Category Archives: Jacksonville Sharks

Sharks End June with Split, Go 2-1

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.

Winning Streak Ends with Fireworks and a Thud in Tampa

Winning Streak Ends with Fireworks and a Thud in Tampa

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).

Jacksonville will now have two weeks to get back to the drawing board as they prepare for Cleveland, who will be the Sharks’ next host at Sea Best Field on Saturday, June 27. The spotlight will be on both teams, as the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network, with kickoff set for 7 p.m.

Sharks Get Revenge, Take First Place from Orlando

Sharks Get Revenge, Take First Place from Orlando

by Erik Watkins

The Jacksonville Sharks (6-5) needed to rebound from their near loss to LA last week, and they did in style, scoring 50 points in the second half against the Orlando Predators (6-5) to notch a 66-51 win and even the season series at a game apiece, snapping a four-game losing streak to their in-state rivals in the process, and sending the largest home crowd of the season (10,127) home happy.

The first half wasn’t too kind to Jacksonville, as Orlando struck early for the first score of the game, and the Sharks turned the ball over on downs to start the night. Tiger Jones finally found the end zone with four minutes left in the first quarter, and the defense started to get on track despite the early hostilities between the teams. Early on, Predators QB Bernard Morris had issues figuring out Jacksonville’s coverage, but he still found Larry Brackins wide open behind the defense to give Orlando the 14-7 lead.

The second quarter was filled with both penalties and big plays. First, a Tiger Jones catch and run to midfield was called back on holding. Then, after Predators DB Rod Issac intercepted Tommy Grady’s throw into double coverage, Brandon Thompkins had a score called back on holding himself. Jacksonville’s defense held at the goal line, and a Mark Lewis field goal pushed the lead to 17-7. Jacksonville marched on despite an early sack, and FB Derrick Ross got on to the scoresheet and cut the lead to 17-13 after Julian Rauch missed the extra point.

The big plays kept coming, as Larry Brackins scored just one play later to again push the lead to ten. The onside kick went out of bounds, but Jacksonville had nothing to show for it due to Orlando DB Rod Issac breaking up a touchdown pass and Julian Rauch missed a 31-yard field goal wide right. Sharks DB LaRoche Jackson gave his team another chance with an interception, but due to a missed call by the referees on a Joe Hills catch over the boards being ruled incomplete, Rauch had a chance for redemption, and cashed in from 18 yards out to make the score 23-16 at halftime.

Jacksonville started the second half on fire, with LaRoche Jackson netting a long kick return and Derrick Ross scoring his second TD of the night to pull the Sharks within a point. After Larry Brackins scored again for Orlando, Jacksonville went on another one of their scoring runs that has defined this win streak. First, Jeron Harvey caught a Tommy Grady pass in the end zone to cut the deficit back to a point at 30-29. Then, Jackson forced a Predators fumble which Greg Reid recovered to set up a Tiger Jones touchdown, giving the Sharks their first lead of the night at 36-30. Finally, DE Joe Sykes added another sack to his league-leading total (11), stripping Bernard Morris of the football. Jerry Turner recovered, and Joe Hills scored on the next play to extend the lead to 43-30 to close out the third quarter.

The Predators didn’t give up the fight, scoring to start the fourth quarter, but the best they could do was trade scores with Jacksonville. Finally, Joe Sykes sealed the deal, stripping Morris again on his 12th sack of the season, and he made the tackle in the end zone for a safety, putting the game away at 59-44. Derrick Ross completed his hat trick in the final minute, but Orlando managed one last touchdown and some extracurricular activities before the game was through.

Tommy Grady had a solid night under center, completing 26 of 36 passes for 275 yards, throwing six touchdowns and two interceptions. On the other side, former Shark Bernard Morris completed 19 of 32 passes for 292 yards, also throwing six touchdowns against one interception. Morris also ran twice for 15 yards.

Tiger Jones, who had game highs in catches (10), yards (136), touchdowns (3), and highlights (falling down while catching a 27-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter), felt great after the game. “We continue to roll, and we’re fighting with our backs against the wall.” He gave credit to the defense, and noted that the team would stick to their process of prep and film review as Tampa looms next week.

Derrick Ross, who rewrites the AFL record books every week, had another stellar performance with 15 carries for 32 yards and three touchdowns. He noted how the team chemistry has evolved through the course of the season. “We feel good, all the selfishness is out the window. We didn’t know each other at the beginning. Everyone was trying to give their own input, and our mentalities had to mesh. It’s amazing from where we started.” He also notes sticking to the process is important, but also mentioned that the two byes in the next four weeks would be good for the team.

The whole defense was the star of the night, with at least two different players registering five tackles (three), a pass breakup (three, two with two), a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a sack. This is the defense that Sharks fans are used to seeing, and will need it against a tough Tampa Bay Storm team next Friday night, and again against Cleveland in three weeks. Jacksonville is finally a team to be reckoned with, and the rest of the American Conference is now on notice.

