The Jacksonville Sharks didn’t limp into the playoffs, but they did have a very up-and-down season which ended with a division title. Their playoff run started in similar fashion, but it, just like the regular season, ended on a high note with a 58-56 win.
The game started out quite well for Jacksonville, as their defense generated early pressure on Georgia QB Bryant Moniz, forcing a four and out. The Sharks didn’t fare much better in the beginning, with their receivers dropping passes. However, QB Bernard Morris called his own number on third down and kept the drive alive with a 22-yard run. It would pay off, as two plays later he found Jeron Harvey in the end zone for the first score of the game. A blocked extra point kept the lead at 6-0.
Georgia would find their answer, using short passes before Moniz found WR C.J. Johnson on a 28-yard catch and run to take the lead at 7-6 with 5:59 left in the first quarter. Jacksonville would strike back quickly, using a 33-yard kickoff return by DB LaRoche Jackson to set up a 24-yard touchdown pass to WR Josh Philpart, and the Sharks regained the lead at 13-7.
The Force couldn’t keep the momentum going, as both their kick return coverage and the deep ball both failed them on the next drive. Jacksonville forced a 60-yard field goal attempt, which kicker Carlos Martinez used as a quasi-punt, which WR/DB Terrance Smith was able to return near midfield to end the quarter.
Jacksonville started off the second quarter with an efficient drive, ending on a Josh Philpart sweep for a touchdown, and the Sharks had an early 20-7 lead. On Georgia’s very next offensive play, Smith found himself wide open for an easy interception, which set up another efficient Sharks drive. Bernard Morris completed six of his eight attempts, including a 15-yard pass for Jeron Harvey’s second touchdown of the night, extending the lead to 27-7 halfway through the second quarter.
Jacksonville’s defense looked like it had the upper hand yet again, forcing another Force fourth down with just over five minutes left until halftime, but Bryant Moniz was able to find C.J. Johnson for a 35-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 13 points.
A scary moment happened on the next Sharks drive, as WR Jamarko Simmons carried two defenders with him on a 19-yard catch and run, but he was injured on the play due to the tackle. He walked off the field under his own power, and later returned to the game. The resulting unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the Sharks even better field position heading into the one-minute warning.
Penalties would haunt the Sharks late in the first half, mostly costing themselves field position to start their drives. The last minute of the half saw Jacksonville called for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that forced them deep in their own red zone to start possessions, but to little effect.
Bobby Sewall, who saw his first significant game action in five weeks, made his only catch of the night count, 22 yards to set up first down at the Force 4-yard line. Simmons would prove he’s okay by walking into the end zone three plays later to extend Jacksonville’s lead to 34-14. Georgia made one last big play before the end of the half, as Bryant Moniz found Larry Shipp on another long catch and run, 45 yards to make the halftime score 34-21.
The Force tried a bit of trickery with an onside kick to start the third quarter, but it went awry, to say the least, and Jacksonville found themselves in excellent field position at the Georgia 1-yard line. Bernard Morris ran the ball in and within less than a minute, the Sharks’ lead was 41-21.
For Georgia, things went from bad to worse, as not only were penalties keeping them deep in their own territory, but Bryant Moniz was injured when two defenders collided into him on a tackle. He was helped off the field by the training staff, and he did not return to the game. New QB Darnell Kennedy struggled early, and Georgia was forced into another 60-yard field goal attempt, which Carlos Martinez kicked out of bounds to avoid any further danger.
It would only delay the inevitable, as Bernard Morris made his second big run of the night, 30 yards for a touchdown and a 48-21 Sharks lead. Their kickoff coverage would fail them, however, as C.J. Johnson ran for 22 yards to set the Force up in good field position. Darnell Kennedy only needed three passes, including one that was tipped twice into WR Mike Johnson’s hands to put Georgia back on the board at 48-28.
