ESTERO — It was tabbed as a showdown between two quarterbacks: Lakeland’s Brian Harris, and the man who replaced him as the Tarpons signal-caller after three games, Chris Wallace.
After Sunday night, there was little doubt remaining that Tarpons made the right move by bringing in Wallace.
Harris fumbled twice and threw two picks. Wallace fired seven touchdown passes, leading the Tarpons to a 55-24 rout of the Lakeland Raiders in front of 2,800 fans at Germain Arena on Sunday night.
“Some of our roster moves haven’t been popular, but we’re doing it for a reason,” Tarpons coach Michael Taylor said. “Chris Wallace is our quarterback for a reason. He’s a veteran guy, and he doesn’t turn the ball over.”
Florida (7-0) has now beaten its in-state rivals three times this season in the United Indoor Football League, and the Tarpons will look to complete the season sweep next Saturday night in Lakeland.
Harris threw for three scores to Roderick Jefferson, but the Raiders were ultimately undone by turnovers and penalties. The Florida defense forced five turnovers, which resulted in 28 points and completely shut out the Lakeland offense in the second half.
“A lot of people said it was a showdown; I don’t see that way,” Wallace said of playing against Harris. “I told (Harris) to keep his head up. He was getting hit all night, and he hung tough. I told him if I ever became a coach, I would want him as a quarterback.”
Tavares Woodley, who started the season with Lakeland, led the defensive effort against his former club, recovering two fumbles, returning one for a touchdown, and also picking off Harris.
“The guy is unbelievable; he’s very talented,” Taylor said of Woodley, who was signed last week. “He’s our backup quarterback, and he turned around and played defense for us tonight. He was the most physical guy on the field.”
Wallace hooked up with Wilfred Rivera for four touchdowns, including a 34-yard score on the opening play of the game.
Rivera, an Estero High School graduate and former Florida Atlantic player, started at receiver for the Tarpons for the first time last week after Chuck Walker was traded to Lakeland.
“I’ve been around since training camp first started, and I finally got my chance last week and I think I’m making the most of it,” Rivera said. “I feel like with 4.3 speed I can make an impact. This league is all about speed.”
The Raiders were within a touchdown until the wheels came off late in the second quarter. Harris and the center fumbled twice on the exchange, and both times it led to Tarpons touchdowns.
Woodley recovered both fumbles, returning the first for a score. The second fumble occurred right before the half, and one play later Wallace found running back Steve Gorrie, who scampered 15 yards into the end zone, giving Florida a 35-24 lead going into the break.
Florida tacked on three more touchdowns in the second half to put the game away.
Wallace found Rivera in the end zone for the fourth time in the game early in the final quarter, giving the Tarpons a 48-24 lead.
Donald Fusilier and Carlos Singleton also caught touchdowns in the second half.
“We shut them out in the second half and that’s tough to do in arena ball,” Taylor said. “That’s a hard team to shut down. When you force turnovers and don’t turn the ball over, you’re going to win a lot of games.”
Wallace completed 17-of-31 passes for 207 yards, and Rivera had a team-high six receptions and 84 yards.
Harris finished 14-of-21 passes for 159 yards.
TARPONS 55, RAIDERS 24
L 12 12 0 0—24
F 20 15 7 13—55
F — Rivera 34 pass from Wallace (Gornall kick), 14:37
L — McClellan 3 run (pass failed), 13:01
F — Rivera 20 pass from Wallace (pass failed), 10:33
L — Jefferson 12 pass from Harris (pass failed), 6:33
F — Woodley 3 fumble recovery (Gornall kick), 0:51
F — Jefferson 26 pass from Harris (run failed), 10:36
F — Rivera 20 pass from Wallace (Gornall kick), 1:36
F — Gornall kickoff through upright (1 point), 1:24
F — Gorrie 15 pass from Wallace (Gornall kick), 0:45
L — Jefferson 24 pass from Harris (pass failed), 0:00
F — Fusilier 16 pass from Wallace (Gornall kick), 5:29
F — Rivera 2 pass from Wallace (Gornall kick), 12:43
F — Singleton 14 pass from Wallace (Gornall kick), 8:05