Sharks beat Storm, clinch playoff spot
Dominant team effort carries Jacksonville to victory over Tampa Bay
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Sharks put forth a dominant overall team effort on Saturday night, scoring on each of their first nine offensive possessions and forcing seven defensive stops en route to a 63-16 victory over the Tampa Bay Storm in front of 13,092 at Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. With the win, the Sharks have secured a spot in the 2015 Arena Football League postseason.
Jacksonville (9-7) set the tone from the opening snap, as Tommy Grady connected with Joe Hills for a six-yard touchdown on the game's opening drive. On the ensuing Tampa Bay (6-10) drive, the Storm offense faced a fourth-and-11 from the Sharks' 13-yard line. As Jason Boltus dropped back to pass, Joe Sykes drilled him from behind, forcing an incompletion and a turnover on downs. Three plays later, Derrick Ross powered in for the first of his three rushing touchdowns, putting the Sharks ahead by a 14-0 count.
That trend continued through the first half. After Tampa Bay answered with a score, the Sharks found pay dirt again, as Grady hit Tiger Jones for a 19-yard strike, putting Jacksonville ahead, 21-7. On their next possession, the Storm marched all the way down to the one-yard line. As Boltus attempted to scramble for the end zone on fourth down, Alvin Ray Jackson and Greg Reid laid a pair of hits on the Storm quarterback, bringing Boltus down shy of the goal line. Jacksonville took advantage of the stop, as Ross capped the following drive with a one-yard score, giving the Sharks a 28-7 lead.
In the final minute of the first half, Tampa Bay again marched into Shark territory, facing a fourth-and-4 from Jacksonville's 10-yard line. This time, the Sharks dropped Boltus in the backfield, as Scooter Berry came up with a sack to force another turnover on downs. Three plays later, Grady threaded the needle to London Crawford, who pulled in a 20-yard touchdown to give the Sharks a 35-7 lead. Tampa Bay's Craig Peterson nailed a 47-yard field goal as time expired, but Jacksonville still went to the locker room with a 25-point halftime lead.
The second half feaured more of the same, as the Sharks opened the third quarter by forcing yet another turnover on downs. Beginning the next drive at the Tampa Bay 14, the Sharks scored in three plays, as Ross took it around the left side for a five-yard score. That touchdown put Jacksonville ahead, 42-10, midway through the third quarter.
After Hills answered a Tampa Bay touchdown with one of his own, Tampa Bay moved into Shark territory in the closing seconds of the third quarter. As time expired to end the period, Greg Reid snared a deflected pass for his team-leading eighth interception of the season. The Sharks turned that stop into another score, as Ross broke free for a remarkable 43-yard run, setting up Jones' second touchdown catch of the night.
Tampa Bay's next drive ended with AFL history. On a fourth-down snap, Joe Sykes burst into the backfield and took down Boltus for his 17th sack of the season, breaking his own single-season League record in that category. Sykes has now set new single-season marks in both sacks (17) and forced fumbles (10) this season.
One play after Sykes' sack, Lee Chapple entered the game at quarterback and promptly tossed a 27-yard touchdown pass to Johnathan Haggerty – the first score for either player in their respective AFL careers. That touchdown proved to be the game's final score, as LaRoche Jackson hauled in an interception on Tampa Bay's last drive, and the Sharks' offense ran out the clock from there.
Overall, Jacksonville scored on each of its first nine drives and was never stopped, as the game ended on the Sharks' tenth and final offensive possession. The Sharks' defense forced seven stops while only yielding two touchdowns and a field goal.
With the victory, Jacksonville is guaranteed a spot in the 2015 postseason, and can fall no lower than the No. 3 seed due to tiebreaker advantage over the Cleveland Gladiators. The Sharks remain in control of their own destiny in the South Division race.
In the win, Grady completed 15 of his 22 pass attempts for 179 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. Ross fell one yard shy of tying a single-game franchise record, as he racked up 67 yards and three scores on his 10 carries. Jones led Jacksonville with seven catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns, while Hills scored twice and Crawford caught four passes for 50 yards and a score.
On defense, Reid and Chris Smith each recorded three pass breakups, while Terrance Smith racked up nine solo tackles. Up front, Sykes, Berry and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste each recorded a sack.
For the Storm, Boltus went 27-of-45 for 260 yards and two touchdowns against one interception. T.T. Toliver led Tampa Bay with six catches for 68 yards, while Kendrick Ings and Emery Sammons each caught a touchdown pass. Ings also recorded 118 kickoff return yards on six runbacks. On defense, Randall Burden led Tampa Bay with 4.5 tackles for loss, while Richard Clebert recorded the Storm's lone tackle for loss.
Next week, the Sharks will make the in-state trip to Orlando for a pivotal game in the division race on Saturday, August 1. With a win next week, Jacksonville would move into first place and clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Predators. Kickoff at Amway Center is set for 7:00 p.m.
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