The Sharks Have Finally Arrived

The Sharks Have Finally Arrived

by Erik Watkins

Just six weeks ago, the 2015 Jacksonville Sharks season seemed lost. They were 0-4, just one of two winless teams in the AFL, and the much talented, much hyped roster became the biggest disappointment. Since then, the Sharks team that fans, staff, and media expected this year has emerged in something of a tour de force. At 5-5, they now sit in second place in the South division with an even more crucial two-game stretch ahead of them before two byes in three weeks.

New Orleans could have been a tricky opponent. The Week 1 win was still somewhat fresh in their minds, and Jacksonville was on the road a week after becoming the only team to beat the Philadelphia Soul in 2015. In front of what was the biggest VooDoo home crowd of the season (a still disappointing 4,021), the Sharks got off to another rocky start, and New Orleans was once again standing toe to toe, trailing 14-13 at the end of the first quarter, and still within a point at 21-20 with just under four minutes left in the first half.

Then, the Sharks began to swarm. First, DB Greg Reid intercepted New Orleans QB Brian Reader, setting up a Tommy Grady touchdown pass to Jeron Harvey, who scored on a 21-yard catch and run in his first action with the team since his replacement, Prechae Rodriguez, was placed on league suspension. This was simply a preview of what was to come.

The following is how Jacksonville won the game in just six plays of the third quarter: Grady to Hills for a touchdown, DE Scooter Berry recovering a fumble, a Moqut Ruffins touchdown catch on a screen pass, a Brian Reader pass, a Joe Sykes trifecta (sack, forced fumble, and fumble recovery), and Derrick Ross scoring on a three-yard run. After just 3:28 of the third quarter, a 28-20 dogfight became a 49-20 rout, and it got better for the Sharks from there. After Sykes got his second sack of the night, the VooDoo were forced into another long field goal attempt, and Tommy Grady found Tiger Jones for a 25-yard touchdown and a 56-20 lead to end the third quarter. The fourth quarter was cruise control for Jacksonville, and the Sharks headed west with a 70-41 win.

Jacksonville continued their momentum against the Los Angeles KISS, scoring two touchdowns in less than 15 seconds. First, Tommy Grady found Tiger Jones again, scoring on a 40-yard pass. Just two plays later, JLB Alvin Ray Jackson intercepted the lastest KISS QB, Danny Southwick, and returned it 25 yards for his and the Sharks’ first defensive score of the season. Joe Hills found the end zone after a defensive stop, and Jacksonville had their second 21-0 run in a quarter in as many weeks, this time to give them the early lead in LA.

To their credit, the 0-9 KISS fought back, scoring twice themselves in the second quarter, and after Julian Rauch missed a 30-yard field goal attempt wide right, 8,235 KISS fans were hopeful of finally getting the long-awaited first win of the season, trailing 28-14.

Danny Southwick found his rhythm under center, and Jacksonville’s three-score lead became a tenuous seven points at 28-21. From there, the fight was on, as both teams traded scores and stops, and the Sharks were back to playing at their 0-4 form against a team that has not won in almost an entire calendar year. Derrick Ross earned one more touchdown in his record-setting career, scoring his third of the night from 23-yards out to give Jacksonville a little comfort room with 3:55 left in the game. LA had one more bit of fight left in them, as they struck back thanks to a long kickoff return and a Southwick strike to Donovan Morgan, trimming the lead to 41-35 with 2:30 remaining.

Jacksonville looked to seal the game and had the ball in KISS territory at the one-minute warning. Then, in painfully familiar fashion, the Sharks committed crucial offensive penalties, backing themselves up into 4th and 16 at the LA 21. Julian Rauch had his second wide right of the night, and gave the KISS 37 seconds and a timeout to tie the game. LA got to midfield with 16 seconds left, took their time out, and then looked to the end zone. Danny Southwick missed twice, then found WR Jeffrey Solomon on a quick route to get to Jacksonville’s 20-yard line with three seconds left. Southwick tried for the end zone again, but Greg Reid snagged his second interception of the road trip to seal the Sharks’ fourth straight win.

After these two wins, there’s still an aura of schizophrenia surrounding Jacksonville on the field. When they’re on, they’re world beaters, as they proved to Philadelphia. When they’re off, they could be one of the worst teams in the league, as they proved against LA. However, they’ve been on and dominant more than they’ve been off over the last six weeks, and the improvement is showing itself on a constant basis. Now, the next challenge lies ahead: beating Orlando and Tampa Bay to avenge earlier losses and claim the division lead. Then, they face one lone opponent in the following three weeks, Cleveland.

