TAMPA — As the winless Vipers took the field Sunday night for their first prime-time game, the prevailing story line was about who wasn’t playing.
Former USF star quarterback and fan favorite Quinton Flowers left the Vipers last week for undisclosed personal matters after he expressed frustration with his diminishing role in the offense.
But that didn’t hurt the Vipers against the D.C. Defenders. They took control of the game on the ground to become the final XFL team to get a victory, winning 25-0 at Raymond James Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 12,249.
“I’m really proud of our team for their resilience,” coach Marc Trestman said. “It’s part of this winding road through adversity and success that a football season brings. … They got a little bit of what they deserved tonight.”
Tampa Bay (1-3) scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, and coordinator Jerry Glanville’s defense recorded the second shutout in the XFL this season.
Tampa Bay ran for 266 yards, a team season high. Both running backs, Jacques Patrick and De’Veon Smith, recorded 100-yard games, a first in the XFL for a team in a game. Patrick had 108 yards, Smith 122. Even quarterback Taylor Cornelius, who isn’t know for his running ability, had 36 yards on four carries, including a 17-yard scramble for the Vipers’ third touchdown.
“We go in and we work really hard with our run game because we think we have two running backs who deserve to handle the ball,” Trestman said. “We don’t plan on how we’re going to get it done, but we work hard both equally with our run and pass game throughout the week, and I think that takes the pressure off a (quarterback) who’s only played 13 … games (as a starter) in college, so he gets his feet underneath him.”
That would be Cornelius, who spent most of his career at Oklahoma State as a backup. He was booed off the Raymond James Stadium field in last weekend’s loss to Houston by fans who wanted to see Flowers, but he turned those boos into cheers Sunday after driving the Vipers down the field 75 yards on 11 plays for a score to open the game.
The Vipers ran on eight of those plays, netting 69 yards.
If the absence of Flowers, whose future with the team is uncertain, was a distraction to the Vipers, it didn’t show on Sunday.
“It shows how strong we are," Smith said. "Shoutout to my boy, Q, by the way. There’s a lot of adversity. And when adversity strikes, the stronger people stand up, and if you’re not strong enough, you can sit down. I feel like we answered and we did a good job as a unit off the field, in practice and in the meeting rooms. We’re approaching it like professionals. We have a job to do.”
Patrick ended that first drive by scoring from 8 yards out — the former Florida State running back had 34 yards on four carries on the drive — and took a knee once he reached the end zone, a moment of reflection to honor his father, Peter Hayes, Sr., who passed away on Feb 11 from throat cancer at the age of 47. His father’s memorial service was last Friday.
“It’s a weird situation because my father brought me to this sport,” Patrick said. “He actually got to see me play my first professional game up in New York (three weeks ago in the opener) against the Guardians. Last week, it was tough because I had to bury him on Friday and come back in on Saturday (to play against Houston).
“My father, he meant a lot to me. Just coming out here and getting that touchdown for him, it’s great because I would always send him my clips. I know he’s smiling down on me right now and he’s got the biggest smile on his face.”
The Vipers scored on their next drive, too, with Cornelius hitting tight end DeAndre Goolsby, a former Florida Gator, over the middle for a 13-yard touchdown.
It was clear it would be the Vipers’ day earlier in that drive, when Patrick scooped up a fumbled snap and took the ball 15 yards to put Tampa Bay in the red zone.
Cornelius played the entire game, the first time the Vipers had one quarterback do that. He managed the game well, throwing for 211 yards on 24-for-31 passing, with the one touchdown and one interception.
Glanville’s pressure defense, which blitzes often but had netted just three sacks through the first three games, had just two sacks of Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones but harassed him all night.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.