The Washington Valor (1-9) had the ball just shy of midfield with 2.8 seconds left. Time for one play. Time enough to pull off an upset and end an eight-game losing streak. But, the Tampa Bay Storm (8-2) had the defenders in the right place in the end zone to bat the ball down and complete a 54-51 come-from-behind win. With the victory, the Storm will host a playoff game for the first time since their run to the ArenaBowl in 2010.
Both offenses started with a frenetic pace, scoring a combined four touchdowns within the first ten plays. It started with Greg Carr (who would become the 11th player in league history to catch 300 passes during the game), then Justin Hilton answered on a one-play drive. After Roger “Spiderman” Jackson (catch) and Kendrick Ings (kickoff return) traded touchdowns, Tampa Bay held a slim 13-12 lead thanks to three straight missed extra points (one hit both posts, one blocked).
The Storm gained the first significant advantage when Michael Lindsey picked up a ball that Charles McClain couldn’t field on the kickoff. Lindsey ran right into the end zone to extend the lead to eight. Then, after Tampa Bay’s defense registered the first official stop of the night, Hilton found the end zone again to end a long drive and extend the lead to 27-12.
Sean Brackett, who needed a big game to keep the Valor in the playoff race, didn’t stay comfortable. He was pressured more and more as the game progressed. After being chased out of the pocket, Brackett did find his way into the end zone on a scramble to ignite a potential comeback. It worked, as Washington earned their first stop on a goal-to-go situation, and T.T. Toliver scored from six yards out on a pitch to bring the Valor within two after a missed conversion.
Tampa Bay, setting up a two-for-one scoring situation, ran down the clock on their next drive, and Ings grabbed a touchdown pass with 6.8 seconds left, flying through the air as a downhill skier (with help from his teammates) in celebration. However, the Storm left just enough time for McClain to return the kickoff for a touchdown.
Toliver, whose personal foul for throwing a punch meant an extra long two-point conversion attempt, couldn’t haul in the pass thanks to LaRoche Jackson’s defense. At the end of the half, Washington was down 34-31 and perilously hanging around.
The two-for-one strategy worked out in the Valor’s favor, as Tracy Belton picked up a fumble and raced 54 yards to the end zone to give Washington a three-point lead. Belton, making up for a defensive pass interference call, became the seventh player to record 50 career interceptions on the very next drive.
The frantic pace from the first quarter was now long gone, as both teams generated more penalties than offense in the third quarter. Sean Brackett continued to face pressure, and Monte Lewis made what was supposed to be a key sack on third-and-goal. But, from their own 20-yard line, the Valor made a mini-miracle when Spiderman lept into the air to make a catch, then pitched the ball to Charles McClain, who ran into the end zone to end the third quarter. Washington not only had a 44-34 lead, but did something that no team was able to do in 40 consecutive quarters: shut out Tampa Bay.
Without Joe Hills, who’s serving a four-game league suspension for violating contract rules, the entire Storm offense struggled, especially in the red zone. However, quarterback Randy Hippeard, who had a surprisingly mediocre game, scored on a sneak to cut the deficit back to three.
The final two minutes saw the game return to life, as Toliver caught a 20-yard pass on 4th-and-6 to continue a Valor drive that ended with Toliver in the end zone. Then, with 40 seconds left, Michael Lindsey made a catch in the back of the end zone while rolling on the ground. This put Tampa Bay back within three and with a potential chance to win.
Originally, it appeared as if LaRoche Jackson gave the Storm that chance when he recovered an onside kick. However, the referees initially ruled the play as illegal touching. After a lengthy review, the referees discovered that the ball hit the leg of a Washington player, making the recovery legal, and awarded possession to Tampa Bay.
After some very effective clock management, Kendrick Ings caught a pass down the middle in the end zone for a touchdown with 10.8 seconds left, setting up a kickoff and the big finish.
Tampa doesn’t have long to celebrate, as they begin a two-game road trip by traveling to face the Cleveland Gladiators on July 8. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be streamed live on Twitter @AFLarenaball.