If the Sharks can extend their winning streak to seven, then they will roll into the July 4th bye at 8-5, and they once again become contenders to win (and possibly host) the ArenaBowl. As it stands, the league is now on notice that the Jacksonville team they expected before the start of the season is now stepping on the field every week, and the run that could propel them to a title is now in play.

Next up: Orlando. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. on June 6th at Sea Best Field at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. It will be Education Appreciation Night and Pirates & Princesses Night at the Arena, with BOGO tickets for school employees, teachers, and administrators (with ID), and free tickets for K-12 students with a paid adult ticket (limit two per adult).
As a writer with a seven-year-old nephew (who will be attending, by the way), the winning streak couldn’t have come at a better time, because he could be seeing his uncle at work and the Jacksonville Sharks at their best.

Sharks Finally Gain Momentum

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.

Live by the Stop, Die by the Stop: Sharks Split Critical Two-Game Stretch

Live by the Stop, Die by the Stop: Sharks Split Critical Two-Game Stretch

by Erik Watkins

For the Jacksonville Sharks (1-5), time could quickly be running out to salvage the 2015 season. The stars did seem to align a bit thanks to back-to-back 56-55 overtime losses by Orlando, and home-field could potentially be theirs for the taking with recent injuries to Arizona QB Nick Davila and San Jose QB Erik Meyer out west. However, it’s up to Jacksonville to make a run, and that could be out of the question after the 63-28 loss to Tampa Bay.

Things started quite well for the Sharks, demolishing Las Vegas 60-28 in Week 5 at home for their first win of the season. It was a close game early on, but at the end of the first half, the Sharks defense stepped up and set up three straight touchdowns to blow the game open, leaving any second half Outlaws score meaningless.

After the game, there were two overwhelming feelings: the chemistry was starting to build, and there were flashes of what this team could be. There were some personal feelings and accomplishments, some old scores settled (“Coach Garcia wanted me, but Coach Moss wanted me more,” said Derrick Ross), but most of all, there was hope. However, as Coach Moss put it after the game: “We’re 1-4.”

However, for all the good that came from the win, it was undone just one week later. The game started out well, as Grady and Tampa Bay signal-caller Jason Boltus were matching each other TD pass for TD pass, but with two minutes to go in the first half, an errant kickoff return and an interception led to 14 Storm points, and a fourth-down conversion led to a 35-14 Tampa Bay lead. The second half was nothing but trouble, as the Sharks were stopped on every possession after a Tiger Jones early fourth quarter touchdown catch.

This split puts Jacksonville at 1-5. After the rest of Week 6’s action, the good news is that they are still just two games out of the division lead, as both Orlando and Tampa Bay are 3-3 with four more divisional games left. While Philadelphia remains undefeated at 6-0, Jacksonville hosts them in Weeks 8 and 17. The problems would be deeper into the playoffs, as San Jose holds the tiebreaker after the Week 4 win, and Jacksonville doesn’t play Arizona this season.

In the end, it boils down to this: chemistry. To a man, the Sharks acknowledge that the team has the talent to win the league, but there’s no bond there like there was in years past. Unfortunately, this could lead to head coach Les Moss’ demise. Yes, the pedigree is there. Yes, the championships are there. However, the fans aren’t (the listed attendance against San Jose was the lowest in three years, and the average attendance is the lowest in franchise history at less than 9,000), and the over the past season and a half, the wins aren’t.

Jacksonville is now 8-16 since the start of the 2014 season, and now winds could be blowing to sweep Coach Moss out of town, despite averaging 12½ wins per season through his first four seasons and notching four playoff wins.

Between injuries, trade disasters, and a lack of fourth-down stops this season, the past two seasons have been far too tumultuous, and owner Jeff Bouchy, another man used to winning, is searching for answers.

The division could slip away from Jacksonville, and all the preseason hype could come to a screeching halt in the next two weeks. With Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Orlando coming up in the next five weeks, the long season could be running out before we flip the calendars to June.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Sharks Fall to San Jose, Drop to 0-4

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Sharks Fall to San Jose, Drop to 0-4

by Erik Watkins

The Jacksonville Sharks (0-4), desperately needing a win to stem the losing tide, made it a competitive game against the visiting San Jose Sabercats (4-0), but collapsed in the 4th quarter of a 68-48 loss on Friday night.

Jacksonville started out well, with FB Derrick Ross scoring on a 3rd down play following a miscommunication between QB Tommy Grady and his receivers. The Sharks defense appeared to step up to the task with a Demarcus Robinson interception, but the pick was called back due to a defensive penalty. The defense stiffened again for three downs, but the Sabercats tied the game on a 4th-and-goal pass from Erik Meyer to Adron Tennell.

