Sharks End June with Split, Go 2-1
by Erik Watkins
After an undefeated May, the Jacksonville Sharks (6-6) suffered their first setback in a tricky June schedule, losing to the Tampa Bay Storm (5-6) 63-56 on Friday night.
This means that Jacksonville will go into their first bye week with a bit of a sour taste in their mouth, and staying in a fight with Orlando for first place in the South division. However, the Sharks will have plenty of time to lick their wounds and prepare for Cleveland at home on June 27th before the July 4th league-wide bye.
The Sharks had a chance to tie the game and force overtime, with the ball on their own four-yard line, 56 seconds left on the clock, and all three timeouts to work with. QB Tommy Grady moved the team down the field, first with a 14-yard pass to Tiger Jones, followed by another six-yard pass to Jones. Jacksonville looked deep, missing Tiger twice to bring up 4th and 4. Needing to make a play, Grady looked for Joe Hills, but Storm DB Alfred Phillips was there in coverage, forcing a third straight incompletion to seal the end to a five-game winning streak, and throwing the South division into chaos.
That drive was just one example of a second half dominated by defense, despite both teams putting up 98 first half points, the second highest total in AFL history. Both teams scored on every possession, save for time running out on Jacksonville at the end of the first half. Tommy Grady was firing on all cylinders, completing 12 of his first 17 passes for 211 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. Tampa Bay was equally as efficient, bolstered by a Kendrick Ings kickoff return for a touchdown.
Defense then ruled the third quarter, with only three total possessions, and the Sharks took advantage thanks to Chris Smith’s first interception as a Shark, which turned into the first score of the second half as Tommy Grady found Joe Hills in the end zone. After 98 first half points and none whatsoever in the third quarter, Jacksonville cut the deficit to 56-48. Alvin Ray Jackson continued the stout defense, intercepting Jason Boltus on 3rd-and-goal to set up another Grady to Hills touchdown, tying the game after the pair connected again on the two-point conversion.
Julian Rauch attempted the onside kick, but failed, leaving the Storm with a short field. QB Jason Boltus found T.T. Toliver from six-yards out to give Tampa Bay the 63-56 lead, setting up the final minute.
Overall, Tommy Grady had a decent game on offense, completing 26 of 46 passes (only 13 of 29 in the second half) for 351 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions. Joe Hills, who earned
Russell Athletic Offensive Player of the Week honors, caught nine passes for 126 yards, and tied a Sharks franchise record with six touchdown catches. Tiger Jones had game highs with 12 catches for 162 yards, while accounting for the other score.
On defense, Greg Reid and Terrance Smith led Jacksonville with five tackles each, and Jerry Turner registered the lone sack. Both Smiths, Terrance and Chris, also notched a pass breakup.
On the other side, Jason Boltus completed 22 of 34 passes for 243 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. The wealth was spread around a bit, with Julius Gregory (9 catches, 89 yards, 3 TDs), Emery Sammons (7 catches, 69 yards, and a TD), and T.T. Toliver (4 catches, 59 yards, and 2 TDs), all making major contributions on offense; while Al Phillips was the star on defense, with game-highs in tackles (13) and passes defended (6).
After the bye week, Jacksonville took on the Cleveland Gladiators, in what should have been a tricky game with the schedule lined up as it was. However, Jacksonville took all of six and a half minutes to dispel those doubts. WR London Crawford, making his season debut, caught a Tommy Grady pass and ran 31 yards on the first play of the game, then took a pitch to the four-yard line, setting up his first score of the season two plays later.
Cleveland mirrored Jacksonville with a 31-yard catch by Amarri Jackson, but Greg Reid was there in the end zone with his fifth interception of the season, setting up a Tiger Jones touchdown catch and a quick 14-0 lead. The Gladiators finally got on the board thanks to a few Sharks penalties, but Tommy Grady answered Shane Austin’s touchdown run with his third scoring pass of the night, making the score 20-7 at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter wasn’t as kind to Jacksonville. After Alvin Ray Jackson intercepted Austin, Tiger Jones scored his third touchdown of the night, but the defense couldn’t leave the field on fourth down, setting up a touchdown and a tricky position after the Gladiators recovered the onside kick. Fortunately, DB Chris Smith, playing in just his second game of 2015, intercepted Shane Austin at the goalline to give the Sharks one last chance to score before halftime. Jacksonville got to the Cleveland two-yard line before running out of time.
