Sixty-nine minutes, ten seconds, four missed extra points, two missed reviews, one yard. These were just some of the magic numbers the Jacksonville Sharks (8-9) needed to defeat the Orlando Predators (12-5), 69-68, in the American Conference Semifinals on Saturday night.
In what was mostly a seesaw affair all night, Orlando appeared to have the game won when Bernard Morris scored as time expired. However, Mark Lewis, who came into the game 111/123 on extra points this season, missed his second of the night to force overtime.
After the Predators scored on their possession, Jacksonville got a big boost thanks to a 30-yard return from “Big Play” Reggie Gray. After Derrick Ross sealed the drive with a one-yard score, the Sharks opted to go for the win rather than risk losing on another Predators score. The game seemed over when Joe Hills couldn’t haul in the pass, but Orlando defensive back Varmah Sonie committed pass interference, giving Ross one more crack for the winning run.
The game started off as a track meet, with teams trading scores on their opening drives. However, after the Predators took a 14-7 lead, things got ugly for the Sharks. A penalty-ridden drive ended with Terence Moore picking off Tommy Grady and returning the ball 42 yards for a touchdown and a two-score lead early in the second quarter.
Following a Ross fumble at the goal line, Orlando was set to go up three touchdowns when a tipped Bernard Morris pass found the hands of JLB Alvin Ray Jackson, who needed only five yards to find the end zone and give Jacksonville life.
The Predators kept the Sharks at arm’s reach for a couple possessions, but when DB LaRoche “Action” Jackson forced a Larry Brackins fumble with seven seconds left, Jacksonville had a shot to go into the locker room tied at 28. Tommy Grady found Joe Hills for 12 yards, then Tiger Jones caught a 27-yard Hail Mary off the net to complete the hard part of the comeback. However, kicker Lindsey Wolfe, who missed nine extra points in just five games, missed the extra point, and the ball stuck in the post signifying the Sharks’ season up to that point.
Down 28-27, Jacksonville took advantage of the first drive of the second half, and Grady continued Hills’ touchdown streak thanks to consecutive 14-yard completions. But, Wolfe missed again, and the lead was only five.
Both teams again traded scores, with Morris using his legs and finding room on option plays that turned to touchdown runs. In what proved to be somewhat crucial towards the end of the game, Jacksonville went for two after they scored their second touchdown of the third quarter. Grady missed his receiver, and the lead was a mere four points at 39-35.
Orlando and Jacksonville still held serve, but the kicking game started to turn against the Predators as normally reliable Mark Lewis missed his first kick of the night to keep what would’ve been a field goal lead at just two points, 48-46.
Gray, already a dominant receiver on the night, displayed his kick return talents that brought him to Jacksonville with a key 36-yard return to set up a short field and a Ross one-yard touchdown run.
Up 53-48 with 4:24 left in regulation, the onside kick chess match began. The Sharks failed, the Predators scored 12 seconds later. Orlando failed, but a high kick landing out of bounds meant the Sharks had to travel nearly half the field to score. They did, and did again thanks to Joe Hills. Hills caught the touchdown pass and the two-point conversion to restore a six-point lead. However, replays showed Hills bobbled the ball at the goal line, and the ball hit the ground. The referees could not see the replay in time to review the call.
Inside the final minute, the Predators worked to burn off the clock and not score immediately, hoping to win the game. Brandon Thompkins went down at the one-yard line, and the Sharks nearly finalized a goal line stand when Bernard Morris sneaked over the goal line for the score.
However, replays showed that Morris’ momentum was stopped and he reached over the line late. But, as previously, the referees could not see a replay in time to review the call, setting up the wild and wacky finish.
Both quarterbacks had great games through the air. Grady completed 32 of 42 passes for five touchdowns and an interception. Morris matched the scoring and interception totals, but completed only 22 of 31 attempts for 277 yards in the process. Morris also matched Derrick Ross on the ground, as both scored four rushing touchdowns (Morris did it on seven carries for 22 yards, while Ross had 12 carries for 26 yards).
Reggie Gray and Joe Hills finished first and second in catches and yards (15-143 and 11-127, respectively), each with two touchdown catches. Tiger Jones also had six catches of his own for 62 yards and a score. Larry Brackins was Orlando’s leading receiver with eight catches for 122 yards and four scores. LaRoche Jackson and Varmah Sonie each surpassed ten tackles, while David Hyland came up with the lone sack of the night.
For Orlando, it’s another long offseason filled with what might have been, as they’ve lost at home in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. For Jacksonville, they sit and await the winner of Sunday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Storm and Philadelphia Soul. If the Soul win, it’s a repeat road trip to Philly for the conference title game. If the Storm pull off an upset, then the Sharks will host the American Conference Championship game for the first time since 2013.