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Orlando inflicts another low on Storm

Did somebody slip Orlando the keys to the Suncoast Dome?

For the past three years, the Predators have come to town and acted as if they own the place.

A league record-crowd of 28,746 watched Saturday night as the Tampa Bay Storm tried to deny the visitors their fifth victory in six games this season _ to no avail.

The Storm failed on a two-point conversion attempt with 3:22 left, and the Predators held for a 46-45 victory that put them alone in first place in the Arena League's National Conference at 5-1.

Tampa Bay slipped to 4-2 with its second loss to Orlando this year. The teams' total of 91 points was the most in their seven-game, three-season series. The Predators have won five of those meetings.

"They're the type of team that you have to play almost a perfect game to beat them," said Storm quarterback Jay Gruden, who threw six touchdown passes.

"We dropped some balls, threw an interception, we didn't stop them on third and long, and we missed four extra points _ the winning margin," Storm coach Lary Kuharich said.

The game was close throughout the second half, when the two rivals matched each other scoring drive for scoring drive. But it turned on the two-point conversion try by Tampa Bay with 3:22 remaining. The call was an easy decision for Kuharich.

"We were going for the win. Who knows if if we were going to get the ball back," Kuharich said. "The man (Storm kicker Arden Czyzewski) missed four extra points, and I felt the odds were better."

Czyzewski watched on the sidelines as teammate Stevie Thomas could not draw in a low pass from a scrambling Gruden.

"The defender was hanging on him pretty good, so I tried to make something happen," Gruden said. "Stevie made a couple of moves and was open, and I threw a bad ball. I could have run it in, but I didn't see the opening. Sometimes you overlook the obvious thing."

Thomas felt his mistake was the obvious thing. "The ball touched my hands; it should have been caught," said Thomas, who had one two-point conversion catch and four touchdowns on the night.

"It doesn't matter about the other touchdowns; I missed the one (catch) that counted."

Once the conversion failed, the Predators hung on to the ball with short sideline passes and fullback blasts that ate the clock and rendered any Storm comeback thoughts moot.

For a while in the third quarter, those thoughts came true. In the middle of quarter, the Predators had their biggest lead: 39-24.

Gruden capped a six-play drive by finding Thomas slanting over the middle for a 6-yard touchdown pass. The duo ran the exact play for a successful two-point conversion with 4:05 remaining in the quarter.

Tampa Bay blocked a field-goal attempt that set up the fourth touchdown from Thomas. Czyzewski kicked an extra point to tie the score at 39.

But Orlando answered immediately. Ben Bennett took his team on an eight-play drive that culminated in a 14-yard throw to Barry Wagner. The extra point made it 46-39.

Bennett broke a club record by throwing six touchdown passes, hitting his three receivers for two each.

"Bennett did a great job and had a lot of firepower working for him," Gruden said.

"As it works out, two very good football teams played a very good football game, and we just happened to come out on top," Bennett said, just pleased to have escaped the final three minutes without a turnover.

Though the Storm pass rush limited Bennett to three completions in nine attempts in the first quarter and limited the Predators to a field goal, both Tampa Bay units broke down in the second quarter.

Only one Storm player was consistent in each quarter: Czyzewski missed two extra points in each period, helping to give the Predators a 26-24 halftime lead.

One play after Gruden connected with Thomas on a 35-yarder to open the second quarter, Gruden threw an interception. Durwood Roquemore (who leads the league in interceptions with six) picked off the deflected pass in the end zone, and Bennett did the rest.

The two rivals traded touchdowns in the next series, with Tampa Bay scoring on a 45-yard Thomas touchdown catch in the last 22 seconds of the quarter.

But before halftime, Jorge Cimadevilla hit a 34-yard field goal.