm the ball near midfield.
Hippeard drove Tampa Bay down the field and threaded a six-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Ings on third and goal with just over 11 minutes to go to put the Storm in front by two scores 32-21.
The Storm responded to each Cleveland touchdown in the fourth quarter with one of their own to hold on for the six-point victory.
Hippeard, playing his first game for the Storm since 2014, completed 22-of-31 passes for 205 yards and six touchdowns to just the one interception to earn game MVP honors. Hippeard found 2016 AFL Offensive Player of the Year Joe Hills for three touchdowns. LaMark Brown, who finished with game high totals of nine catches and 121 yards, hauled in two more touchdowns in his first game with the Storm (1-0).
Tampa Bay’s first touchdown of the 2017 season came courtesy of its defense.
On the first play of Cleveland’s second drive after both teams came up empty on their opening possessions, Boyd tried to swing a pass out into the flat for Larry Brackens, who got hit as he started to haul the pass in, popping the ball up high. Caesar Rayford picked the loose change out of the air and took two steps to reach the end zone and put Tampa Bay up 7-0.
After Cleveland tied the game on its next drive, the Storm went back in front as Hippeard found Hills in the back of the end zone from two yards out for the first of their three scoring connections and a 13-7 Tampa Bay lead (the extra point was missed).
Collin Taylor scored his second touchdown to give Cleveland a brief 14-13 lead, but Tampa Bay took a 19-14 advantage into halftime when Hippeard found Hills from 22 yards out on a fourth down play right before the break. Hills finished with 53 yards on seven catches. He now has a touchdown reception in 69-consecutive regular season games.
The teams traded touchdowns coming out of halftime before Miller’s big fourth down sack gave Tampa Bay the opening it needed to take control.
After Ings put Tampa Bay up by 11 points, Cleveland cut into the lead, Larry Brackens hauling in a two-yard touchdown reception. The Storm responded, driving from its own 17 to the Cleveland 7-yard line. On first down, Hippeard started to scramble for the end zone but flipped a pass to Hills at the last moment for their third scoring combination and a 39-28 Storm lead.
Brackens scored from eight yards out with 45.2 seconds to go, but Tampa Bay’s Alvin Ray Jackson recovered the subsequent onside kick and 20 seconds later Hippeard found Brown on a six-yard touchdown pass as the quarterback was about to be sacked for the game-clinching score.
Brackins made his third touchdown catch of the night on the final play of the game for a meaningless Cleveland score.
Tampa Bay finished with four sacks on the night, halfway to its total (8) from all of last season. Dexter Jackson led the way for the Storm defense with two sacks.
The Storm will open the home portion of their 2017 regular season schedule when they host the defending ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul at AMALIE Arena on Saturday, April 15 (7 p.m. kickoff).