1998 Results | Game Coverage
Harris' Heroics Lead Storm Past Preds
By Andrew Mason
ORLANDO, Fla. - Picture the scene:
1:03 remains in the game. Homestanding Orlando trails the Storm 42-28 after a 35-yard touchdown pass from Peter Tom Willis to WR Wayne Walker. With a stoppage in play, most of the 15,948 in attendance start heading for the exits. Just after the ensuing Bjorn Nittmo kickoff, the only sections still filled with fans are in the southwest corner of the arena, home to the visiting Storm Krew and Storm Surge fans celebrating what looks like a win.
The Orlando Arena was clearing out fast, almost as if a bomb threat had been phoned in. Obviously, a majority the central Floridians in attendance didn't know Arena Football, and didn't know the history and volatility of the Storm-Predators series. The game wasn't over yet.
The Preds promptly scored on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Pat O'Hara to Bret Cooper. Following a missed David Cool extra point and failed on-side kick, even more spectators left the house. Tampa Bay gained a first-and-goal at the Preds' eight-yard-line, and forced Orlando to use two of their three timeouts as Andre Bowden ran twice up the middle. Then, came third-and-goal from the Preds' five-yard-line. Run once more, and the Storm forces Orlando to use a timeout, but also likely brings forth a field goal attempt from the struggling Nittmo. So Storm coach Tim Marcum took the unorthodox route and called a pass.
Willis went left for Lawrence Samuels. The ball careened off Samuels' hands, went off the hands of Pred DS Chris Barber and into the hands of Cooper, who returned it 28 yards to the Storm's 18-yard-line with 19 seconds left in the game.
But the threat ended when, with six seconds left, Johnnie Harris intercepted an O'Hara pass at the Storm's five-yard-line as time ran out. The interception brought a protracted end to the close game, and gave the Storm a 42-34 win.
"I tried to screw it up, and our guys wouldn't let me," Marcum said. "[The players] played above their coaching tonight."
Orlando OS Robert Gordon had a different perspective.
"We were right there, we had a chance to take the ballgame, and we didn't," he said.
Of all of Marcum's players, the star was Harris. One week after picking off two passes and returning one for a score, he did even better. Harris was placed on Orlando's splendid WR/DB, Barry Wagner, for much of the night, and ended up intercepting three passes, including the game ender. Harris' coverage was so good that he caught more passes from O'Hara than Wagner did.
Harris tied Corey Johnson of Nashville for the league lead in interceptions with seven. In addition, he put himself on a league-record pace. At his current rate, he will intercept 14 passes this year, which would break teammate Tracey Perkins' record of 12, set last season. Perkins himself had an interception of O'Hara in the second quarter, giving him two for the season.
O'Hara's favorite target, Gordon, caught a team-high five passes for 74 yards and a second-quarter score. However, the signal-callers four interceptions were impossible to ignore. At one point in the first half, he threw interceptions on two of three plays, which led to his benching in favor of former Storm backup Connell Maynor for one series in the second quarter. Maynor fared no better, being sacked by Lynn Rowland on his first snap and throwing incomplete passes out of play on the next two plays. On the next possession, O'Hara came back in.
Gordon was asked after the game if O'Hara's interceptions were the main reason for the game's result.
"Oh yeah," he said. "When you give the ball away, you've got to be able to make the plays to come back from that. We didn't."
Two of those scores went to Walker, who returned to the lineup after missing the last four games with a groin injury suffered in the second quarter of the Storm's lone loss, to Nashville on May 9. Walker caught five passes for 81 yards, including scores of 35 and 24 yards. However, the play that many fans will remember from Walker came in the third quarter, when, on a short pass across the middle, he was nailed by Wagner in a hit that made the crowd gasp. Walker, however, got right back up off the ground, and throughout the game, showed no signs of injury.
He will be needed Saturday night for the Storm's next challenge as the Eastern Division-leading Albany Firebirds make their first Tampa Bay appearance since 1996. Albany has not beaten the Storm in the Bay Area, losing all six of their games played in the then-ThunderDome from 1991 to 1996. Overall, the 'Birds have taken three of ten games in the series. Kickoff on Saturday night in the Ice Palace comes at 7:40 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the Storm at (813) 276-7300 or by calling TicketMaster at (813) 287-8844.
Thunderclaps...Oh-No Nittmo - Kicker Bjorn Nittmo continued to struggle after suffering a groin injury early in last week's win over New York. He missed two of three field goal attempts from midfield and connected on just three of five extra points. He only hit the rebound net twice on seven kickoffs, and had one kickoff would have sailed out of bounds in the fourth quarter were it not for a surprising mental lapse by Wagner, who attempted to field the ball at the Preds' one-yard-line rather than letting it go and taking possession at the Orlando 20-yard-line. "We've got my man under a microscope," Marcum said. "We may have to make a change there, and I think he understands it and he knows it. "Kick coverage starts with the kick. We didn't hit the net from time to time, and when we did hit the net it was a line drive, and it doesn't allow us to get down there."
In the Building - Among the notables viewing Friday's game were Arena Football League commissioner David Baker, league president Ron Kurpiers and former Tampa Bay Lightning coach and current Fox hockey analyst Terry Crisp.
Awards - The Wilson MVP was Willis and the Tincatin Ironman was Les Barley, who gained three yards on four carries, scored a touchdown and made three tackles.
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