Tommy Grady fired eight touchdown passes and the Jacksonville Sharks’ defense forced five turnovers on downs on Saturday night, carrying the Sharks to a 54-35 victory over the Tampa Bay Storm in front of 10,324 on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
Tampa Bay (2-14) led by eight points late in the first quarter after Nick Addison returned a fumbled kickoff for a touchdown. But from that point, a combination of lockdown defense and efficient offense allowed Jacksonville (7-9) to swing the game in their favor.
Following the Storm’s special teams touchdown, the Sharks quickly answered as Grady connected with Joe Hills for a 21-yard score to bring Jacksonville within a point, 21-20, early in the second quarter. The Sharks’ defense followed that score with a stand. After backing Tampa Bay into a fourth-and-16 situation, the Sharks got off the field when David Hyland stepped in front of a Storm receiver and swatted away Boltus’ pass.
After the turnover on downs, Grady again found Hills in the end zone, this time for a one-yard touchdown that gave the Sharks the lead for good, 27-21. But the Jacksonville defense wasn’t finished. In the final minute of the first half, Tampa Bay faced a fourth-and-goal from the 16 yard line. Boltus stepped up in the pocket and fired a strike to Phillip Barnett over the middle, but Jacksonville defensive backs Greg Reid and Keon Lyn converged on the Storm receiver, bringing Barnett down at the one to force another turnover on downs.
Though the Sharks were unable to score in the closing seconds of the first half, they carried that defensive momentum into the game’s final two quarters. After forcing yet another turnover on downs to open the second half, Jacksonville took its first two-score lead when Grady hit Tiger Jones from 10 yards out with 5:48 left in the third.
Jacksonville went on to force two more turnovers on downs the rest of the way, finishing the game with five defensive stops. On the flip side, the Sharks’ offense scored on each of their seven full possessions, and finished both halves with the football. Tampa Bay never came closer that 12 points at any stage of the fourth quarter, as Jacksonville capped the scoring with an 11-yard pass from Grady to Jones with just under four minutes remaining.
In the victory, Hills put the finishing touches on one of the best seasons for a wide receiver in AFL history. With seven receptions for 92 yards, Hills became just the second player in team history to cross the 2,000-yard mark in a single season. Already the team’s single-season record holder in receptions and receiving touchdowns, Hills finished the regular season with 161 receptions for 2,020 yards and 58 touchdowns.
Grady played turnover-free football, completing 21 of his 34 passes for 254 yards and eight scores. In addition to Hills’ performance, Jones (six catches, 88 yards) and Roger Jackson (six catches, 71 yards) each caught two touchdown passes. Derrick Ross gained 10 yards on the ground and also caught two passes for three yards.
On defense, Lyn led the way with 6.5 total tackles and two pass breakups, while Greg Reid also made 6.5 stops and added a pass breakup of his own. The Sharks’ pass rush pressured Boltus for the duration of the game, as Jacksonville racked up five tackles for loss and two sacks in the victory. It was truly a team effort, as seven different Sharks notched at least a partial tackle for loss.
On the other side, Boltus finished the game 17-of-36 for 231 yards and four touchdowns. T.T. Toliver led Tampa Bay with 84 yards and two touchdowns on his four receptions, while Kendrick Ings and Prechae Rodriguez each found the end zone as well. Defensively, Cortez Stubbs led the Storm with five total tackles and a pass breakup while Addison made 2.5 stops to go along with his fumble return touchdown.
With the Orlando Predators’ loss to the Philadelphia Soul on Saturday, Jacksonville will travel to face the Predators to open the postseason on Saturday, August 6. Kickoff from Orlando’s Amway Center is set for 7:00 p.m.