A second comeback in as many weeks was not in the cards for the Jacksonville Sharks on Saturday night, as the team fell to the Philadelphia Soul in the American Conference Championship Game, 75-59, in front of 9,161 on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
With the result, Philadelphia advances to ArenaBowl XXVI, where the Soul will face either the Arizona Rattlers or Spokane Shock. As of the end of Saturday’s game, the National Conference Championship Game between the Shock and Rattlers was still in progress.
Down 47-21 early in the third quarter, Jacksonville trimmed its deficit to two scores with a 13-point surge, as Bernard Morris hit Jeron Harvey for a 15-yard touchdown pass before defensive lineman Jerry Turner leaped and pulled down an interception off of a deflected pass, returning it 23 yards for another score. Those two quick touchdowns made the game 47-33 with 7:39 left in the third.
The Sharks held serve through the rest of the third, trailing 54-40 heading into the final quarter. On the very first play of the fourth, defensive back Micheaux Robinson made a diving interception, snatching the ball away from Soul receiver Anthony Jones. The Sharks took over and moved down the field, but came up short as Bernard Morris’ fourth-down pass to Jeron Harvey fell incomplete. On the ensuing drive, Philadelphia fullback Derrick Ross scored on a seven-yard rushing touchdown, putting the Soul ahead, 61-40.
From that point on, the teams traded touchdowns, as Jacksonville was never able to get the ball with less than a two score lead. The Sharks scored three times in the fourth, as Morris found Markee White twice and Jeff Hughley once, but it was ultimately not enough as the Soul had an answer for every Shark touchdown.
Earlier, Philadelphia had built a multiple-score lead thanks to the their ability to capitalize on Jacksonville mistakes. Soul defensive back Rayshaun Kizer intercepted Morris on the Sharks’ first drive of the game, though Jacksonville got the ball right back as Matt Marcorelle charged from his right end spot and swatted the ball out of Dan Raudabaugh’s hands, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Turner. But Soul defensive back James Romain intercepted a Morris pass and returned it for a touchdown later in the quarter, helping Philadelphia take a 20-7 lead at the end of one.
Another swing in momentum came late in the first half. After Morris connected with White on a two-yard touchdown to make the score 27-21, the Sharks attempted an onside kick. But Philadelphia recovered, and Raudabaugh hit Ross on a quick pass for a touchdown with 55 seconds left in the half. The Soul then attempted an onside kick of its own, which was recovered by Philadelphia’s Andrae Thurman and returned all the way to the Jacksonville two-yard line. A Ross touchdown run with 31 seconds left in the half gave the Soul a 40-21 edge as the teams headed into the locker room.
In defeat, Morris completed 31 of his 49 pass attempts for 416 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Philadelphia was able to neutralize Morris’ ability to make plays with his legs, holding the Shark quarterback to five yards on three attempts. White led all players with 14 receptions for 188 yards and four touchdowns, while Harvey contributed seven catches for 101 yards and three scores.
On defense, Micheaux Robinson led Jacksonville with 6.5 total tackles (six solo) and two pass breakups to go along with his interception. Turner had a strong all-around game with a fumble recovery, an interception and a blocked kick. In addition to Marcorelle’s sack-fumble, Turner and Derrick Summers split a sack for the Sharks. Bill Alford, Terrance Smith and Tracy Belton each recorded a pass breakup in the secondary.
For Philadelphia, Raudabaugh went 18-for-27, totaling 220 yards and eight touchdowns against two interceptions. Ross scored twice on the ground and twice in the air, racking up 54 rushing yards and 31 receiving yards in the process. Jones, Ryan McDaniel and Larry Brackins each caught a pair of touchdowns for Philadelphia. On defense, Jack linebacker Joe Goosby led the Soul with nine total tackles (seven solo). LaRico Stevenson led all players with four pass breakups, while Kizer added three of his own.
The Sharks’ season comes to an end with an overall record of 13-7, as Jacksonville falls to Philadelphia in the conference championship game for a second consecutive season. The Sharks will enter the offseason looking to build on a strong core of returning players as the team shoots for a fifth consecutive South Division Title in 2014.