Sharks Finally Gain Momentum
by Erik Watkins
Let’s face it, for the Jacksonville Sharks, if you take into account the wins that should’ve been losses and losses that should’ve been wins, 3-5 is about where they should be. However, with only eight weeks gone, they have indeed shown that there’s a lot of football left to play.
For starters: Cleveland. The Gladiators are using the 2015 season to prove to the critics that their 17-1 campaign that led to ArenaBowl XXVII was no fluke. So far, while the naysayers have stuck around, they’re fewer and farther between. Cleveland came into the game at 4-2 having won consecutive games for the second time this season. Jacksonville, desperate to keep pace with their fellow Florida teams, needed to win in part to save their coach’s job.
Things started out mixed for Jacksonville, as a turnover on downs led to the Gladiators getting on the scoreboard first. The Sharks were able to trade scores, and Alvin Ray Jackson’s interception to end the half gave Jacksonville life, trailing 21-19 due to Julian Rauch’s first two misses on extra points as a Shark.
Much like in the win against Vegas and the loss to the Storm, stops started coming in bunches. This time, like two weeks prior, Jacksonville’s defense stepped up. After Derrick Ross, who during the game became the first player ever to run for 2,500 yards in an Arena Football League career, scored his second touchdown of the night, Joe Sykes gave the league a reminder of how formidable the Sharks front line can be. Sykes sacked QB Shane Austin to earn his league-leading seventh sack of the season, forced an Austin fumble, and DB LaRoche “Action” Jackson lived up to his nickname and pounced on the loose ball, turning it over from his former team to his current (and former former, as it happens) team. From there, new Shark Prechae Rodriguez, earning his first start in the place of Jeron Harvey (coach’s decision), caught a TD pass from Tommy Grady to extend the lead to 33-21.
On the ensuing drive, another new Shark, DB Greg Reid, caught his second interception of the night and his Jacksonville career to set up another score and an 18-point lead. Cleveland fought hard with back-to-back scores of their own, but despite a Julian Rauch missed field goal, the Sharks held on to get their first road win of the season and improved their record to 2-5.
For all the on-field drama, there were a few things brewing off the field for Jacksonville. Thanks to a couple lackluster performances, head coach Les Moss opted to sit Jeron Harvey, giving new Shark Prechae Rodriguez his wish and letting him start. It paid off immediately with eight catches and 75 yards against Cleveland, and earned him a second starting nod. Moss also had an unfortunate incident of his own. He was swimming in his neighbor’s pool over the weekend, and stepped out onto some hot concrete, suffering third-degree burns. The doctor ordered him to stay off his feet for the next several weeks, forcing him to watch practice from his car and coach from an upstairs booth.
It was a tumultuous week leading up to the game against Philadelphia, but it didn’t stop Jacksonville from looking for the best cure of all: a win. The 7-0 Soul wouldn’t make it easy, but the crowd of 9,465 that showed up for Military Appreciation Night certainly got their money’s worth.
It was another inauspicious start, as the Sharks defense couldn’t get off the field on 4th and 1, allowing a 31-yard strike from Dan Raudabaugh to Marco Thomas. Jacksonville bounced back to score 10 straight points. Prechae Rodriguez continued his form to get the Sharks near the goalline, and after Derrick Ross committed a rare fumble, the other former Philadelphia player, Tiger Jones, scored on 4th and 8 to tie the game. Following a 4th down drop, Julian Rauch bounced back from an awful night in Cleveland to kick a 28 yard field goal.
Greg Reid also made sure his presence was known, nearly intercepting Raudabaugh on first down and breaking up a second down pass. Despite giving up another fourth down score, Jacksonville was undeterred. Action Jackson gave the special teams a boost (he had 91 yards on 5 kick returns for the night), and Joe Hills started and ended the drive with two big catches to retake the lead for Jacksonville.
The last 90 seconds of the first half provided a little controversy. Following Marco Thomas’ second score of the night, Philadelphia faked the extra point, went for two, and failed. Then, they challenged the call of fan interference on the onside kick (which Ryan McDaniel recovered on a ricochet off of a fan’s arm. After the challenge was upheld, Mogut Ruffins scored his first touchdown of the season. A failed onside kick gave the Soul a chance at a halftime lead, but Greg Reid forced his second fumble of the night. Julian Rauch had a long field goal attempt late, but intentionally kicked it out of bounds to keep the Sharks lead at 24-20.
Jacksonville had one last defensive stand, with Action Jackson intercepting Raudabaugh’s pass, but another Rauch miss kept the status quo. The kick wasn’t without excitement, as Derrick Ross got a small measure of payback by leveling the kick returner in the end zone to end the half.
The teams continued to trade scores throughout the third quarter and into the fourth quarter, and the calls started to go against the Sharks as the fourth quarter started. First, the referees missed a horsecollar tackle on Action Jackson on the kick return, and Ryan McDaniel caught a 4th-and-5 pass off of the top of the boards when the ball should have been ruled dead. McDaniel scored two plays later to put Philadelphia within five at 45-40. Prechae Rodriguez shook a defender on a 28-yard catch and run to regain the two-score advantage, but the Soul found the end zone at the one-minute warning to keep the game too close for comfort.
After Joe Hills recovered the onside kick, the Philadelphia defense mustered one last fight, sacking Tommy Grady to force 3rd and 23. Finally, Julian Rauch, looking to make amends once and for all, hit a 40 yard field goal to seal the win.
After the game, the mood and body language was the lightest of the entire season. Mogut Ruffins, coming off his first score, acknowledged the struggle. “We fought hard. The guys are improving, and we know what we have to do to get tough wins. We hear the title talk, we try to ignore it. There’s a new group together, and it feels good to finally see the team perform.” He also recognized his new role in doing whatever it takes to get the win.
Julian Rauch, who made all seven extra points and two of his four field goal attempts, wanted to get Cleveland’s disaster behind him. “You have to worry about every point, and kicks are a big deal. Last week was rough, and I was anxious to kick.” He noted that there’s always room to build, and credited a good snap and hold on his 40-yarder to seal the game.
Derrick Ross, who beat his old team for the first time, summed up the win in five words: “It feels awesome! We ballin’!” He also said he was going to enjoy and celebrate the win. “I’ll worry about New Orleans on Tuesday. It feels good to beat two great teams, and we’re getting better and better.” While recognizing his milestone against the Gladiators, he knew that it was a team effort. “I won’t get on my high horse.”
Next up, New Orleans. While the VooDoo walked away with a season-opening win, these Sharks are proving they have much more bite than the team that took the field seven weeks ago. With a two-game road trip before hosting Orlando on June 6, if this continues, that meeting could well determine first place in the South division, and bring the title talk back to Jacksonville.