TAMPA — Fans brought their excitement and, undoubtedly, their allegiances to Raymond James Stadium for the Vipers’ first XFL home game, a 34-27 loss to the Houston Roughnecks on Saturday.
They booed their starting quarterback on his second offensive drive, urging coach Marc Trestman to replace Taylor Cornelius with former USF standout Quinton Flowers in the stadium where he starred in college.
Flowers got his chance, and he energized the Vipers to their first offensive touchdown of the season (They were 0-for-7 in the red zone). But after Cornelius returned for the final drive of the first half, Flowers remained a spectator, even when the Vipers were on the verge of taking a late fourth-quarter lead with a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line.
Trestman, committed to his quarterback shuffle but still working on his timing, stuck with Cornelius, and the Vipers came away with no points, prompting another round of boos from the crowd of 18,117.
“We have to shut the noise out,” Trestman said. “The good part is the noise is coming from people who really care about our football team and want to see us play well and win. … We’re an 0-3 football team and we’ll get to find out about ourselves during the course of the week and next.”
Who said this new version of the XFL can’t have its stirring WWE-like plot lines? Just three games into their existence, the Vipers are becoming a scriptwriter’s dream.
“How tough is it … when everybody in the stadium doesn’t want to see you on the field?” came a question for Cornelius from the back of the postgame interview room.
“I don’t think it was everybody,” said Cornelius, laughing uncomfortably.
When Flowers entered in the second quarter to cheers, he led the Vipers on a seven-play, 58-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive in less than three minutes, running into the end zone from 7 yards out then flexing toward the crowd and pulling off his helmet in celebration.
“I had to show my face because this is home,” Flowers said. “This is my second home. These people believed in me, they stuck by me.”
After going three-and-out on the next series, Flowers was replaced by Cornelius, and didn’t play another down, a fact that surprised Houston coach June Jones and his quarterback P.J. Walker.
Said Jones, “He was tough, running and throwing. … He creates so many things when he gets flushed. He made a couple of big-time plays when he was in there.”
Trestman handing play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo resulted in a faster and more fluid offense. And it’s not that Cornelius played poorly. Inserted late in the first half because he performed well in the two-minute offense last week, he led a tying touchdown drive just before halftime. He gave the Vipers their last lead in a game featuring five lead changes with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Dan Williams for a 26-24 advantage at 2:06 in the third quarter.
He drove the Vipers to the Roughnecks 2 with another chance to take the lead. It was the perfect spot for Flowers, a running threat who complements a rushing game that came in ranked second in the XFL. For the second straight week, Flowers had to watch as the Vipers failed to score a potential winning touchdown after a first-and-goal.
“It’s something everybody is going to ask,” Trestman said of his reasoning. “We decided to stick with the plan and keep Taylor in there, and certainly, as we look back, that’s part of getting to work through this process. We will look back. You have to stand behind what you call and the plays that you run.”
After the game, Flowers was asked if he believed he should be the Vipers’ starter, and he was clearly frustrated.
“Everybody feels like they should be the starter,” he said. “It’s guys that should be playing and you’re limiting guys, not playing guys, so it’s tough. But I know whenever these guys’ numbers (are) called or when my number’s called, we’re going to be ready.”