JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Sharks (13-6) will host the Philadelphia Soul (13-6) in the American Conference Championship Game on Saturday, August 10. Kickoff at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is set for 7:00 p.m.
The winner of Saturday's game will represent the American Conference in ArenaBowl XXVI, where that team will face either the Arizona Rattlers or the Spokane Shock. Those two teams will meet in the National Conference Championship game, which kicks off 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. ArenaBowl XXVI will be played at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday, August 17, with kickoff set for 1:00 p.m.
The Sharks and Soul have met once this season, as Jacksonville held off a late Philadelphia rally to secure a 55-53 win at Wells Fargo Center back in Week 6. Though the Soul's Derrick Ross scored a rushing touchdown in the final seconds, Shark defensive back Terrance Smith knocked away what would have been a game-tying two-point pass to seal the Shark victory. That win allowed the Sharks to clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Soul, an advantage that eventually gave the Sharks the No. 1 seed in the conference.
Jacksonville heads into this game riding the wave of last Saturday's comeback victory over the Tampa Bay Storm in the first round of the playoffs. Down 27-13 at halftime and by a 41-20 count midway through the third quarter, the Sharks charged back with 56 second-half points – including 36 in the fourth quarter. The Sharks executed an onside kick and forced a defensive stop to make up possessions, eventually taking a 63-62 lead with eight seconds remaining when holder Jeff Hughley sprinted up the middle for two on a fake extra point. Defensive lineman Matt Marcorelle forced a fumble that was recovered by Derrick Summers in the end zone on the Storm's final offensive play.
For their part, Philadelphia also came from behind to win its first-round home game, as the Soul defeated the Orlando Predators by a 59-55 score on Saturday night. In that game, Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh fired six touchdown passes against just one interception.
The efficiency of Raudabaugh's aerial attack makes the Soul's offense a potent threat. This season, Raudabaugh racked up 96 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions, finishing the year with a 122.4 passer rating that ranked him second in the league. Raudabaugh also enjoys outstanding pass protection. Thanks to the combination of a talented offensive line and a tendency to get rid of the ball quickly, Raudabaugh was sacked just seven times during the regular season.
This week, though, Philadelphia's pass protection unit faces a tremendous challenge in facing a Shark pass rush that racked up 45 sacks this season, setting a new all-time AFL record in the process. Led by All-Arena Second Team selections Jerry Turner and Aaron Robbins, the Sharks are capable of getting to the quarterback on any down. Worth noting, though, is that the Sharks recorded just one sack in the first meeting between the two teams.
Beyond Raudabaugh's prolific statistics, one of the defining characteristics of the Soul offense is fullback Derrick Ross. Easily the league's leading rusher, Ross racked up 506 rushing yards and scored 35 of the Soul's 39 rushing touchdowns. This brings up an interesting disparity between these teams' rushing attacks. Though the Soul finished the year third in the league in rushing, no player besides Ross logged more than 11 carries. On the other hand, the Sharks' AFL-leading rushing attack (666 yards, 44 touchdowns) features five players with at least four rushing touchdowns.
The Sharks' dynamic run game was on full display in the first-round game against Tampa. Jeron Harvey took a swing pass 26 yards for a score, Hughley juked his way in on an end around, and Bernard Morris shredded the Storm defense for scrambles of 27 and 35 yards, the latter a highlight-reel touchdown that tied the game at 55.
?What makes the Sharks' run game successful is its multiple dimensions, and Jacksonville will need to mix it up against a talented Soul defense that allowed a league-low average of 46.6 points per game. The Philadelphia pass rush is led by First Team All-Arena selection Bryan Robinson, who led the Soul with 17.5 tackles for loss 11 sacks and six blocked kicks. In the secondary, Second Team All-Arena defensive back Rayshaun Kizer (nine interceptions) and teammate LaRico Stevenson (seven) make life tough for any opposing quarterback.
But the Sharks' defensive backfield has its own All-Arena performer, as Terrance Smith as become the third Jacksonville defender to make the First Team. Smith finished tied for third in the league with 12 interceptions this season and will be looking to victimize Raudabaugh for a game-changing play.
Ultimately, this week's game is a matchup of two teams with many of the same strengths – a veteran quarterback, talented receivers, an effective run game and a stifling defense. All signs point to a competitive contest that will produce a worthy entrant into ArenaBowl XXVI.
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