JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The 2012 South Division Champion Jacksonville Sharks (8-3) are set to embark on a two-game road trip that starts with a Week 12 showdown against the Spokane Shock (8-3) on Saturday, June 8. Kickoff from the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena is set for 10:00 p.m. ET, and the game will air live on AM 600 WBOB and on arenafootball.com through the "AFL Live" player.
Though they have not met since Week 8 of the 2012 season, the Sharks and Shock have a competitive history, as each team has won two of the four matchups in the franchises' all-time series. The Sharks last beat the Shock in the final week of the 2011 regular season, a victory that snapped a three-game losing streak and helped kick-start Jacksonville's run to the ArenaBowl XXIV title.
The Sharks head into this week riding a two-game winning streak, fresh off a 70-48 home win over the Pittsburgh Power. The opportunistic Jacksonville defense held the Power scoreless in the third quarter and forced four turnovers, while quarterback Bernard Morris and the Shark offense hit the 70-point mark for the second time this season. The win allowed Jacksonville to retain sole possession of first place in both the South Division and the American Conference, and improved the team's conference record to a perfect 7-0.
This week, though, the Sharks will match up against a team from a division that has stymied the team in recent games, as Jacksonville has not won a game against a West Division opponent since ArenaBowl XXIV, losing each of their last four regular-season contests against that division.
The Sharks and Shock have taken nearly identical paths to their matching 8-3 records. After Week 5, these two squads remained as the last undefeated teams in the AFL. Spokane lost the following week, leaving Jacksonville as the final unbeaten, and suffered through a three-game losing streak. The Sharks took their first loss one week later, and battled through a three-game losing streak of their own. But each team has emerged from their winless stretch, as Spokane heads into this week having won three in a row. Notably, the Sharks and Shock also have matching home (3-2) and road (5-1) splits this season.
Although their paths to 8-3 have nearly matched, Jacksonville and Spokane win in much different ways. Spokane's victories have come on the back of a high-powered offense and game-changing returns. Led by quarterback Erik Meyer, Spokane currently ranks second in the league with an average of 67.0 points per game and has topped 60 in all but one game this season. In addition, the Shock have racked up an incredible total of 16 return touchdowns, including six "pick-sixes" and four kickoff return touchdowns by dangerous playmaker Terrance Sanders.
But the Spokane attack will meet its match against a Jacksonville defense that stands atop the league leaderboard with an average of 44.9 points allowed per game. The Sharks have not let a single team break 60 this season and have held five opponents to 41 points or less. The exploits of the Jacksonville pass rush are well-documented at this point, as the Sharks' league-leading total of 30 sacks puts the front four just seven sacks shy of setting a new franchise record and 13 away from a new all-time league mark.
In recent weeks, the Sharks have added a new dimension to their defensive effectiveness, as the team has forced seven fumbles in the last two games, recovering six. Both Tracy Belton and Jamaal Fudge have forced a fumble in consecutive games, and Belton is tied for the league lead with four forced fumbles this season. Fellow defensive back Terrance Smith notched his second two-interception game of the year last Saturday, and Micheaux Robinson leads the league with 16 pass breakups in 2013.
With that said, the Shark secondary will have its hands full against dominant Spokane receiver Adron Tennell, who has hauled in 32 of Meyer's league-leading 74 touchdown passes. The 6-foot-5 Tennell leads the league with 103 receptions and those 32 touchdowns, ranking third with 1,285 receiving yards as well. A matchup problem for any defender, Tennell is also a threat on the ground in the red zone, as he picked up three rushing touchdowns in the Shock's 75-45 win over San Jose last Saturday night.
But the Sharks have a tall receiving threat of their own in Jeron Harvey, the franchise's all-time leading receiver. Harvey added to his team-leading totals with eight catches for 122 yards and four scores against Pittsburgh, his second four-plus touchdown game this season. Harvey has now scored in seven consecutive games, recording multiple touchdowns in five of those seven. Harvey and quarterback Bernard Morris will need to connect early and often if the Sharks hope to keep pace with the potent Spokane attack.
For all of the team's offensive production and efficiency, the Spokane defense has been vulnerable at times this season. The Shock yielded 70 points at home game against the Tampa Bay Storm in Week 6, a game that turned out to be Spokane's first loss of the season. Two weeks later, the Orlando Predators scored 29 fourth-quarter points, including 14 in the final 28 seconds, to cap an epic comeback in what was an 83-82 Spokane loss.
Above all, the Sharks must protect the football, particularly in the passing game, as Spokane cornerback Paul Stephens is tied for the league lead with eight interceptions. Though Shark quarterbacks have thrown just eight picks this season, half of those came in back-to-back losses against San Antonio and San Jose. Keeping a zero in the interception column of Morris' stat line would go along way toward sealing a Jacksonville victory.
After Saturday's game, the Sharks will face the Utah Blaze in Salt Lake City on June 15, a game that will air in front of a national audience on CBS Sports Network. The team returns home to battle the Cleveland Gladiators at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 22.
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