The Jacksonville Sharks’ reign as defending ArenaBowl champions came to an end on Friday night, as early turnovers proved costly in the Sharks’ 89-34 loss to the Philadelphia Soul in front of 12,332 at Wells Fargo Center.
The Sharks received the opening kickoff and immediately put points on the board, as quarterback Bernard Morris capped the drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jeron Harvey. But in the middle of the first quarter, the game turned in Philadelphia’s favor, as three Shark turnovers led to a 38-0 Soul run that put the home team in front for good.
Trailing 7-6 but with the ball in Soul territory, fullback Rendrick Taylor fumbled, allowing Philadelphia to take over. After a Soul touchdown, Morris then sacked on fourth down to set Philadelphia up with a short field. The Soul converted that field position into a touchdown before intercepting Morris on the first play of the Sharks’ next drive. Philadelphia scored yet again before recovering a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. When the dust settled, the Soul had taken control of the game, entering the locker room with a 45-12 halftime edge.
The offensive star of the first half was Philadelphia’s Larry Brackins, who scored five touchdowns – three receiving, two rushing – on just six touches. Brackins pulled in all three of Dan Raudabaugh’s touchdown passes, then later hauled in a pair from Adam DiMichele to finish the night with seven scores.
The Sharks came out of the locker room looking to swing momentum in their favor and forced a turnover on the Soul’s first third-quarter possession, as Charlie Hunt recovered a fumble at the Jacksonville three yard line. A few plays later, Morris went deep and hit Harvey for a 42-yard touchdown that was the third scoring connection between the two.
Terrance Smith made an outstanding play later in the third quarter, jumping in front of a Raudabaugh pass for an interception that Smith easily returned for a touchdown. The interception was Smith’s fourth in as many games since switching to defense toward the end of the regular season. On the Sharks’ final possession of the third, Morris cut through Philadelphia defenders for a 29-yard touchdown run.
Ultimately, however, the Sharks’ early deficit proved to be too much to overcome. Philadelphia continued to force turnovers in the second half, as LaRico Stevenson hauled in an interception off of a tipped pass and returned it for a touchdown. Soul sack leader Bryan Robinson then broke through the Shark offensive line to bring down Morris for a safety. Despite the Sharks’ improved offensive play in the third, Philadelphia led 68-34 at the end of the frame
Morris completed 17 of his 29 throws for 199 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran for a game-high 50 yards and a touchdown on four carries. Harvey led all receivers with nine receptions for 141 yards and added three scores. It was Harvey’s sixth straight game with multiple touchdowns, and the receiver has now found the end zone 15 times in six career playoff games.
Defensively, LaRoche Jackson led the way with 7.5 total tackles (seven solo), while Smith added six tackles of his own to go along with an interception, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Defensive lineman Andre Caroll also forced a fumble, but for the second straight game the Sharks’ normally potent pass rush went without a sack.
For Philadelphia, an efficient Raudabaugh went 15-for-21 for 196 yards and three scores. DiMichele played the fourth quarter, going 5-of-6 for 52 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Brackins paced the Soul receiving corps with seven catches for 75 yards and five touchdowns, while Donovan Morgan and Emery Sammons each caught four passes for 75 and 65 yards, respectively. Ross, the AFL’s leading rusher during the regular season, ran the ball five times for 23 yards and a score.
Stevenson was the Soul’s standout defender, as he made a game-high eight tackles, forced a pair of fumbles, recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown. Robinson and Justin Warren each recorded a sack for Philadelphia.
The loss moves the Sharks’ all-time playoff record to 4-2, as the team is now 1-1 in American Conference Championship games. This was the first time in team history that Jacksonville had played a team from the East Division in the postseason. The Soul will advance to AVITAE ArenaBowl XXV, where they will meet either the Utah Blaze or Arizona Rattlers, as those two teams play in the National Conference Championship on Saturday night. AVITAE ArenaBowl XXV will be played in the Big Easy, with kickoff from New Orleans Arena set for 10:30 p.m. on Friday, August 10.