While the Jacksonville Sharks (7-9) didn’t have much to play for against the Tampa Bay Storm (2-14), there was still pride, stats, and a season sweep on the line. Jacksonville stepped up to the task, finishing the regular season with a 54-35 win on Saturday.
In what amounted to be the most inauspicious start to a game this season for Jacksonville, The Storm and Sharks started going toe-to-toe, with each team scoring on their first two drives. The only difference was Tommy Grady was comfortable in the pocket, while Jason Boltus, starting in lieu of Adam Kennedy, faced significant pressure from the Sharks defensive line. The first sign of Jacksonville’s weakness came on a kickoff.
Down 14-13 due to another Lindsey Wolfe missed extra point, linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson found himself returning the Tampa Bay kick. He did well getting the ball to near his own 20, but Tampa Bay defensive back Nick Addison stripped the ball, picked it up and ran in for a touchdown and a shock 21-13 lead to end the first quarter.
Being on their heels, the Sharks responded quickly, first with Grady finding Joe Hills (who was on a quest for both the single-season touchdown record and a 2,000-yard season) to pull within a point to start the second quarter, then with David Hyland breaking up a 4th-and-16 pass to give Jacksonville the ball on downs. While the ensuing drive started with a six-yard loss by Derrick Ross, the Storm gave a helping hand thanks to a current Shark and a former one. Roger “Spiderman” Jackson, seeing his first action in several weeks, caught a 17-yard pass on 3rd-and-16, then DE Jerry Turner committed a personal foul to cut the field in half. Hills scored from a yard out, and the lead was restored at 27-20.
The defense didn’t let up after the score, as Greg Reid and Keon Lyn prevented another 4th-and-long conversion, stopping Phillip Barnett at the one-yard line to give Jacksonville the ball yet again. The Sharks couldn’t take full advantage with 36 seconds left, and the lead at the half was a mere seven points.
Jacksonville finally pulled away in the second half, using a Keith Bowers/Jordan Miller combined sack and forcing two more incompletions for another fourth-down stop, then converting two fourth downs of their own before Tommy Grady found Tiger Jones on a 10-yard scoring pass to create a two-score lead.
It was the closest the Storm would get for the rest of the night, and the Sharks finally started to pull away after forcing another turnover on downs to start the fourth quarter. That stop led to a historic moment, as on that drive Hills caught a 19-yard pass to break the 2,000 receiving yard mark for the first time in his career, then caught the touchdown pass on the very next play.
While there was some fight left in Tampa Bay, Jacksonville earned one final turnover on downs to eliminate any hope of a late comeback in the last minute.
On offense, Grady had another good night, completing 21 of 34 attempts for 254 yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions. Boltus also played an interception-free game, but only completing 17 of his 36 attempts for 231 yards and four scores.
Hills led all the way in his milestone night, recording game highs in catches (seven), yards (92), and scores (four, bringing him to 58 for the regular season, three shy of Damian Harrell‘s record). Jones wasn’t far behind with four catches for 88 yards and two scores, while Spiderman lured six balls into his web for 71 yards and two scores.
T.T. Toliver had a relatively quiet night by his standards, but still led his team with 84 yards and two scores on four catches. Former Shark Prechae Rodriguez had a team-high six catches (43 yards, TD), and Kendrick Ings finished with five catches for 67 yards and a score.
On defense, Bowers, Miller, Cornelius Lewis, and Neefy Moffett all paid for Boltus’ trips to Sacksonville, while Lyn was the only player to record double-digit tackles.
For Jacksonville, the second season now begins. Thanks to tonight’s results, next week the Sharks will look to repeat their path to the ArenaBowl, as they go on the road to face the Orlando Predators in the conference semifinals. Kickoff is set for Saturday, August 6 at 7:00 p.m., and the game will be televised live on CBS Sports Network.