The 2012 South Division Champion Jacksonville Sharks clinched the team’s fourth postseason berth in as many seasons on Saturday night, sealing the playoff spot with a 43-41 victory over the Cleveland Gladiators in front of 8,708 on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
With the win, Jacksonville improved to 9-5 and locked up a playoff berth based on tiebreaker advantage over the division rival Orlando Predators and New Orleans VooDoo. The Sharks also now lead the South Division by two games, as the Tampa Bay Storm (7-7) fell to the Chicago Rush on Saturday.
With his team trailing 34-30 midway through the fourth quarter, Jacksonville head coach Les Moss turned to quarterback R.J. Archer, who came on in relief of starter Kyle Rowley. Archer led the Sharks down the field, connecting with Jeron Harvey and Jeff Hughley for first-down completions. Facing a third and goal from the one, Archer handed off to wide receiver London Crawford, who powered into the end zone for a go-ahead score, putting the Sharks in front by a 37-34 count.
On the first play of the ensuing possession, Shark defensive back Micheaux Robinson stepped in front of Dieker’s pass to bring down an interception, returning it 12 yards for a touchdown to give his team some breathing room. Robinson’s second pick-six of the season extended the Jacksonville edge to 43-34 with just over one minute remaining.
To their credit, Cleveland answered with a touchdown in short order, as Gladiator fullback Derik Steiner took a screen pass 23 yards for a score. After cutting the margin to 43-41, Cleveland attempted an onside kick, but Terrance Smith was able to gather the low bounce and allow the Sharks to take over. Archer then moved the ball forward on three straight quarterback runs to burn the remainder of the clock and seal the game.
Though the game ended with a flurry of scores, much of the game was marked by big defensive plays and turnovers. The Sharks forced a turnover on downs on Cleveland’s opening drive, as Aaron Robbins brought down Dieker with a fourth-down sack. Taking over at the Gladiator four-yard line, Rowley hooked up with Markee White for a short touchdown and the game’s first score.
Cleveland answered with back-to-back touchdowns, as Dieker fired a 15-yard touchdown to Carlese Franklin to knot the game at seven. Then, on the Jacksonville’s next possession, former Shark defensive back LaRoche Jackson intercepted Rowley and returned it for a Cleveland touchdown, putting the Gladiators in front by a 14-7 count. Jackson went on to have an enormous game for the Cleveland defense, pulling in three interceptions and recovering a fumble.
The Sharks then answered with back-to-back scores of their own, as Rowley hit Hughley for a 14-yard score and then took it in himself on a short quarterback sneak, giving the Sharks a 21-14 lead in the final minute of the first half. The first half ended with an incredible sequence, as Dieker dropped back to pass, was sacked by Derrick Summers and Jerry Turner, then fumbled. Aaron Robbins picked up the loose ball and began to return it, only to pitch the ball to teammate Terrance Smith. Smith then sprinted to the end zone, but it was ruled that Robbins’ lateral was actually an illegal forward pass, and the score did not count. When the dust settled, the Sharks took that seven-point lead into the locker room.
Jacksonville began the third with a quick touchdown, as Rowley connected with Jeron Harvey. After a Cleveland score cut it to 27-20, Marco Capozzoli drilled a 24-yard field goal to give the Sharks a 10-point advantage. The Gladiators then marched down the field, as Franklin gathered his second touchdown catch of the game to cut the Shark lead to 30-27. On the Gladiators’ next drive, Dominick Goodman made an over-the-boards touchdown grab to put Cleveland in front, 34-30, setting up the game’s rapid-fire finish.
On offense, Rowley completed 21 of his 31 passes for 185 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. After coming into the game in the fourth, Archer went 4-of-5 for 45 yards. Jeron Harvey led the Sharks with 11 catches for 106 yards and a score, the 10th straight game in which he has caught at least one touchdown pass. Harvey has also now crossed the 100-yard mark in six straight games. Hughley caught five passes for 59 yards and a score, while White totaled 52 yards and a touchdown on his six catches.
Smith led the Sharks with eight total tackles (seven solo) and added a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. Robinson led all players with four pass breakups to go along with his pick-six and 4.5 total tackles. Tracy Belton chipped in with two pass breakups and his team-leading fifth forced fumble of the season. The Shark pass rush was a factor throughout the game, as Robbins totaled 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss, Jerry Turner and Rashaad Duncan each notched a sack and Derrick Summers pitched in with a partial sack of his own.
For Cleveland, Dieker went 20-of-30 for 222 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Franklin lead the Gladiators with six grabs for 81 yards and two scores, while Goodman added two touchdowns as well. Jackson racked up seven total tackles (four solo), a tackle for loss and a forced fumble to go along with his four turnovers. Marrio Norman added two pass breakups for the Gladiators.
The Sharks return to Sea Best Field next Saturday night to host the Orlando Predators in a rematch of the Sharks’ 44-41 victory at Amway Center back in Week 10. Kickoff on Sea Best Field is set for 7:00 p.m.