STORM 60, PREDATORS 50: Three touchdowns from T.T. Toliver lead Tampa Bay into title game.
By FRANK PASTOR
Published June 8, 2003
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Tampa Bay Storm's Sai Poulivaati falls to his knees after a fourth-quarter interception sealed the game.
TAMPA - Jon Gruden gave T.T. Toliver a chance to earn a Super Bowl ring with the Bucs before releasing him in April.
Saturday, the former NFL practice-team player wanted to show Gruden he still can contribute to a championship contender.
With Gruden watching from a suite and an ArenaBowl berth on the line, Toliver caught two touchdowns and returned a Jay Gruden interception for another to spark the Storm to a 60-50 victory over Orlando in a pulse-pounding semifinal before 14,028 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The Storm (14-4) advanced to its sixth ArenaBowl and first since 1998. It will try for its fifth championship June 22 when it meets the winner of today's semifinal between No. 1 seed and defending champion San Jose and No. 6 Arizona at the highest remaining seed.
"It's a good opportunity to come out here and beat (Jay) Gruden, just because his brother released me," Toliver said. "I just wanted to show him, "Look, I'm a player,' " Toliver said. "I love to play this game, and I'll do whatever it takes to play this game."
There was little Toliver didn't do.
The second-year wide receiver/defensive back earned ironman of the game honors after catching touchdowns of 34 and 12 yards, making 61/2 tackles and returning an interception 30 yards for the clinching touchdown.
His three kickoff returns for 81 yards kept Tampa Bay in favorable field position.
"We won the return game for a change," said Storm coach Tim Marcum, whose team yielded two kickoff returns for touchdowns in a quarterfinal win over Detroit. "That's not like us."
Tampa Bay also won the battle at the line of scrimmage, sacking Gruden twice and pressuring him into two interceptions while beating Orlando (13-5) for the first time in the past four playoff meetings.
The Storm snapped the Predators' winning streak at seven and sent Gruden to his first defeat in 12 starts. His two interceptions ended a streak of 210 passes without one and doubled his season total.
"We wanted to get in his face, because we know he's one of those decisionmaking type of quarterbacks," Storm lineman Al Lucas said. "He can beat you by making decisions, and we wanted to come out and get pressure."
Storm quarterback John Kaleo was nearly flawless, completing his first nine passes. He was 15-of-21 for 209 yards and five touchdowns with one interception.
"John played extremely well," Marcum said. "There for a while, I don't remember a ball hitting the ground."
Former Orlando lineman B.J. Cohen's fumble recovery late in the second quarter helped Tampa Bay to its first lead.
Cohen batted down Gruden's screen pass for Travis McGriff, who was set up behind Gruden. Cohen returned the ball to the Orlando 17, setting up Kaleo's 3-yard run that gave the Storm a 33-28 lead with six seconds left in the half.
"The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins, and we made a big one," Gruden said. "It was a killer. That turned everything around."
Orlando closed to 33-31 on Brian Schmitz's 43-yard field goal as time expired in the half, but Tampa Bay began to pull away early in the third quarter.
David White recovered Schmitz's onside kick to open the quarter, and Kaleo threw a 13-yard touchdown to Toliver one play later to give the Storm a 40-31 lead.
Orlando coach Fran Papasedero was comfortable with his decision to try the onside kick.
"We felt like we needed a momentum change, and we thought we might be able to do it," Papasedero said. "They were scoring on us pretty much at will anyway, so we figured if we shorten the field we might be able to make a stop."
A White sack and McGriff drop in the end zone allowed Tampa Bay to stop Orlando's next possession. Clif Dell's 39-yard reception moved the ball to the Predators 6, and Freddie Solomon's touchdown catch on the next play increased the Storm's lead to 47-31 with 5:11 left in the quarter.
The Predators closed to 47-44 on Duke Pettijohn's 4-yard run with 12:54 remaining in the fourth, but Toliver's interception in the final minute kept Orlando from getting any closer.