1998 Results | Game Coverage
Storm Dominate SaberCats, 45-23
By Andrew Mason
SAN JOSE, Calif. - After a relatively stable offseason, which in itself followed a strong close to 1997 that saw the Storm win five of their last seven, the Tampa Bay Storm were expected to come out and justify their expected standing as one of the Arena Football League's dominant teams. Two victories in the preseason did not dull the expectations, but the regular season opener against San Jose would go a long way towards proving whether the championship talk was justified. After all, the SaberCats, like the Storm, finished strong last year, didn't take many personnel hits in the offseason and entered with the saddle of great expectations.
After one week, the edge goes to the Storm.
In a rehash of the teams' season-ending game last year, Tampa Bay dominated on defense, recording two safeties and three sacks, and held the SaberCats to a Friday night league-low 23 points as the Storm cruised to a 45-23 romp in front of 14,028 at the San Jose Arena.
Although Tampa Bay won the game by 22 points, one could make the argument that the score was closer than the game would indicate. Tampa Bay dominated the first half of the game, holding the SaberCats to three first downs, 76 total yards and just five completions on 16 passing attempts. What kept the SaberCats in the game was a fumbled snap by Storm QB Peter Tom Willis that gave them possession at the Storm 14-yard-line and two plays involving Steve Papin---a 31-yard catch and a 31-yard kickoff return.
Outside of Papin, San Jose's offense was as tranquil as a mountain lake. He led the SaberCats in rushing yardage (nine on two carries), receiving yardage (126 on seven catches) and, for good measure, he returned six kickoffs for 122 yards. He gained 257 all-purpose yards while his teammates combined for 116.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay excelled thanks to sterling performances throughout the ranks. Most notably, WR Wayne Walker torched the SaberCats for 140 yards on seven catches. He caught two long touchdowns---a 42-yarder in the first quarter and a 37-yarder in the third---and also added 65 yards on four kick returns.
Tossing him the ball was Willis, who, aside from two red herring interceptions on deep throws, was superb, connecting on 19 of 29 passes for 255 yards and four touchdowns.
"We had a fumble right off the bat, but we hung in there and stuck with our game plan," Willis said. "It's a long game and we got some good protection and a lot of time to make some big plays."
Willis did get helped by the running game, in particular from FB/LB Les Barley, the league's all-time leading rusher. Barley rambled for 41 yards on six carries, including a 25-yard touchdown late in the first half that gave the Storm a commanding 27-10 lead and firm control of the proceedings. Befitting an ironman, he also recorded two tackles on defense.
"What I was disappointed with was our effort," Shell said. "Specifically, our lack of [pass] protection. Tampa Bay has some quality players and they beat our butts."
It was a butt-kicking that hearkened back to the Storm's championship years that the club is working to recapture. Friday night, they got off to a good start. But it gets tougher next week as one of their Southern Division foes, the Nashville Kats, do the stray kat strut into the Ice Palace. The Kats come in off of a 64-40 win over the Houston ThunderBears and will be looking to avenge last year's two losses in the Music City, including a 52-49 first round playoff result. Kickoff for the Storm's home opener will be at 7:40 p.m. EDT. Tickets are available at the Ice Palace box office, through the Storm ticket office at (813) 276-7300, and through TicketMaster at (813) 287-8844. Fans from Mississippi to North Carolina and in between can watch coverage live on Fox Sports South. In Tampa Bay, the game will air on a tape-delayed basis via Time Warner Communications.
Quotebook...SaberCats Coach Shell on Cree Morris: "Cree had both hands hit continuously throughout the game and I asked him if he wanted to stay in there. He said he could go."
Willis on the San Jose defense: "They have some quality defensive backs and they are going to make their plays. Fortunately, we held them to a minimum and came out on top."
Thunderclaps...Late Start to the Season - A 10:40 p.m. EDT scheduled start is bad enough for Storm fans, who reset their body clocks to listen to WDAE-AM 1250's coverage of the game. But making matters worse were delays from the San Jose Arena. Kickoff didn't actually take place until 10:55 Tampa time because of an extended laser and fireworks show to commemorate the opening of the season. Halftime didn't strike until after Cinderella's coach had turned into a pumpkin, and the game finally ended at 1:10 a.m. EDT. Fortunately for Storm fans, this is the last time they will play on the West Coast during the regular season; the Storm's furthest trip west from here on in comes on July 2, when Tampa Bay heads to Houston to meet the ThunderBears in the Compaq Center.
Opening Day Jitters - There are none for the Storm, who improved to 6-2 in their history and extended their first-week winning streak to four. Tampa Bay has won all four of those games---1995 vs. Miami, 1996 vs. St. Louis, 1997 vs. Arizona and Friday's game---by double digits, with the smallest margin of victory being 12 in 1997. In addition, the Storm is 6-2 in road openers, with the last loss coming in 1994 at Albany, 71-45. For the SaberCats, however, opening night has given them stage fright for some time. This is the 'Cats' fourth Week One loss in four tries, and the third time in a row that they have failed to break 25 points on opening night.
End of An Era - Death, taxes, and George LaFrance catching a pass. Since 1988, those things have been three certainties of life. But on Friday night, LaFrance saw a personal streak of his snapped when he failed to catch a pass in a game for the first time in his career. He did haul in one pass in the fourth quarter from Willis, but it was whistled back thanks to a Storm holding penalty.
Awards - The Wilson MVP was Willis and the Riddell Ironman was Barley.
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