Quarterback Rob Flowers scored on a pair of touchdown runs in a 40-second span after Erie had taken the lead, and the Express (2-2) turned away a two-point conversion pass with no time on the clock to avoid overtime and the potential for a second loss to the Storm (1-2).
"We definitely had to win this game; we definitely did," said Flowers, who threw for three TDs and ran for three more. "We couldn't go 1-and-3. We needed to get the win going into the bye."
The defending AIFA champs were on the verge of what would have been a crushing loss before pulling out the win, and head coach/general manager Bernie Nowotarski said he believes the team made strides.
"We are not the 2009 championship team," said Nowotarski. "This is a new group of guys with some vets. We've got to learn to win on our own, and we've got to get our own identity. This is a big step for them. It's a big win."
Despite playing without receiver Carmelo Ocasio, who has been suspended three games for a postgame altercation with an official following last week's loss to Harrisburg, the Express controlled the game most of the way.
A John Pitts interception and 30-yard return set up Flowers' first TD pass on Reading's first possession, and the Express opened a 33-19 lead on Flowers' 21-yard pass to Jeff Willis three plays into the second half.
The Express still led by two touchdowns, at 40-26, when Flowers was intercepted by Trent Jones with 12:28 left. Quarterback Rod Rutherford, who didn't arrive until the second half because of a prior commitment, according to head coach Shawn Liotta, turned that into a 7-yard touchdown pass to Eugene Baker.
Reading went nowhere on three plays and Rutherford and Baker needed three plays to make a 40-39 game, connecting on an 18-yard score. The TD was Baker's fifth of the game, and he finished with 198 yards on 13 catches.
Erie missed the conversion kick following that TD, but took the lead less than three minutes later.
Flowers was picked off again and Rutherford hooked up with Baker again on a 17-yard pass to the 1. Rutherford scored on the next play, and the Express was down 45-40.
But not for long. Flowers needed just two snaps to score, the TD coming on a 21-yard scramble that made it 46-45. Reading failed on a conversion pass, but extended its lead 40 seconds later, after Erie started at its own 7-yard line after fielding a deep kick and getting a holding penalty. Rutherford threw four straight incompletions, the last from the 4 after a delay of game penalty.
Flowers scored on an uncontested 2-yard run, setting up the final sequence.
The Storm went 30 yards in the final 19.4 seconds, Rutherford scoring on a sneak with no time remaining. But the conversion pass fell in the end zone, and Reading escaped.
"We have a good football team," said Liotta. "Reading will not beat us up in Erie, I'll say that. They have to come back to Erie, and Reading won't beat us in Erie. So we'll see them a third time and we will come out on top in that game."
That's not for another month. Reading has its bye and then two more home games before that trip, and a win to build upon.
"We knew it was a must win," said Nowotarski. "We can't go 1-and-3 with Harrisburg, Erie, Baltimore, all the teams in our division. You can't start drifting back. It's way, way too early to start talking about playoffs and positioning, but you can't start 1-and-3 and be continually fighting out of a hole."
Contact Steve Patton: 610-371-5097 or email@example.com.