TAMPA, FL – A lot can change from week-to-week in the Arena Football League, but perhaps the biggest mystery of the 2015 season has been the Tampa Bay Storm. One week, they’ll look like contenders for the American South division title before falling apart the next week. Consistence from the defense has allowed the Storm (5-6) to hover around .500, but it was the offense that clicked during the first half on Friday night in Tampa Bay’s 63-56 victory over the Jacksonville Sharks (6-6) in front of 12,602 at Amalie Arena.
“We proved that we can bounce back from all kinds of adversity,” said head coach Lawrence Samuels. “These guys, they came through tonight. I’m hoping that this victory kind of springboards us.”
The first half was a back-and-forth affair, with both teams trading scores. Julius Gregory scored Tampa Bay’s first two touchdowns of the night, giving the Storm leads of 7-0 and 14-7. Kendrick Ings then swung the momentum in favor of the home team when he returned a kickoff 56 yards for a touchdown, only to be answered 55 seconds later when the Sharks tied the game at 21.
The Storm found some separation in the second quarter when Jason Boltus hit Emery Sammons for a 4-yard touchdown before Ings struck again with a big special teams play, this time recovering a ball off the net for a touchdown. The 14-point swing, along with touchdowns from Gregory, T.T. Toliver and Boltus, allowed the Storm to take a two-score lead into halftime despite Jacksonville finding the end zone three times in the quarter. The 56 first-half points for the Storm set a new franchise record for points in the first half of a game, breaking the previous record of 47 that was set at Grand Rapids in June of 2000.
“We just went out and executed,” said Gregory, who ended the night with nine catches for 89 yards and three touchdowns. “We were just clicking.”
The offensive attack slowed up for both teams in the third quarter, but Jacksonville came roaring back in the fourth, showing a heavy reliance on ex-Storm wide receiver Joe Hills, who caught nine passes on the night for 126 yards and a career-high six touchdowns. Hills followed his sixth touchdown with a reception on the two-point conversion attempt to tie the game at 56 with less than two minutes to go.
The Storm, who had been held scoreless through second half, came out on the next drive with a certain poise that was not present during their collapse in Orlando back in week 8. They received help from the Sharks, however, when Jacksonville inexplicably opted to attempt an onside kick after tying the game. The attempt failed, putting Tampa Bay inside the Jacksonville 10. Two plays later, Boltus threaded the game-winning touchdown to Toliver between two defenders from six yards out. The go-ahead score came with 56 seconds left in the game, leaving the game in the hands of a defense, which came up with a big stop in the big moment to secure Tampa Bay’s second victory over Jacksonville this season.
The win moves the Storm right back into the division race as they head to Cleveland next Friday to take on the Gladiators (7-5).