The Tampa Bay Storm were behind by five points with seconds remaining against the Cleveland Gladiators on Saturday, and everybody at AMALIE Arena, including the Gladiators, figured the reigning Arena Football League Offensive Player of the Year Joe Hills would get the ball with the game on the line.
That’s when Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard showed off his improvisation skills and carried, literally, Tampa Bay to its second victory of the season.
With seven seconds to go and the Storm down 61-56, Hippeard took the snap and, using Hills as a decoy, was supposed to look for Kendrick Ings slipping free in the back of the end zone. But with Ings covered, Hippeard took matters in his own hands. He bounced out of the pocked and ran untouched off the right side and into the end zone to give the Storm a dramatic 62-61 victory over the Gladiators, their second victory over Cleveland in two tries this season and their first win at home.
“Down there, anytime you get that close, a lot of eyes go on Joe,” Hippeard said following the game. “We isolated him. We’d been beating them all game with that, and so I knew the formation we had, they had to send the jack (linebacker) one way or the other, and I just kind of took it upon myself to say we have one timeout if we needed it, if I could find a hole to squeeze it in because they probably weren’t paying attention to me.”
Hippeard’s one-yard rushing touchdown capped a season-defining comeback for the Storm (2-1), who trailed by 19 points late in the second quarter. Cleveland opened up a 33-14 lead with 3:34 remaining in the first half when quarterback Arvell Nelson raced toward the front corner of the end zone from three yards out, reaching the ball over the line just before contacting the wall for the Gladiators’ fifth touchdown on their first five drives of the game.
Tampa Bay scored on consecutive drives before the end of the first half, however, to get back in the game.
Hippeard led the Storm on a four-play, 44-yard drive after going down 19 that culminated in LaMark Brown’s second touchdown of the first half, a 15-yard reception with 48 seconds remaining to make the score 33-21 Cleveland.
Tampa Bay’s Kendrick Ings successfully recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, which the Storm converted into points when Hippeard connected with a wide-open Joe Hills in the end zone from seven yards out to cut further into the Cleveland lead.
“(The onside kick recovery) was the biggest thing because you want to finish the half out the right way,” Storm head coach Ron James said. “The end of both halves is critical in arena football, so to be able to get that as a neutral, so to speak -- what I mean by that is they didn’t get a two for one on us -- we got the ball back, had the ability to score last at the half and at the second half.
"That’s how you play arena football. It was an old-fashioned AFL game, and I think the fans got their money’s worth tonight.”
After Tampa Bay was unable to score on the opening possession of the second half, Cleveland looked to extend its lead after driving down to the Storm one-yard line. But with three tries to punch it in, Cleveland couldn’t penetrate the Storm defense, and Tampa Bay’s Dexter Jackson recovered a fumble in the end zone as Nelson tried to run it in and had the ball knocked out as he extended his hands toward the goal line on third down, keeping the Storm within striking distance.
On the next drive, Hippeard connected with Joe Hills on a three-yard slant to give the Storm their first lead at 35-33.
“That was big, a big play by the D-line,” Jackson said of his end zone fumble recovery for a touchback. “I don’t know who got in there. I saw like two or three bodies in there….I just saw the ball, and I tried to hop on it as fast as I could.”
The Storm forced a turnover on downs on Cleveland’s next drive, and Tampa Bay went up 42-33 when Hippeard hit Hills on a skinny post from six yards out and 13:44 remaining in the game.
Tampa Bay’s defense held Cleveland without a point for all of the third quarter and for 23:16 total from late in the second quarter until just over 10 minutes to go in the game.
“We had to look ourselves in the mirror,” Jackson said of the Storm defense’s adjustment. “We knew we weren’t playing our best football that first half. We kept talking to each other. Coach James kept telling us we were going to get a stop and we’re going to score points, and we just believed in ourselves.”
Tampa Bay matched Cleveland score for score over the fourth quarter until the Gladiators’ Larry Brackins recovered an onside kick with 35.5 seconds to go. One play later, Nelson threw a 37-yard touchdown strike to Quentin Sims to put Cleveland back in front 61-56.
The Storm still had 28 seconds left, however, to drive the length of the field and score the game-winning touchdown.
For Hippeard, that was more than enough time.
“In arena football, that’s an eternity,” he said. “We had two timeouts as well, so that makes it even longer. There was no rush on our end. We knew as long as we executed the plays and moved the ball down the field, we’d give ourselves a good chance to win the game.”
And win it Hippeard did with his scramble into the end zone on a broken play.
“We gutted it out and got the win,” James said of the tense finish.
Hippeard threw seven touchdown tosses on 37-of-47 passing and finished with 395 yards, two yards short of a career high. He added two touchdowns on the ground, including the winning score.
Hills gathered in four touchdowns and had 15 receptions total for 141 yards, one yard less than LaMark Brown, who had 11 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Kendrick Ings also hauled in a touchdown pass for the Storm.
The Gladiators were led by Sims, who caught a game-high five touchdown passes.
Storm kicker Delbert Alvarado, playing his first game of the season, made all eight of his extra point attempts and was one-of-two on onside kick attempts.
The Storm will have a bye week before resuming action on May 7 at Baltimore.