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Utah Blaze impress in season opener

Published: Thursday, March 17 2011 11:12 p.m. MDT

AFL standings

SALT LAKE CITY — If the game was decided on the first possession, Utah would have suffered an embarrassing defeat. Fortunately for the Blaze, though, the game is much longer than the opening series.

In about as impressive a performance as a first game can be, the Utah Blaze sent out a statement that this is a new season by trouncing last year's Arena Football League runner-up, Tampa Bay, 72-36, in the two teams' season-opener at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday night.

It was the worst road loss in Tampa Bay history. Yet, Blaze coach Ron James refused to be totally impressed.

"I think that we were playing through a lot of jitters in the first half," James said. "The first half was not indicative of how we play. We got stopped on downs one time and defensively we gave up some big plays.

"That was the most disheartening part of the game. You walk away with a big win like this, and we've got a lot to clean up, believe it or not."

On the first four plays from scrimmage, Utah quarterback Tommy Grady overthrew a potential touchdown pass, was nearly sacked and had a pass dropped to give Tampa Bay the ball on Utah's 11-yard line.

That's when the blackshirts would rise to the challenge, holding the Storm to three points and instantly switching the momentum gauge in favor of the Blaze.

On the ensuing drive, after Alvance Robinson took the kickoff to the Storm 16-yard line, Grady found the man who got them in that position when Robinson found a cushion in the zone defense to push the score to 6-3.

However, in the game of arena football, leads fluctuate quickly.

With Utah leading 13-10, Tampa Bay's Grant Gregory dropped back and lasered a pass across the middle that was clearly overthrown, but Hank Edwards extended his left arm and snagged a one-handed catch to put the Storm up 16-13 on the first play of the second quarter.

But unlike last season, where Utah would go long stretches without responding to an opposing score, the Blaze continually cracked back — this time when Aaron Boone caught his second touchdown pass of the game on a drag route after shaking one would-be defender and diving into the end zone, extending the lead to 19-16 when John Wehrle failed to connect on the PAT.

It was one of four misses in the first half for Wehrle.

The turning point came with 4:11 remaining in the first half. After both teams added another score, Utah found itself ahead 25-23.

Then, with some St. Patrick's Day trickery, Utah elected to try an onside kick and recovered. The Blaze milked the rest of the clock and eventually scored with six seconds remaining when Grady found Emie Pierce in the corner of the end zone to end the half at 31-23.

"I did," said James with a smirk when asked who called the onside kick. "I was making all the calls. Well, you guys will come at me when it's the other way around, so I'm going to take it today."

On the opening series of the second half, Tampa Bay tested Utah cornerback William Mulder. In the right-hand corner of his own end zone, he dropped a sure-handed interception. However, he redeemed himself on the next play and picked off an errant Gregory pass.

From that point on, the Blaze outscored Tampa Bay 41-13.

"I was expecting a good, hard-fought game," said James. "I didn't really expect that we were going to be able to score 72 points in this game, and really we could have scored 80."

e-mail: tphibbs@desnews.com

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