Saturday night saw the Jacksonville Sharks (10-5) win their seventh straight game against the Orlando Predators (5-9). The 62-55 win will go down as one of the best games in this emerging rivalry.
In pregame warmups, it looked as if R.J. Archer would get the start at quarterback, and he made the most of his opportunity. He had a very efficient first drive, which culminated in finding London Crawford on a two-yard scoring pass to take an early 6-0 lead after Marco Capozzoli missed the extra point. However, fourteen seconds later, Orlando DB Dominic Jones returned the kickoff 56 yards for a touchdown to give his team the 7-6 lead.
Things went from bad to worse as kicker Mark Lewis recovered a big bounce off the iron to put Jacksonville right back on defense. In his first pass attempt against his old team, future Arena Football League hall-of-fame QB Aaron Garcia not only threw the ball out of bounds, but hit the cord on the review television in the media corner.
A fan, in an attempt to catch the ball, caused what would’ve been some major technical difficulties as she spilled her drink and caused smoke to come from behind the screen. Thankfully, no review was necessary at that time and the TV was functioning for what would be a crucial review later on.
Garcia would be more accurate on his next pass, finding Prechae Rodriguez in the end zone, but offsetting penalties would take the points off the board, and the Sharks used the momentum to complete a goal line stand. Archer completed four straight passes (including one to Crawford, who recovered his own fumble) to set up a Matt Marcorelle two-yard run to retake the lead at the end of the first quarter.
The ball-hungry Sharks secondary feasted to start the second quarter, as Tracy Belton intercepted Aaron Garcia to give Jacksonville great field position. Jeron Harvey nearly hauled in a touchdown on the next play, and had touchdown taken off the board by a pass interference penalty. London Crawford would eventually score his second touchdown of the night, and the Sharks extended their lead to 20-7 with 10:04 left in the first half.
The game tempo slowed down dramatically, as both teams needed longer drives thanks to both key penalties and tremendous defensive pressure on both sides. Both helped Jacksonville on their next defensive possession, as a Rashaad Duncan sack and a delay of game penalty translated to a 10-play, 31-yard drive for the Predators that lasted nearly ten minutes.
Prechae Rodriguez would score, though, and the lead was cut to 20-14 with 2:49 left in the second quarter, but the Sharks didn’t need nearly as much time, as Archer found Jeron Harvey on a 40-yard deep catch and run to regain the 13-point lead at the one minute warning.
In something of a dubious coaching decision, Les Moss opted to go for an onside kick after the score. It failed, and Orlando needed just two plays and six seconds to cut the lead back to seven. The Predators scored again after a successful onside kick recovery, and with 38 seconds until halftime, the game was tied 27-27.
Jacksonville, looking to eat up clock and score last before the half, did just that. R.J. Archer continued his excellent form, finding London Crawford and then Markee White on a 26-yard pass to get inside Orlando territory.
A scary moment happened on the next play, as R.J. Archer went down awkward on his next pass. A Predator defensive lineman rolled over on his leg, and Archer stayed down for several minutes after the hit. He was carried off the field by his teammates, and did not return. He received postgame x-rays, but the team has yet to release any updates on his condition or the length of time he will miss.
Kyle Rowley, who started the season for Orlando, but was released after an 0-5 start, was forced into action against his former teammates. On his first play under center, he took a major hit by several Predators linemen, but he got back up and threw a touchdown pass to Jeron Harvey in the corner of the end zone two plays later. Predators head coach Doug Plank challenged the call, saying that Harvey didn’t cross the goal line, but the referees found no evidence to overturn the call. This gave Jacksonville a 34-27 lead going into the locker room.
Jacksonville got off to a shaky start in the second half, as Micheaux Robinson’s pass interference penalty helped Orlando drive to tie the game at 34. However, the best Orlando could do was hold serve as the teams traded touchdowns throughout the third quarter and at the start of the fourth.
After Rowley found London Crawford for his third score of the night on a 25-yard pass, Jacksonville made a critical stop on defense with a 48-41 lead. Orlando WR Jason Geathers couldn’t hold on to a pass, but DB Terrance Smith could, and he did to grab his Arena Football League-leading tenth interception of the season.
If Jacksonville’s offense didn’t have momentum, or the crowd of 10,108 weren’t already on their feet, they were after Rowley showed off some rather acrobatic skills on the Sharks’ next drive. He scrambled to escape a particularly intense pass rush, and flipped over a defensive lineman to land on his head at the one-yard line. He finished what he started on a quarterback sneak to give Jacksonville a two-touchdown lead with 7:48 remaining in the game.
Orlando didn’t go down without a fight, as after just two passes from Aaron Garcia to T.T. Toliver, the Predators were right back in the game with 6:14 left. Jacksonville, needing a score to try and seal a victory, were in great position after they recovered the onside kick. It didn’t look promising until third down, where Orlando committed an illegal defense penalty to keep the Sharks’ hopes alive. After a delay of game penalty backed them up, Kyle Rowley found Markee White in the corner of the end zone to give his team a 62-48 lead with less than three minutes to go. It didn’t stop the Predators’ quick strike offense, though, as Jason Geathers was wide open on a 38-yard catch and run to give Orlando a chance at the one-minute warning.
After another onside kick recovery, Jacksonville was in prime position to run out the clock and win the game. Back-to-back incompletions would force the Sharks into a 20-yard field goal attempt, which is normally a chip shot for Marco Capozzoli. Capozzoli, however, had his second miss of the night, when missing even one kick is rare for him.
With 45 yards to go, 34 seconds on the clock, and two timeouts in Orlando’s pocket. The game was destined for overtime. Aaron Garcia, after taking a timeout, went to work. He found Jason Geathers on a 17-yard pass. Timeout. An eight-yard pass to T.T. Toliver, out of bounds to stop the clock. A seven-yard pass to Toliver, then a spike to stop the clock with 11 seconds left. The Predators had enough time to take two shots into the end zone from the Jacksonville 13, but the Sharks needed only one to earn their 10th win of the season. Jacksonville pressured Garcia, forcing him to drop back and use precious time, then Terrance Smith came across the middle to intercept the ball in the end zone and finish the game off himself.
Both quarterbacks shined for Jacksonville. R.J. Archer completed 16 of 20 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns before his injury. Kyle Rowley completed 13 of his 24 passes for 130 yards and three scores in relief, adding two touchdowns on the ground. On the other side, Aaron Garcia had a decent night, completing 19 of 33 passes for 234 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.
Both Markee White (112) and London Crawford (107) broke the 100-yard barrier receiving, while Jeron Harvey came up two short with 98. Crawford also had game highs with 12 catches and three touchdowns.
On defense, Tracy Belton led Jacksonville with six tackles to add to his interception, while Terrance Smith had four tackles to add to his two picks.
Head coach Les Moss saw the overall performance as a good sign heading into the bye week. “I thought our defense played great, and our offense played pretty solid, but we need a lot of improvement on special teams.” He noted that while winning only four of their last nine games, they’ve won two games going into the bye week before facing Spokane.
The Jacksonville Sharks will have next week off, and will host the Spokane Shock on Saturday, July 14 at Veterans Memorial Arena. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m., and the game will be broadcast over the air on WBOB AM 600. The game will also be streamed through AFL Live. For more information, including the latest updates, log on to www.jaxsharks.com. For more on the rest of the Arena Football League, including the up-to-date playoff picture, log on to www.arenafootball.com.