The ArenaBowl XXIV Champion Jacksonville Sharks took one step closer to clinching the franchise’s third playoff birth in its three-year history, with a 50-32 win over the Milwaukee Mustangs on Friday night in front of 9,811 on Sea Best Field inside Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
Defense led the way for the Sharks (8-8) from the start, as they did not allow a Mustang touchdown in the first half. The secondary blanketed Milwaukee’s receivers in the first half forcing one turnover on downs and making the Mustangs attempt four first-half field goals.
Quarterback Bernard Morris drove the Sharks’ offense to three first-half touchdowns. Morris connected with Jeron Harvey for a pair of touchdown strikes on the team’s first two drives of the game before later rushing for another touchdown with 3:21 left in the first half.
The Sharks only misstep of the first half came in the closing seconds when Milwaukee (5-11) recovered a Morris fumble on the Jacksonville 5-yard line with 8.5 seconds to play. However, the Shark defense stood strong with a Terrance Smith pass breakup followed by a blocked field goal by Jason Holman, sending the Sharks to the half with momentum and a 20-9 lead.
“To have a chance we have to win every game,” Holman said. “That puts us in a position to where we have to make plays so we can continue our season. So we came out fired up and hopefully we do it the rest of the season.”
Milwaukee came out of the locker room and scored their first touchdown of the game on the opening possession of the third quarter. Quarterback Gino Guidugli connected with wideout Taurian Washington who did the rest, breaking multiple tackles en route to a long run after the catch for a touchdown.
However, the Sharks defense returned to form later in the third quarter, stopping the Mustangs twice inside their own 5-yard line. Jack linebacker Charlie Hunt was the cause of the first stop when he intercepted Guidugli on fourth down, returning it to the Sharks 10-yard line. On the next drive, the Sharks stopped the Mustangs on three consecutive plays from the one, forcing a turnover on downs.
Morris capitalized on the play of the defense, building the lead to as many as 24 points in the second half. He led the Sharks to scores after both stops, first with a 37-yard bomb to Jacksonville University product Josh Philpart before connecting with Harvey for a 17-yard, spectacular, over-the-wall touchdown catch.
The Mustangs scored two late, fourth-quarter touchdowns but it was not enough to overcome Jacksonville as the Sharks improved to 8-8 on the season, 5-4 at the friendly confines of Sea Best Field and 2-0 all-time against the Mustangs.
Morris commanded the Shark offense, having a hand in each of the team’s seven touchdowns, throwing for six and running for one. He was consistent throughout the night, something that is a common theme in his five wins as a starter this season. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 192 yards and just the one turnover.
Harvey led the way for the receivers with six catches for 86 yards and three scores. However, it was Philpart who had the breakout performance, making his first three catches of the season, all of which went for touchdowns.
“It feels good,” Philpart said. “Coach Moss believed in me. He dressed me out after I didn’t dress last week. It feels really good. I had a couple of my ex-players out here. My wide receivers coach from high school and college was out here, it feels really good.”
Defensively, the Sharks were dominant. The secondary had five pass breakups to go along with Hunt’s interception. Defensive back LaRoche Jackson led the Sharks with 10 tackles. Defensive lineman Scooter Berry grabbed another sack, his team-high tenth of the season.
“Well the defense played great, they played lights out football all day long,” said Sharks head coach Les Moss. “Coach [Jake] Grande did a great job. You know coach [Brian] Ferguson, they always do a great job with those guys. They prepared well and they showed it tonight.”
Next up for the Sharks is the second of two games against the rival Orlando Predators, July 14, on Sea Best Field inside the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. The Sharks defeated the Predators in Orlando, 55-37, on May 25. A win over Orlando would clinch a playoff birth for the Sharks, who need any combination of a win or a Cleveland Gladiators loss to make the playoffs.
“We’re looking for two wins,” Moss said. “We’re not looking for help or anything. We want to win out and have momentum going into the playoffs period.”