The Tampa Bay Storm (12-5, 1-0) punched their ticket to Arena Bowl XXIII next Friday in Spokane, claiming victory in the third installment of the “War On I-4” by defeating the Orlando Predators (8-9, 1-1) by a score of 63-62 in a barnburner of the AFL American Conference Championship game. The trip to next week’s championship contest marks the eighth ArenaBowl appearance by the franchise.
A series of Orlando penalties proved to determine the game’s outcome, forcing Predators kicker Carlos Martinez to re-try an extra point that initially had tied the game at 63 after Orlando roared back from a 21-point deficit at the start of the second half. Rather than tying the game, however, Martinez’s kick sailed and hit the right goalpost, allowing the Storm to maintain a one-point lead. Martinez later received another opportunity to win the game with a 49-yard field goal attempt with two seconds remaining, but the try fell short, deeming the Storm the 2010 American Conference champs.
Both teams dueled in the fourth quarter, trading score-for-score and matching each other’s touchdown production, but solid special teams play by Michael Hawthorne, clever play calling, and clutch execution on two-point conversion attempts allowed the Storm to prevail as the final buzzer sounded.
Brett Dietz led the Storm, throwing for 260 yards and seven touchdowns. Tyrone Timmons led all Tampa Bay receivers with three scores, while DeAndrew Rubin and Terrence Royal also cashed in a pair of touchdowns. Orlando quarterback Nick Hill countered Dietz, passing for 265 yards. T.T. Toliver led all receivers from both clubs, bringing in seven of Hill’s nine touchdown passes on the night. Tampa Bay was equally as impressive on the other side of the ball as well, forcing and recovering two fumbles in the first quarter alone.
Tampa Bay’s defense set the tone early, dictating play for the majority of the first quarter. The Storm registered numerous pass break-ups and applied heavy pressure to Predators quarterback Nick Hill, while forcing Orlando to turn the ball over on downs on its first offensive possession. Cliff Dukes provided Tampa Bay with its first true scoring chance after he recovered an Orlando fumble, but Dietz failed to convert. The Storm signal caller, however, redeemed himself by throwing a nine-yard touchdown pass to DeAndrew Rubin to even the score after Orlando took a 7-0 lead. Tampa Bay maintained its high-tempo for the remainder of the period following the initial score, finding the endzone once more courtesy of Terrence Royal after defensive end Jermaine Smith recovered Orlando’s second fumble of the night.
Tampa Bay padded its first quarter lead in the following period, going up 35-21 at halftime. Much like in the game’s opening period, Orlando struck first on a touchdown pass from Hill to receiver T.T. Toliver. Dietz, however, remained poised in the pocket, spread the ball around, and threw three scores each to different receivers including DeAndrew Rubin, Tyrone Timmons and Hank Edwards. Tampa Bay’s last score of the first half was aided by solid special teams play, as Drew Weatherford recovered an onside kick that allowed the Storm an additional opportunity to put points on the board.
The Storm opened the third quarter with its largest lead of the game, going up 21 points after Tyrone Timmons hauled in his second score of the night. Although Tampa Bay scored a second time in the quarter, Orlando slowly began to chip away at the deficit, scoring twice on a pair of unanswered touchdown receptions by T. T. Toliver. Toliver then brought the Predators to within just one touchdown after teammate Josh Bush recovered an onside kick to give Orlando an extra possession that set up the score.
Both teams traded a score each before Orlando’s Dion Bynum intercepted a Dietz pass with four minutes left, leading to the tying touchdown on a fourth-and-one play in which Hill overthrew intended receiver Bobby Sippio and instead found a wide-open T.T. Toliver who caught the ball off of the netting to make the score 56-55 following the extra point. Each team would find the paint once more, but Michael Hawthorne sealed the game with an onside kick recovery, allowing the Storm to burn time off the clock and capture the win. The Predators gave a last ditch effort to win the game with two seconds remaining on the clock, but a 49-yard, potential game-winning field goal by Orlando kicker Carlos Martinez fell short.