The Gladiators kept making a game of it, with Amarri Jackson scoring to open the third quarter, but Joe Hills also found his way onto the scoresheet, finishing another good Sharks drive and extending the lead to 32-21 (thanks to a missed and blocked extra point). After Amarri Jackson nearly scored on the kickoff return, WR Collin Taylor kept Cleveland in the game with a six-yard scoring catch, putting the score at 32-27 just over halfway through the third quarter.
After that catch, Jacksonville went on a 21-0 run. First, Alvin Ray Jackson picked up a failed onside kick and ran into the end zone. Then, Terrance Smith caught Gladiators QB Shane Austin’s third interception of the night, setting up another Tiger Jones catch behind two defenders and into the end zone. Finally, Chris Smith recovered an Amarri Jackson fumble, ran the ball to the 10-yard line, and TE Moqut Ruffins earned Highlight of the Game honors by bowling over defenders on his way to the end zone.
Cleveland couldn’t come close the rest of the game, despite some good effort. Amarri Jackson scored on a kickoff return, but Derrick Ross answered back quickly thanks to a short field after Joe Hills knocked the onside kick out of bounds. Collin Taylor found the end zone again, but Jacksonville answered back again. First, LaRoche “Action” Jackson got a measure of revenge against his old team, taking another onside kick into the end zone, and Alvin Ray Jackson recovered a fumble to set up Derrick Ross’ second touchdown, the last score of the game, and sealing a 74-41 win in front of the second largest crowd of the season, 10,123.
London Crawford, who led the team with nine catches on the night (101 yards, TD), was glad to finally get on the field in 2015. “Words can’t explain, I’ve been waiting and working the whole offseason and season.” He noted the team has a sense of camaraderie now, and that everyone’s contributing to the team’s success, helping them towards the playoff push.
Alvin Ray Jackson, one of four players with an interception of the night, who also had a game-high 8.5 tackles, noted the team’s sense of urgency going forward. “We had to have a win. Our playoffs start now. Every game counts.” He noted the special teams effort and the need to do better defending, and gave credit to the Sharks’ defensive unit. “The [defensive] line gives us opportunities, and we have ball hogs in the secondary.”
Tiger Jones, who had game-highs in yards (141) and touchdowns (4) on just seven catches, talked about the team’s strategy going into the game. “We watched film and wanted to start fast. We got what they would give, and the defense made stops.” He also said that the bye week helped the team get healthy, and that they wanted to take advantage.
Moqut Ruffins, who scored his third touchdown of the season, knew what he had to do on the big play. “When they called my number, I just had to do my best and make something happen. We tried the same play before the half, but we were stopped.” He also noted that the team really had to listen and gel throughout the season, and the past few weeks have paid off. “We’ve started putting wins together, and we wanna win the division. We’re 7-2 in our last nine [games], and we don’t want to back [into the playoffs]. The early part of the season humbled us.” He also noted that the team, especially the offense, is starting to make more plays, and with London Crawford back, they can see what they can do for the remainder of the season.
Tommy Grady netted Offensive Player of the Game honors for his best game of the season, completing 23 of 26 passes for 286 yards and seven touchdowns. Shane Austin wasn’t as sharp for Cleveland, completing 16 of 25 passes for 211 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions.
Derrick Ross had another signature night, carrying the ball seven times for 38 yards and two scores, bringing him within 15 yards of the fifth best all-time single-season performance, which would give him the top five all time, all in the last five seasons.
On defense, in addition to the interceptions and three different players with two pass breakups, Joe Sykes recorded his 13th sack of the season, putting him within two of tying the all-time record set by James Ruffin last year.
Following the bye, Jacksonville begins their run-in with a visit to Portland to take on the Thunder on Saturday, July 11. Then, the Sharks come back to the friendly confines to face the Philadelphia Soul in the first of two key rubber matches on July 18.