San Jose started to open up the game on both sides of the ball, first by intercepting Tommy Grady to set up a score near the end of the first quarter, and then stopping the Sharks on downs to open up the second frame. Down 21-7, Jacksonville came back to life. First, Joe Hills converted a 3rd-and-5 by shaking a defender and sprinting downfield for 20 yards, setting up Derrick Ross’ second touchdown of the night. Then, following a Jimmy Gordon fumble recovery at the two-yard line, Jacksonville marched right down the field. This time, Tiger Jones, coming off a record-setting 239-yard performance last week, made a diving catch over the boards at the San Jose two-yard line, setting up Ross’ third score and tying the game at the one-minute warning.

The Sabercats recovered the onside kick, then proceeded to get one final score before halftime. Jacksonville, who couldn’t get out of their own way, were called for two key penalties on the drive. The first nullified DE Scooter Berry’s first sack in his second stint with the team, and a defensive pass interference call on DB Terrance Smith gave San Jose a first down. While the Sharks held on the first three downs, San Jose, who took advantage of a vulnerable left side of the defense, scored again on 4th down to take a 28-21 lead with just 25 seconds left.

Newly signed kicker Julian Rauch made a 34-yard field goal to close out the half with Jacksonville down 28-24. After a Sabercats score, Derrick Ross made history, becoming the first player in Arena Football League history to score 150 rushing touchdowns, and the deficit was cut to three. However, that was the closest Jacksonville would be for the rest of the night.

The fourth quarter spelled doom for Jacksonville, as the Sharks surrendered a kickoff return for a touchdown, a touchdown on 4th-and-10, and a touchdown following a kickoff where Terrance Smith couldn’t handle the ball.

In the loss, Tommy Grady completed 26 of 39 passes for 324 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, only his second and third of the season. His counterpart Erik Meyer needed only 19 completions in 30 attempts for 246 yards and eight touchdowns, three going to Reggie Gray (9-80) and four to Adron Tennell (5-65). In all, Jacksonville’s defense allowed 10 touchdowns in 11 drives on the night. For San Jose’s defense, David Hyland had a game-high of his own with 13 tackles to add to his interception. Eric Crocker also picked off Tommy Grady, and Francis Maka notched the only other sack in the game.

Joe Hills was the star of the night at receiver, with game highs in catches (14) and yards (155) to go along with his score. While he admitted that he wasn’t physically 100%, he was committed to fighting through injury. On defense, Jason Holman and Joe Sykes recorded the lone sack to go along with Holman’s forced fumble, and Terrance Smith led the team with four tackles.

Tiger Jones, who caught another seven balls for 109 yards, didn’t imagine that his season would start off 0-4. “No one expects 0-4, but shocked is a strong word. I’m disappointed and motivated.” He focused on the two offensive stops, but did note that the team showed more discipline in only being called for four penalties on the night. “We can’t let our emotions get the best of us. We have to go 1-0, focus on the process, and trust the coaches.” In speaking of his catch that was named the Cutters Catch of the Game, he knew exactly what he had to do. “I thought a double move was possible since [the defensive backs] were playing up. I just had to go up and make the catch, since the first thing on their mind was a knockout.”

Derrick Ross, who had plenty to celebrate individually on the night, instead focused on the team aspects of the winless streak. “I can’t celebrate individual goals. I can’t get too happy when we’re losing as a group. We’re not together right now.” Ross focused on keeping a positive attitude, pushing forward to beat next week’s opponent, Las Vegas. “We can’t have any negative right now.” He also showed surprise in the team’s performance, noting that the defensive backs studied throughout the week and had success on the first three downs. “Fourth down killed us several times. Everyone’s on the same page sometimes, we have to get them there all the time.”

There were a few former Sharks in attendance watching the game from the sidelines, including DBs Micheaux Robinson and LaRoche Jackson. Jackson, who was on Jacksonville’s 2011 championship team before spending time with both Cleveland and Las Vegas, showed his desire and interest to return to the team. “It’s good coming back. The fans showed me a lot of love in my first year, but I understand that the situation was a business decision.” He also implored the fans to stick with the team despite the hard times. “Fans are putting Coach Moss on the hot seat, but he’s not out there catching or throwing balls. You have to look at the players, they have to make plays.”

He noted the overall assembly of the team, and that losses like this are tough. However, he did note one missing attribute. “There are a lot of guys I played with and against [on the team]. We have more talent than we did when we won a championship in 2011, but I don’t see the chemistry. That’s the key.”

In terms of returning to the team and making a run at another title, Jackson didn’t hold back. “I’d love to be a part of that. I’m a fan of the team, and if Coach Moss wants me back, I’ll be back.”

The Sharks will look to avoid going 0-5 when the Las Vegas Outlaws, coached by former Shark QB Aaron Garcia, come to town. Kickoff is set for 8:00 p.m. on Friday, April 24, at Veterans Memorial Arena.