Two weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Storm were defeated 41-39 in Cleveland, a game Storm players admitted was a wake-up call for the final stretch of the season.
The Gladiators had the Storm’s full attention in the rematch at AMALIE Arena Saturday night.
The Storm scored 20-consecutive points from late in the second quarter to the beginning of the third -- capitalizing on a perfectly-executed, clock-draining offensive drive to end the first half, an interception by Alvin Ray Jackson on the opening possession of the second half and Jackson’s bar ball recovery on the next kickoff – to blow the game open in a 57-27 victory.
“We had some bad breaks (two weeks ago in Cleveland),” Jackson said. “We didn’t play our best game. Things happen. We bounced back from it, and we wanted to send them a message.”
The 30-point margin of victory was the largest for the Storm this season and biggest since a 63-28 win over Jacksonville on May 2, 2015.
The Storm (10-3) picked up their 10th victory of the season for their first 10-win regular season since 2010 and 10th overall in franchise history.
“We played a strong game tonight, and that’s the most important thing,” Storm head coach Ron James said. “We’ve played two strong games back to back. You want to be playing your best football at the end of the season. We’re on that path now.”
Jackson was the catalyst for the Storm blowout win. The jack linebacker picked off two passes and returned one for a touchdown to put Tampa Bay ahead 14-0 early in the first quarter. He also recovered two fumbles, one on a kickoff early in the second half and another with Cleveland driving deep into Storm territory.
“Veteran players show up and make big plays,” James said of Jackson’s performance. “He’s made big plays his whole career.”
Cleveland (4-9) fell behind early but got back within a score on Terence Moore’s interception to cut the Gladiators’ deficit to 21-13. On Moore’s return, he lateraled to Marrio Norman, who took it the rest of the way into the end zone.
The Storm embarked on a first-half ending drive that chewed up the clock and culminated in quarterback Randy Hippeard’s one-yard plunge into the end zone on the final play of the half to increase Tampa Bay’s advantage to 28-13.
Jackson picked off Cleveland quarterback Arvell Nelson for the second time on the opening drive of the second half, and Hippeard made the Gladiators pay, connecting with Kendrick Ings in the end zone on a post-corner route from 27 yards out for a 35-13 lead.
The ensuing kickoff bounced off the bar, and Jackson pounced on the loose ball to set up the Storm in prime scoring position once again. This time, Hippeard found LaMark Brown for a six-yard touchdown toss and an insurmountable 41-13 lead.
Cleveland never threatened to get back in the game after the Storm’s scoring barrage.
“When you win, it always feels good, but when you’re winning on all cylinders, it’s a great feeling,” Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Lindsey said.
Hippeard finished his night 22-of-36 for 234 yards and five touchdowns. Joe Hills caught a game-high 10 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns to extend his league record streak of consecutive games with a touchdown catch to 80 games. Ings also finished with two touchdowns and 82 yards on seven catches.
The Storm defense gave up just two touchdowns all night. Cleveland scored two more touchdowns on a pick-six and a fumble recovery for a touchdown to account for its 27 points.
“I thought our defense played a whale of a game,” James said. “They probably played their best game of the season. We gave (Cleveland) 14 points on the offensive side. Without that, they only scored 13. Defensively, that’s unheard of in this league.”
The Storm have played two of their best games of the season the last two weeks, winning both by a combined 43 points, and have just one more regular season game remaining (Tampa Bay is off next week) before a home playoff date on August 14.
“We’re just focusing on trying to put together a complete game,” Jackson said. “And these last two games, we’ve been getting pretty close. Still not perfect, but we’re getting closer. We’re trying to get ready for playoff football.”