Sharks Reach ArenaBowl in Dramatic Style
by Erik Watkins
The Jacksonville Sharks (12-8) have never really made it easy on themselves this season. They were a team that came in with 13 All-Arena players, and seven came away with honors this year. The pundits touted their talent and punched their tickets to the title game long before toe hit leather. While the 0-4 start had heads shaking league wide, the end result proved them right and made history in the process. Yes, the Jacksonville Sharks became the first team to start 0-3, let alone 0-4, to make the ArenaBowl. How they got there will be talked about for ages, right after a certain call that probably should have been a fumble…
Jacksonville put themselves on the AFL map right away, winning the South division title in their rookie season in 2010. They immediately printed t-shirts and made signs saying “We own the South.” The Orlando Predators reminded them the order of things with a 73-69 upset at Veterans Memorial Arena. Fast forward five years, and the shoe was on the other foot. Orlando, coming off of their second straight division title, brought back the red and black slogan and wore it with pride. The Sharks, however, remembered what happened before, and sought to make it happen again.
The offense was comfortable in the first quarter. When I say comfortable, I mean extremely comfortable. Tommy Grady completed his first 13 passes of the game, a streak that spanned more than a quarter and led to two scoring drives, including Grady’s first touchdown run in nearly two full years. The defense matched the intensity and tone of the game, as the first defensive possession ended with a Terrance Smith hit on Larry Brackins on 4th-and-goal to finish a stand. In fact, the only hiccup came when London Crawford fumbled on a 20-yard catch and run to give the Predators the ball. The defense saved the day when DE Moqut Ruffins (one of the aforementioned seven All-Arena players) recovered a Michael Simons fumble. Grady found Joe Hills in the end zone to extend both the touchdown streak and the lead.
To Orlando’s credit, they did get going as the first half wore on, and started matching Jacksonville with touchdowns of their own. However, when the Sharks defense starts swarming, you’ll get bit. Randy Hippeard, who set a record for completion percentage in a season, found that out the hard way after Alvin Ray Jackson intercepted him to set up one last touchdown and a 35-14 halftime lead.
The Predators still had a little fight in them, starting the second half with a ten-play, near seven-minute scoring drive and a fourth-down stop that led to another score. The hope didn’t last long, as the Sharks struck quickly to start the fourth quarter and extend the lead to 42-27. When Greg Reid caught a Randy Hippeard pass off the top of the wall (a call made after a successful Jacksonville challenge), the game was effectively over. A Derrick Ross TD run, then a stop, then another Ross TD run made it 55-27 with five minutes left, and an Orlando cosmetic touchdown was the only action the rest of the way. Jacksonville came out of the Jungle alive and on to Philadelphia. While the Sharks as a team left the arena and headed back on the bus to prepare for Philadelphia, the fans left a sign of their own as a bit of justice and as a reminder of what transpired: Straight Outta the Playoffs.
Fresh off that win, Jacksonville found themselves on the road taking on the Soul one week later. There, they faced a different bit of history. The last time Jacksonville went to face Philadelphia in the American Conference title game, they were 11-8, the Soul were 16-3, and the game ended with the worst loss in Sharks franchise history (34-89). This time, the Sharks were 11-8, the Soul were 16-3, and Jacksonville didn’t want history to repeat itself. Sometimes, determination can work wonders…
As a note, these two teams met three times in the regular season. In the lone game at the Wells Fargo Center, the Soul won by 11. The other two meetings in Jacksonville were decided by a single score, and the Sharks took both. Those signs of improvement led to just an inkling of hope for the red and black. In football, when you combine hope and determination, you’re likely to get a champion. Keep that in mind.
The Sharks started off like a house on fire on both offense and defense. On offense, it was more of a repeat of the game against Orlando, as Tommy Grady ended his first three drives with touchdown passes. On defense, the secondary used a mix of man and zone coverage schemes to slow down First Team All-Arena QB Dan Raudabaugh and throw off his timing. While the Soul scored, Jacksonville got a quick advantage thanks to an Alvin Ray Jackson forced fumble recovered by Terrance Smith, redeeming himself for dropping a sure interception earlier in the game.
