JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Tracy Belton and Jamaal Fudge racked up defensive scores on back-to-back series to help key a third-quarter surge, leading the 2013 South Division Champion Jacksonville Sharks (12-6) to a 52-44 victory over the Tampa Bay Storm (7-11) in front of 10,409 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday night.
The win allowed the Sharks to reach the 12-win mark for the third time in the team's three seasons as a franchise. The Sharks wrapped up the regular season with perfect records of 6-0 in divisional play and 11-0 against the American Conference. The Sharks are the only AFL team to run the table against its own division and conference this season. The Sharks will be the number one seed in the American Conference after San Antonio upset Philadelphia Saturday night.
Jacksonville starting quarterback Bernard Morris was removed from the game on the team's second drive after being facemasked by a Storm defender, giving way to Kyle Rowley for the remainder of the contest. Rowley led the Sharks to three touchdowns in the first half, hitting Josh Philpart with a perfect touch pass for a 17-yard score in the final minute of the first half, giving the Sharks a 28-21 lead at the break. Worth noting is that Morris remained in full uniform on the Sharks' bench for the rest of the game.
Tampa Bay scored on its first drive of the third quarter, as Shane Boyd hit Joe Hills from 19-yards out to tie the game at 28. On the Sharks' next drive, Marco Capozzoli nailed a 22-yard field goal to help Jacksonville reclaim the lead. At that point, the Shark defense made a series of game-changing plays to change the course of the game.
With the Storm facing a second-and-five from its own 19, Boyd fired a pass to the left. Shark defensive back Tracy Belton jumped the route, snatched the ball from the Tampa Bay receiver and sprinted to the end zone for a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was Belton's third interception as a Shark and first pick-six of the season.
The Storm offense returned to the field with a first-down completion, as Boyd connected with Hills for a 15-yard pickup. On the next snap, Boyd fumbled the snap, and the ball lay on the turf for several seconds before Shark Jack linebacker Jamaal Fudge snatched it up and dashed to the end zone for a fumble return touchdown. Fudge's play made the score 45-28, and also marked the first time since Week 1 of the 2012 season that the Sharks notched two defensive scores in the same game.
Though Tampa Bay racked up 16 points in the fourth quarter, the Sharks cruised to victory in that final frame. Newcomer Shamar Graves capped the Sharks' scoring with just over three minutes left in the game, hauling in an 11-yard touchdown from Rowley one play after Graves recovered an onside kick. In his return to Jacksonville, Graves racked up 108 yards and a touchdown on a game-high total of 13 catches. Graves also notched a rushing touchdown.
After a Tampa Bay touchdown and two-pointer made the score 52-44, Jacksonville recovered an onside kick with 12 seconds remaining. Rowley then rushed the ball forward as time expired to seal the game.
In his relief appearance, Rowley finished the game 13-of-16 for 123 yards and two touchdowns while also scoring once on the ground. Morris completed eight of his 11 passes for 73 yards and notched a rushing touchdown, though he did also throw an interception.
In addition to Graves' work, Josh Philpart totaled 52 yards and a touchdown on his six catches, while Markee White grabbed two receptions for 36 yards.
On defense, Micheaux Robinson led all players with 10 solo tackles and six pass breakups. To go along with his interception, Belton racked up eight total tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups. Fudge totaled five tackles (four solo), two pass breakups and two fumble recoveries, while Derrick Summers notched a sack and a forced fumble.
For Tampa Bay, Boyd completed 27 of his 42 passes for 315 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He also scored a pair of rushing touchdowns. Joe Hills led the storm with 11 receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown, while Jason Chery added 10 catches for 116 yards and two scores. Rashad Barksdale led the Storm with 10.5 total tackles (six solo), while Donald Smith had two pass breakups and Jean Fanor pulled down an interception.
The Sharks will return to action on Saturday, hosting a first-round playoff game. Kickoff will be at 7p.m., as the Sharks will host the Tampa Bay Storm.
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