The Tampa Bay Storm battled defending ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia until the final play of the game, matching the Soul score for score in a back-and-forth home opener for the Storm.
Special teams errors, however, cost Tampa Bay dearly in a 56-52 loss in front of 9,071 at AMALIE Arena.
Storm kicker Mark Lewis missed three-of-five extra points and had a pass off a bad snap on another extra point attempt returned for a touchdown by Philadelphia’s Torez Jones to help Philadelphia escape with the win in the Soul’s season opener.
“The difference was obvious, we missed four extra points. That was the difference in the game,” Storm head coach Ron James said. “With that we’re tied. But we didn’t play particularly well. We came out, sputtered on offense early on. We had some turnovers that we should have scored off of. We were only 50 percent in that regard. And then we had a couple situations where I thought we had the ball, challenged a few of them but we didn’t get them.
"All those things added together, if it goes well for us, we’re going to win by a couple touchdowns. It went the other way for us, and you saw the result.”
Philadelphia (1-0) led 43-31 early in the fourth quarter after Darius Reynolds outjumped the Storm’s Cortez Stubbs for a jump ball in the end zone, but Tampa Bay (1-1) answered each time the Soul tried to put the game away.
Kendrick Ings hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Randy Hippeard less than two minutes after Reynolds’ score to cut the deficit to 43-38.
Reynolds caught a two-yard pass from Dan Raudabaugh to extend Philadelphia’s lead to 49-38 but not without some controversy. Earlier on the drive, the Storm thought they recovered a fumble on their own 20, but the turnover was called back for illegal defense. Later, a Philadelphia swing pass from the five-yard line fell incomplete, and Stubbs picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown thinking the pass was behind the line of scrimmage and the ball live.
Officials blew the play dead on the field, however and, after a Storm challenge, determined video replay upheld the call.
“No explanation to me or the players,” Hobbs said postgame when asked what he was told by the officials after the play. “They talked to the coaches, but the result of the play was we didn’t get the ball back, so it wasn’t a fumble apparently.”
The Storm took the questionable calls in stride and marched down the field again, Hippeard hooking up with Ings for a second-straight drive, this time from 11 yards out, to make the score 49-46 with 1:19 to go.
Tampa Bay attempted an onside kick, but Reynolds plucked the ball out of the air and ran untouched into the end zone to put the Soul back up by 10.
Joe Hills’ two-yard touchdown reception with 30 seconds left got the Storm within four points, but a second onside kick was again recovered by Philadelphia, and the Soul were able to run out the rest of the clock.
“There are no moral victories in this thing,” James said. “We know we’re good enough to beat that team. We should have beat that team tonight. We’ve got to look in the mirror and decide how we’re going to move forward to be able to get these wins instead of keeping it close. Keeping it close is all well and good for other teams, but for us, our bar is set way too high. We want to hang another championship banner in this building. You don’t do that by keeping it close.”
For a second-straight week, the Storm were slow to get started. Hippeard, who finished 20-for-33 for 292 yards and six touchdowns, was intercepted in the end zone on Tampa Bay’s opening drive. Philadelphia scored on its second play from scrimmage, Raudabaugh throwing deep to Ryan McDaniel for a 6-0 lead (the extra point was no good).
The Storm responded, Hippeard finding LaMark Brown from six yards away to put Tampa Bay up 7-6.
Chris Duvalt hauled in a 27-yard touchdown pass with 4:05 left in the first quarter to nudge Philadelphia back in front. That lead was short-lived, however, as Ings returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards to tie the score 13-13.
“Kendrick is special back there,” Hobbs said. “If we can get guys hat on hat with blocking, he’s going to make everyone look good.”
After giving up a touchdown on each of Philadelphia’s opening three drives, the Storm forced a pair of stops but were unable to take full advantage.
Trailing 20-19 following Hippeard’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Justin Hilton, the Storm got the ball back in Soul territory after nose guard Jordan Miller pressured Raudabaugh, stripped the ball and recovered the fumble.
Two plays later, Hippeard tossed a five-yard scoring strike to Hills, but Hills was flagged for offensive pass interference, and the Storm drive ended in a turnover on downs at midfield.
“At that point, we’ve just got to go out and make another play,” Brown said. “The defense gives us another opportunity, we’ve got to capitalize.”
On Philadelphia’s ensuing possession, the Storm again were able to get a turnover when Stubbs ripped the ball away from a Soul receiver in the end zone.
This time, the Storm were able to capitalize, Hippeard driving the offense to pay dirt in three plays, the short possession culminating in a quick hitch to Brown at the five and Brown carrying a defender into the end zone for the touchdown.
The extra point was a disaster, however, for the Storm. A bad snap forced Lewis to try a desperation heave into the end zone. Philadelphia’s Jones grabbed the wayward pass and weaved his way through the Storm special teams unit for a Soul two-point conversion, making Tampa Bay’s lead only 25-22 at that point.
Philadelphia closed out the half on Mykel Benson’s one-yard touchdown run with five seconds to go for a 29-25 halftime advantage.
“We’ve got to win: period,” a deflated Brown said after the loss. “We’re trying to change the culture around here and get things going in the right direction. We know we have enough talent in that room to do it every week.”
Ings led the Storm offense with seven receptions for 137 yards and two receiving touchdowns. He also had 209 kickoff return yards, including the one score.
Brown finished with two touchdown receptions. Hills had 62 yards on five catches and a score.