Jacksonville was the beneficiary of another special teams mistake, as the resulting kickoff went out of bounds. It didn’t help, as a poor drive highlighted by a second-down sack by DL Caleb Bostic on Bernard Morris ended with a Marco Capozzoli missed 36-yard field goal attempt. Georgia capitalized as Kennedy used Mike and C.J. Johnson on a four-play scoring drive to cut the lead to 13 with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
The game moved further away from Jacksonville as the fourth quarter began when Morris was intercepted on a pass where Josh Philpart fell, and a defensive holding penalty allowed a Force touchdown to stand, and suddenly the game was close at 48-42. At this point, the wheels completely fell off for the Sharks with a four and out highlighted by both another sack on Morris and an 11-yard completion to Jamarko Simmons.
The defense held strong, but a Scooter Berry sack was nullified by an illegal defense penalty called on DL Jason Holman. The effect would be minimal, as Holman went from goat to hero by recovering a FB Benji McDowell fumble to give Jacksonville the ball. To further aid Jacksonville, Georgia OL Kevin McAlmont was ejected on the play for hitting a referee. Rendric Taylor would carry the load on the drive, starting by breaking free of defenders for a 28-yard run to the Georgia 5. Bernard Morris finished the drive with a touch pass to Jeron Harvey to extend the lead to 55-42 halfway through the fourth quarter.
Georgia did answer back, starting with a Darnell Kennedy 25-yard run and ending with a Benji McDowell 1-yard run to cut the lead back to six with 5:16 left in the game. After the Sharks were stopped on 4th-and-1, Mike Johnson found the end zone again to give the Force their first lead of the night, 56-55, at the one-minute warning.
Jacksonville used the clock to their advantage early in the drive, marching their way to near midfield. However, a false start penalty and a near disastrous Morris fumble on a sack (which was recovered by OL Vladimir Richard) left the Sharks with only six seconds left on the clock.
In my previous article, I mentioned that Marco Capozzoli, who came into the game leading the league in field goal percentage, gave the Sharks the advantage on special teams primarily for this reason. If it came down to a late kick, he could provide one. On 4th-and-12 with only six seconds left, it was just that.
Capozzoli calmly made the longest field goal in franchise history, 51 yards, to send the fans erupting into cheers and to give Jacksonville their fourth career playoff victory to send them to the American Conference Championship game.
Afterwards, the hero of the night shared what was on his mind throughout the game and at that critical moment. “It was a crazy, roller coaster game, and the guys kept fighting. During the [last drive] I was getting my mind right, there’s no greater feeling.”
Head coach Les Moss acknowledged that it was a great achievement to get to the conference championship game, and explained his mindset throughout the second half. “We can’t panic. We had a four-possession lead, and we learned some valuable playoff lessons. It’s supposed to come down to the wire, and our goal is conference championship and Arena Bowl wins.”
Bernard Morris completed 19 of his 35 passes for 183 yards, five touchdowns, and an interception, and finished with a game-high 67 yards rushing and two touchdowns on six carries.
He shared Coach Moss’ ideal of this game being a metaphor for the Sharks season. “We’ve been grinding all year, and we were scratching and clawing tonight. Georgia expected to win, and we have to keep playing no matter if we’re up or down.”
Rendric Taylor added 32 rushing yards of his own, and Josh Philpart added a rushing touchdown to his team-high 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. Jeron Harvey also had 60 receiving yards on six catches for three touchdowns.
DE Jeff Littlejohn also breathed a sigh of relief, and reflected on the somewhat lackadaisical defensive attitude during the second half. “It’s a big win, and a great example of teamwork. We thought the game was over early, and we laid off a bit, but we hung tough.” He also gave credit to Georgia’s coaching staff, and noted the pressure on Capozzoli leading up to the field goal, and his excitement when it was good. “I wanted to jump [up and down]!”
This win keeps the Sharks’ playoff run alive, and their next stop is in Philadelphia to take on the Soul next Saturday night. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:00 p.m., and the game will be aired live on NFL Network. For more information and up-to-the-minute news, log on to www.jaxsharks.com. For more on the rest of the Arena Football League, log on to www.arenafootball.com.