SALT LAKE CITY — Utah entered the 2013 season with ArenaBowl aspirations. The Blaze tried to find the right pieces to complete their personnel puzzle in the offseason by adding several free agent acquisitions to complement the returning players that guided the franchise to its most successful season in existence last year.
Following a beatdown over Pittsburgh in the opening week, those expectations reached a new pinnacle.
Oh, how time changes everything.
Utah suffered its second consecutive loss, this one at the hands of Tampa Bay, 77-65, Saturday at EnergySolutions Arena, falling to 1-2 on the season. Just like that, the year is teetering on the brink considering Utah plays in the toughest division in the AFL. The train needs to return to the tracks sooner than later.
At the onset, the Blaze felt Aaron Lesue’s presence on offense instantaneously. Lesue, who missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, caught two quick touchdowns on the first two possessions. Utah eventually took a 21-7 lead with 2:21 left in the first quarter after Ben Stallings barreled up the middle from 1 yard out.
With an opportunity to essentially put the game on ice, Utah stubbed its own toe once again. The Blaze lost the handle three times in the first half — twice on the ground — and allowed the Storm to battle back.
The Blaze upped their total to 12 turnovers in the past two games and committed 12 penalties. With 10 seconds remaining in the game, head official Shawn Hochuli summed up the game after Utah called its final timeout, sarcastically muttering “Let’s go home” through his microphone at 11:04 p.m.
Tampa Bay knotted things at 28-28 with 13 seconds left in the first half after two rushing touchdowns by Terence Cosby and another by quarterback Adrian McPherson.
The Storm captured their first lead on the opening possession, 35-28, in the third quarter on a McPherson-to-Joe Hills strike.
McPherson finished with 294 yards and five touchdowns in the air and added three touchdowns on the ground. Hills corralled 16 receptions and was the recipient of all five scoring tosses.
The game unraveled with 4:15 in the third quarter when Utah quarterback Tommy Grady was whistled for intentional grounding in the end zone, awarding Tampa Bay a nine-point cushion, 44-35, after the safety. The Storm recovered the ensuing onside kick and McPherson galloped untouched from 6 yards out for a 51-35 advantage.
Grady, the reigning AFL MVP, once again struggled behind the wheel. With 9:39 in the fourth quarter, on the Tampa Bay 3-yard line, Grady’s pass was snagged by Tampa’s Jean Fanor. The Storm quickly traveled to the opposite end to push the advantage to 64-41 with 8:06 remaining.
Tampa Bay outscored the Blaze 50-20 in the second and third quarters combined. The Storm also topped Utah in first downs (26-22), rushing yards (53-6), time of possession (20:34-29:26) and was a perfect 6-for-6 in the red zone.
Utah completes its three-game homestand Saturday against Chicago at 8 p.m.