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Jacksonville suffers season-opening loss to Orlando

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For the first time in eight games, the Jacksonville Sharks have lost to their division rivals, the Orlando Predators. It’s the first loss to Orlando in the regular season since 2011.

In a tightly contested game, Jacksonville (0-1) had the chance to force overtime trailing 49-41 at the one-minute warning. After an efficient drive, FB Jared McGriff-Culver scored his first career touchdown with eight seconds left. Despite getting a second chance thanks to a pass interference play, the two-point conversion fell short as QB R.J. Archer couldn’t handle Orlando’s pass pressure, and couldn’t find Jeron Harvey in the end zone. The Predators (1-0) recovered the kickoff in the end zone and ran off the final seconds to seal the win.

It didn’t start out too well on either side of the ball for Jacksonville. Orlando marched down the field and QB Jason Boltus found WR Kendal Thompkins for a 10-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring. The Sharks started on offense at their own one-yard line, and turned it over on downs as Archer couldn’t find WR Mardy Gilyard on fourth down.

The story repeated itself on the next drive, but this time WR London Crawford found paydirt cutting to the middle of the field on a 24-yard catch and run. The offense continued to find momentum with Jeron Harvey answering Orlando’s next touchdown with his first score of the season.

The two teams continued to trade scores, but after Mardy Gilyard scored on a long pass, the Sharks onside kick failed as no one jumped to recover the ball. The special teams error didn’t prove costly, as Jacksonville’s defense, led by Tracy Belton, found life and stopped Orlando to get the ball back.

Gilyard tried to get in the end zone to potentially level the scores, but to no avail. Instead, Jacksonville had to settle for a 36-yard field goal attempt by Fabrizio Scaccia, which hit the crossbar to end the first half.

The two teams continued to battle back and forth in the second half, with Mardy Gilyard and Jeron Harvey torching the Orlando defense. After a long, 7½ minute drive that got inside the five-yard line, the Predators defense got a stop that turned into a quick score. Thanks to a big Gilyard return and tough running by Jared McGriff-Culver, the Sharks got back to within eight late in the third quarter thanks to a Jeron Harvey eight-yard scoring catch.

Orlando continued to have the slight edge, thanks to a big catch and run and a touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. However, that penalty opened the door for DB Xavier Brewer to make his first career interception in the end zone. Jacksonville QB R.J. Archer caught the Predators off guard, and found London Crawford on a 45-yard catch and run thanks in part to blown defensive coverage.

Just when the Sharks had climbed to within a point at 35-34, Arness Ikner ran the kickoff back for a touchdown to restore the eight-point deficit. Crawford almost answered back immediately, getting down to the three-yard line, but Jeron Harvey would finish the job to make the score 42-41.

Jacksonville’s defense kept them in the game as Shamar Graves had a near interception, but the team caught a bad break when the referees missed a delay of game call, allowing the Predators to convert 4th-and-7, setting up a Jason Boltus touchdown run, setting up the final drive. To add injury to insult, Graves was hurt on the play.

R.J. Archer had a decent start to the season, finishing the game 27-of-39 for 276 yards and five touchdowns. Jeron Harvey led the way with 11 catches for 93 yards and his three scores, while Crawford’s had a game-high 128 yards and two touchdowns of his own on just six catches. Mardy Gilyard had immediate impact in his debut, chipping in with nine receptions for 54 yards to go along with his rushing touchdown. Another player making his debut, Jared McGriff-Culver proved his efficiency at fullback, totaling five carries for 22 yards.

On defense, Xavier Brewer and Shamar Graves each had a team-high five solo tackles and a tackle for loss, while Micheaux Robinson led the team with two pass breakups.

Orlando’s stats weren’t as pretty, but good enough for a win. Jason Boltus completed 17 of 33 attempts for only 176 yards, but he threw four touchdowns against one interception. He also led the Predators’ ground attack, rushing for 46 yards and two scores on seven carries. Khalil Paden led Orlando with six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.

Jacksonville has some time to look back on the loss, as they’ll have their first of two bye weeks next week. They return to action with their home opener on Saturday, March 29, against the San Antonio Talons at Veterans Memorial Arena. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m.

For more on the Jacksonville Sharks, including the latest news, updates, and transactions, log on to www.jaxsharks.com. For more on the rest of the Arena Football League, log on to www.arenafan.com and www.arenafootball.com.

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