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Storm loses Arenaball debut 51-38

So this is what Arena Football looks like: lots of early enthusiasm, a couple big mistakes and much of the home crowd leaving midway through the fourth quarter. In other words, everything you've grown accustomed to at Tampa Stadium.

In its Arena Football League debut, the Tampa Bay Storm lost to expansion rival Orlando 51-38 at the Florida Suncoast Dome Saturday night.

But it wasn't all bad news for Storm owner Bob Gries. A crowd of 10,354 _ the largest opening-night crowd for a new city in the five-year history of Arenaball _ showed up for the game.

What they saw was an Arenaball clinic _ if there is such a thing _ put on by Orlando Predators quarterback Reggie Collier. The former Southern Miss star threw for 252 yards and seven touchdowns.

"Reggie Collier was great in college, and he was great tonight," Storm coach Fran Curci said. "If there was one difference tonight, it was the long passes. We gave up way too many easy touchdowns."

Tampa Bay quarterback Jay Gruden was not nearly as successful as Collier. Gruden was 25-of-39 for 229 yards and two touchdowns, but two second-half interceptions ruined any chance the team had of coming back from a 26-17 halftime deficit.

Still, the loss was not Gruden's fault. His offensive line did not provide as much protection as Orlando's, and his receivers looked terribly shaky.

"We had some nice, long drives but they were scoring on big plays and we fell behind early," said Gruden. "They knew we were going to be passing to catch up and that gives the defensive line a heck of an advantage. You can't expect the line to block like that all night long."

Late in the game, the crowd began chanting for former Florida State quarterback Chip Ferguson, who sat on the Tampa Bay sideline with a sore knee. Curci, however, said he was happy with Gruden's performance.

Other than the final outcome, Tampa Bay's performance lived up to pregame advertising. The game moved at an extremely fast pace, the seating configuration was intimate and the wall-smashing tackles were real.

Imagine boxing promoter Don King as commissioner of the NFL, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what Arena Football looks like:

Very flashy, a bit cheesy, but mostly entertaining. The music is loud, and the uniform colors are even louder. It's sort of a mix between outdoor football, professional wrestling and, at times, a rock concert.

There were a few technical glitches _ the game clock operator had problems, the huge walk-up crowd caused a backlog at ticket windows, and the scoreboard had no room to show the down and distance on each play _ but it wasn't a bad effort for a first-time football event in a facility built for baseball.

"I'm disappointed at the outcome, but that's momentary," said Gries, who moved the team to Tampa Bay from Pittsburgh in the spring. "I'm ecstatic with the crowd. I think the game was everything we promised. You can hear about it and see it on TV, but until you come here in person, you can't appreciate the fun."

If the quarterback is the star in the NFL, he is the universe in Arenaball. Passing accounts for about 75 percent of the plays, and quarterback bootlegs are good for another 10 percent.

Collier _ who spent time with three USFL teams along with the Dallas Cowboys _ was the obvious difference in the first half as the Predators took their 26-17 lead. And then he got better in the second half.

While the Storm concentrated on a short, ball-control passing game, the Predators were looking for the big play.

Collier's seven touchdown passes (the Arena League record is 10) included plays of 19, 20, 21, 36 and 40 yards. Considering the Arena field is 50 yards long, anything longer than 15 yards is a huge chunk of property.

"We didn't think he could throw with that kind of accuracy downfield," Curci said. "But he did it."

Tampa Bay is on the road next week against Columbus. The next Storm home game is June 22 against Dallas.