1997 Results | Game Coverage
Calls, Mistakes Kill Storm, 52-41By Andrew Mason
TAMPA, Fla. - It's always sad when a controversial call makes an impact on the game. As a society, our best sporting events are almost always the ones where the referees do not have the spotlight; where the players and coaches have command of the proceeding without independent and supposedly impartial arbiters stepping in to make decisions that shape the impact of the contest.
But Friday night, the referees made a call that changed the game.
It was fourth-and-ten for the Milwaukee Mustangs. The ball was just an eyelash outside the Tampa Bay Storm's 10-yard-line, and Kenny Stucker came on to try a 25-yard field goal. The ball hit off the left upright and bounced over returner George LaFrance's head. Mustang lineman Ross Setters recovered and ran four yards to between the Storm's two and one-yard-lines. When the officials placed the ball down, it appeared that the Mustangs were about a yard short of the first down.
Seemed simple. The field goal bounced off the upright and was recovered by Milwaukee, but they didn't gain enough yardage to get the first down. In fact, during the postgame press conference, Storm coach Tim Marcum read a passage from the rule book that was highlighted by assistant coach Dave Whinham. The text was as follows:
"If the ball rebounds [off the net] beyond the line [of scrimmage] and touches the ground or is caught in the air with no receivers in the area, the [kickers team] will have to make the [yardage needed] for a first down," he said, quoting the rule book. "If not, first and ten for the receiving team."
It seemed simple. But after the officiating crew huddled, referee Buddy Ward gave the crowd his interpretation of the rule---first down, Milwaukee.
The Storm disagreed with the call, and perhaps rightfully so. But to Stucker---who has seen all kinds of frustration in his four years as a Mustang---the call was merely redemption.
"Every time that's happened against us," he said. "I've seen so many times that teams will miss a field goal and they'll get it and score, and it's a backbreaker."
Another call that went against the Storm came in the third quarter, when WR/LB Stevie Thomas fumbled when it appeared that his forward progress had been long since stopped. The play was not ruled dead and Mustang defensive specialist Wayne Wade recovered. But to blame the referees would be pointless, according to Marcum.
"I've got to get [the players] better," he said. "That's all there is to it. There's nobody else responsible for this thing except me."
Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that all of the questionable calls were significant. If the referees had ruled that Thomas' forward progress had stopped before the fumble, the Storm would have likely scored a touchdown, being at the Mustangs' 15-yard-line. Instead, the Mustangs converted for a touchdown and a 14-point swing, pushing the lead to 31-21. And the afore-mentioned field goal controversy changed the game completely.
Had the Storm been awarded the ball, they would have had possession with a chance to take a two-score lead for the first time all evening. Instead, they were forced to play catch-up, which resulted in a two-for-seven passing performance by Storm quarterback Peter Tom Willis in the fourth quarter. Willis also turned the ball over twice in the final period---once on an interception returned seven yards for a touchdown by Gary Compton and another on a fumbled snap recovered by Milwaukee's Jeff Savage.
The only positives to come out of Friday night for the Storm were in the receivers, in particular, because of the continued emergence of WR/DB Lawrence Samuels. He followed up his seven-catch, 70-yard performance with an even better encore, catching seven passes for 114 yards and a 42-yard touchdown. The touchdown was the longest reception of his career, and also the longest pass of Willis' five-game career.
LaFrance also had a fine game, accounting for 234 total yards, including 131 receiving. But that was about it. The Storm turned the ball over five times---three times on interceptions and twice on fumbles. Willis fumbled a center snap for the fourth consecutive week. Milwaukee outrushed the Storm 57 yards to three.
"Our inability to stop the run was very disappointing," That just shows you that they're a bigger, tougher, stronger [and] better coached football team than we are.
And once again, the Storm defense did not record a sack. In five games, the team has only one sack, and that came from Lynn Rowland, who now sits on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
"We have to get a pass rush, otherwise we're not going to ever win in this league," Marcum said.
While the mood was grim in the Storm's locker room, there was nothing but jocularity in the Mustang locker room. Within the celebration was Stucker, who was the first player ever signed by the Mustangs (on December 6, 1993) and has played in every game in team history, including all 15 losses in the franchise-opening losing streak. He's also seen 17 wins, but Friday's stands out.
"It's the biggest win [in franchise history]---by far," he said.
As Milwaukee celebrated, the Storm players were somber. And if Marcum told them what he told the media, then their mood is justified.
"I've got to make the personnel changes that will get the right mix, and we're probably going to have some dramatic changes," he said resolutely to the assembled media after the game.
Any changes---be they in roster or performance---will have to come quickly. They go on the road for the third time this season to face the 2-3 Albany Firebirds, who will unquestionably be a tad perturbed after a 53-52 loss to the New Jersey Red Dogs on Friday night. Kickoff will be at 7:30 p.m. EDT Saturday at the Pepsi Arena (formerly known as Knickerbocker Arena) in Albany. Fans in Florida can watch the game live on Sunshine Network.
Thunderclaps...Can't We All Just Get Along? - The action got chippy late in the first half, as two mini-brawls broke out. On the first, Milwaukee's Ross Setters and the Storm's Stevie Thomas were whistled for offsetting personal foul penalties. The second was more serious and prolonged. After a three-yard run by Mike Miller on first-and-goal, the teams started battling in the corner of the field. Three officials threw penalties, and Tampa Bay defensive specialist Johnnie Harris and Mustang FB/LB Lincoln Coleman were ejected from the game. All the while, Mustang general manager Christopher Vallozzi yelled vociferously in the direction of the field. The fracas took around two minutes to sort out before the game resumed.
The Gasparilla Curse? - In the offseason, there appeared to be nothing but positive words coming from the Storm players and staff about moving operations from St. Petersburg to Tampa. However, after one month of play, questions are arising. After all, no pro sports team playing in the city of Tampa has won any kind of significant championship since the Rowdies won the North American Soccer League title in 1975. The Buccaneers' disasters are well-written, the Rowdies went downhill, the Mutiny flamed out in last year's Major League Soccer playoffs and the NHL's Lightning moved from St. Petersburg to Tampa and promptly went from being a playoff team with 88 points in 1995-96 to a struggling outfit that gained just 74 points last year. Even in the college ranks, the region's lone major sports program, USF basketball, has made the NCAA Tournament just twice and has enjoyed just four winning seasons in the last 12. Given the Storm's two consecutive home losses, WR/LB Stevie Thomas thinks that something strange is involved. "There's always been a hex about every time a team moves to Tampa, they start doing bad," he said. Of course, if all St. Petersburg teams do better than Tampa clubs, then baseball fans should be quite excited about the Devil Rays' chances in 1998 when they join the American League.
Barley's Record Run Aborted - Storm FB/LB Les Barley entered the game just ten yards shy of becoming the AFL's all-time rushing leader. After Friday's loss, he had cut the margin in half. However, the Storm's reliance on the pass and a stingy Milwaukee rush defense, which came into the game ranked first in the league, kept the Storm from mounting any kind of ground assault. Barley ended the game as Tampa Bay's leading rusher with five yards on two carries.
Awards - The Wilson Player of the Game was LaFrance, and the Riddell Ironman of the game was Compton, who had two tackles, an interception return for a touchdown and four catches for 59 yards.
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