TAMPA — Three-point plays after touchdowns. Kickoffs with return and coverage units lined up five yards apart. A 25-second play clock.
Those were among XFL rules a spirited crowd of 18,117 fans at Raymond James Stadium were introduced to on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon for the Tampa Bay Vipers’ home opener.
A 34-27 loss to the Houston Roughnecks, which kept the Vipers winless after three weeks, took two hours and 52 minutes to complete.
Many of the loudest cheers of the day were reserved for quarterback Quinton Flowers, playing in a venue where he set more than 30 USF single-season and career marks.
Flowers took over the Vipers’ offense from starter Taylor Cornelius with 3:30 remaining in the opening quarter and received a loud ovation.
“It was a great feeling, just knowing that people believe in you,” he said of the warm welcome. “All my life I have been doubted and all my life I have been going against the odds. To go out there and have respect from the fans, day in and day out, whenever I am on the field I will do whatever it takes to win.”
Though Flowers’ first possession did not result in points, his presence resulted in an unmistakable spark. On the Vipers’ next possession, that spark resulted in his seven-yard touchdown run with 9:11 remaining in the half for the team’s first-ever offensive touchdown. The ensuing one-point run by Jalen Tolliver gave Tampa Bay a 10-9 lead.
Cornelius, who threw for 193 yards and one touchdowns and also ran for a score, returned during the two-minute drill and Flowers did not see the field again, even in third- and fourth-quarter goal-to-go situations where his running ability would give the defense something to think about.
“We decided to stick with a plan and leave Taylor in there,” said coach Marc Trestman. “We love Q, we love what he brings to the table and he will be a part of what we do each and every week. But we are going through a real transformation trying to get a balance.”
Even with red-zone opportunities having bogged down, the Vipers were only one score behind as they drove down the field in the game’s final two minutes. That was when Cornelius threw his lone pick, which was at the Houston 37 yard line with 1:19 remaining.
Flowers completed 4-of-6 passes for 51 yards and had 29 rushing during his first half possessions.
“Everybody feels like they should be starting,” said Flowers, when asked if he should be the No. 1. “I know whenever the guys get the call, when I get my number called, we’ll be ready.”
Houston (3-0) quarterback P.J. Walker, who was a four-year starter at Temple and played against Flowers multiple times, caught up with his fellow former American Conference quarterback.
“I talked to him for about 15 minutes in the pregame, talking about everything that is going on,” said Walker, who threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 34 yards and a score. “He did a great job today and he did a lot of the same stuff that he did against us when I played at Temple. He is one of the best running quarterbacks that I have ever seen.”
Was Walker surprised Flowers did not see the field after the first half?
“Absolutely,” he said. “The excitement he brings when he is on the field is awesome.”
Former USF corner Deatrick Nichols, who is playing strong safety for Houston, recorded eight tackles to tie for the game high.