The Tampa Bay Storm (2-1) needed a full sixty minutes against the Cleveland Gladiators (0-3) on Saturday night, but when the horn sounded after an Arvell Nelson Hail Mary pass fell incomplete in the end zone, they came away 62-61 victors.
In the last minute of an Arena Football League game, fans can expect to see the most frantic action of the entire night. Between touchdowns, near misses, onside kicks, and an incredible amount of strategy, those precious 60 seconds are occasionally worth the price of admission by themselves. This game featured that exact action.
In fact, with just 38 seconds left and trailing by nine, Nelson found Mike Preston in the end zone for a touchdown. Collin Taylor caught the subsequent two-point conversion, and the lead was trimmed to a single point. The onside kick bounced off a Storm player’s helmet, Larry Brackins recovered, and Nelson found Quentin Sims for his fifth touchdown of the night.
After a series of questionable strategic decisions after scoring in the second half, Cleveland went for two and missed. Tampa Bay got the ball and almost suffered a goalline stand, but Randy Hippeard bounced off tackles and ran around the right side from three yards out with 3.3 seconds left to give his team a 62-61 lead. Kendrick Ings‘ two-point conversion catch was called back for a holding penalty, and lightning didn’t strike twice for the home team.
The Gladiators got off to a hot start with Nelson under center. He completed his first twelve passes of the night, and led Cleveland to four touchdowns on their first four drives: three scoring passes to Sims and another to Preston. Tampa Bay was on the opposite end of the spectrum, as Hippeard faced constant, intense pressure from the Gladiators defensive line, suffering multiple sacks and needing sideline routes to simply get the ball out of his hands. LaMark Brown‘s scoring catch was the only highlight of the first quarter, as the Storm were down 27-7 early.
Head coach Ron James quickly changed Tampa Bay’s offensive strategy, and it appeared to work early as Brown got free for a big play to set up a Kendrick Ings (coming off a franchise record 346 all-purpose yard night the previous week) for his first score of the game. After Collin Taylor recovered an onside kick, Nelson let his legs do the work, diving in on a three-yard touchdown run. However, the quicker-strike Storm offense struck back thanks to a LaMark Brown touchdown catch on 4th-and-3, Ings jumping to recover an onside kick, and Joe Hills extending his consecutive games with a touchdown streak to 71 to cut the deficit to five at 33-28.
With the offense starting to fire, the defense initially stepped up to maintain a halftime lead. However, three penalties not only gave Cleveland an untimed down, but two more bites of the apple on the last play of the half before an incompletion finally settled the first 30 minutes.
The penalties continued for the Storm in the third quarter, cancelling out a touchdown and ending the first drive empty handed. The defensive line pressured Arvell Nelson, but a quick pass to fullback Phillip-Keith Manley resulted in a 26-yard catch and run that nearly ended in a touchdown. Nelson had to try not one, but two quarterback sneaks, fumbling the second on into the Storm’s hands.
Hills found the end zone twice more to open up the lead, but Nelson started firing bullets again, finding Mike Preston in the end zone as the third quarter wound down. A missed snap on the extra point nearly ended in a two-point conversion for Tampa Bay thanks to Kendall Montgomery, but the call was overturned after a review, and the score remained 42-39.
Not to be outdone by Nelson’s running ability, Randy Hippeard showed the home crowd his own skills, running for a seven-yard touchdown and a ten-point lead. Quentin Sims momentarily stopped the bleeding with his fourth score of the night and Collin Taylor catching a two-point conversion, but Joe Hills equaled the tally (on his 14th catch, no less) with a bobbled catch of his own to restore the lead at 56-47, setting up the frantic final minute. Hills would end the night with 130 yards receiving.
Tampa Bay heads into their first bye week of the season at 2-1, and will travel Baltimore to face the Brigade in their inaugural home game on May 7. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised live on CBS Sports Network.