With a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Sharks were in full control once again. However, the Soul finished as the top seed in the American Conference for a reason. After LaRoche “Action” Jackson intercepted Raudabaugh deep in Philly territory, the Soul took the ball right back when LaRico Stevenson intercepted Tommy Grady on the very next play. That set up a long, penalty-ridden drive to cut the lead in half. Jacksonville still maintained their early dominance, though, as Joe Hills extended the streak once again by finding the end zone for the first time thanks to an 11-yard pass from Grady.
While things weren’t immediately unraveling, Philadelphia became a pesky team that stayed within arm’s reach. Jacksonville had one last play to score after a Tommy Frevert 39-yard field goal attempt went wide right, but an incomplete pass meant Jacksonville, again, would take a halftime lead, this time 28-14.
While defense was the order of the day against the Predators, the Sharks knew that the only way to exact another matter of revenge against the Soul was to attack early and often. Philadelphia scored 63, 47, and 67 points in three meetings this season, so beating last week’s total of 55 was the first thing on the team’s mind.
Philadelphia reminded them of just that when QB Dan Raudabaugh found Marco Thomas on a 31-yard strike to start out the second half. This started a tennis-style back and forth which saw the two combatants trade scores throughout the third and fourth quarter. Both teams remained on serve until a slight hiccup with 5:45 remaining. After QB Tommy Grady found Joe Hills in the end zone from 11 yards out, the Soul’s Teddy Jennings came through the middle and blocked the Julian Rauch extra point, keeping the lead at 54-42. Philadelphia capitalized when Raudabaugh threw to Lonnie Outlaw for a nine-yard touchdown. London Crawford recovered the ensuing onside kick, and the Sharks literally ran down the clock, finishing the drive with Tommy Grady’s third touchdown run of the playoffs. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Jacksonville went for two to play catchup, but Grady’s pass fell incomplete.
The Soul still had life down by 12 at the one-minute warning, and used that life to engineer a surgical, methodical four-play drive that preserved their three timeouts. With 38 seconds left, Philadelphia had no choice but to onside kick, and Crawford recovered yet again.
There’s one name that hasn’t been mentioned in some time: Derrick Ross. At this point, he only carried the ball three times for a grand total of eight yards. In fact, he did more to hurt the team than help thanks to penalties and poor pass blocking. Despite this, the typical convention is to hand him the ball, force the defensive timeouts, and look to ice the game. Instead, Coach Moss lived dangerously…real dangerously. He called three straight passes from Tommy Grady to Joe Hills — and none found the mark. Facing 4th down with 22 seconds left, on came Julian Rauch to attempt a 28-yard field goal. The kick went up, and wide right. Then the referees conferred, and changed the call to good. Then they conferred again, and went to a review. As the head zebra saw the ball go over the right upright, he made the final call that the kick was no good.
Philadelphia quickly got off their pins and needles and went to work. However, so did the Sharks defense. Scooter Berry put his name on the stat sheet by sacking Dan Raudabaugh on the first play of the drive. Timeout. Raudabaugh then completed three of his next four passes, including a clutch 4th-and-2 conversion, and got the Soul 14 yards from victory. Timeout.
Two seconds. Time enough for one play no matter what sort of football you play. If it works, Philadelphia appears in their third ArenaBowl in four years. If it doesn’t, Jacksonville gets their revenge and a crack at their second Foster Trophy. Raudabaugh dropped back, put the ball in the air, and it landed right into the hands of…Action Jackson. Jackson intercepted the ball in the end zone as the horn sounded, and Jacksonville barely escapes with the William L. Niro trophy and the right to play for the Foster Trophy in Stockton on Saturday, August 29.
Jacksonville was touted as the potential kings this season. After overcoming the worst start in franchise history, they face the mighty San Jose Sabercats, a team looking to make history themselves, for the right to the throne. From the horrible start to the last two games, the only thing we’re promised is one more wild ride.