CLEVELAND – Facing the defending American Conference champions on Saturday night, the Jacksonville Sharks forced four turnovers, built a three-score lead in the third quarter and withstood a late rally en route to a 46-43 victory over the Cleveland Gladiators at Quicken Loans Arena.
Trailing by a 21-13 count late in the second quarter, Jacksonville (2-5) altered the course of the game with a 26-0 run that lasted through the end of the third quarter. Just before halftime, fullback Derrick Ross took it in from three yards out for the first of his three rushing touchdowns. Cleveland (4-3) marched down the field in the final seconds of the half, but Alvin Ray Jackson snared an interception off a deflection as time expired, allowing the Sharks to head to the locker room down by just two points, 21-19.
The Jacksonville defense then pitched a shutout in the third quarter, helping the team build an 18-point lead. After Ross finished the opening drive of the third with a one-yard run, giving Jacksonville its first lead, defensive lineman Joe Sykes chased down Shane Austin from behind, knocking the ball from the Gladiator quarterback's hand for his league-leading seventh sack of the season. Jackson pounced on the loose ball, and three plays later, Prechae Rodriguez slipped behind the defense and caught a four-yard touchdown pass to put the Sharks ahead, 33-21.
On Cleveland's ensuing drive, Austin looked deep down the right sideline. Staying stride-for-stride with the receiver, defensive back Greg Reid used the side wall to his advantage, trapping the ball for the second interception of his AFL debut. On the ensuing possession, Grady hit Tiger Jones from 15 yards out, giving the Sharks a 39-21 lead.
Cleveland did not go quietly, as Collin Taylor grabbed a 24-yard touchdown reception on the first play of the third quarter. After the Gladiator defense forced a turnover on downs, Amarri Jackson scored from 29 yards out, as the Gladiators' back-to-back touchdowns cut the Sharks' lead to 39-36 with 7:36 remaining.
The Gladiators then attempted a slow-roll onside kick, and after a lengthy scramble it was ruled that Terrance Smith recovered the ball for the Sharks. Jacksonville then turned the short field into a score, as Ross took a handoff, cut to the right and scored from three yards out to put his team back up by two scores, 46-36. Cleveland responded with another quick score, as Amarri Jackson found the end zone for the third time in the game, making it a three-point margin with 3:18 remaining.
Cleveland attempted another onside kick, which hit the side wall, allowing the Sharks to regain possession. From there, the Jacksonville offense did not give the ball back, as runs by Ross and Tommy Grady burned off the remainder of the clock. With Cleveland out of timeouts and less than 30 seconds remaining, Grady's second quarterback sneak in as many plays sealed the victory.
Earlier, Reid made an immediate impact in his debut game in the Arena Football League. On the third play of the Gladiators' opening drive, Reid stepped in front of a Cleveland receiver and pulled in an interception, returning it into opposing territory. For the game, Reid finished with four tackles and those two interceptions.
On offense, Grady completed 20 of his 31 pass attempts, throwing for a total of 191 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Ross set season highs with 13 carries for 54 yards, and in the process became the first player in AFL history to notch 2,500 career rushing yards. At receiver, Rodriguez caught eight passes for 75 yards and two scores, Joe Hills led the team with 10 receptions for 92 yards and added a touchdown, while Jones totaled two reception for 24 yards and a score.
Defensively, Smith led all players with 10 total tackles, while Xavier Brewer notched four solo tackles, broke up a pass and forced a fumble. Up front Sykes extended his streak to six consecutive games with a quarterback sack and forced his team-leading fourth fumble of the season. Jerry Turner recorded his first sack of the season as well.
For Cleveland, Austin went 21-of-32 for 288 yards and six touchdowns against three interceptions. Amarri Jackson led the Gladiators with nine catches for 135 yards and three touchdowns, while Dominick Goodman added seven receptions for 78 yards and a score. Justin Hannah led the Gladiators with eight solo tackles.
Victory in hand, the Sharks will return to Jacksonville and prepare to face the Philadelphia Soul on Saturday, May 16. Kickoff from Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is set for 7:00 p.m.