The Jacksonville Sharks (2-2) notched what has to be described as their first must-win game of the season against the Tampa Bay Storm (3-2), 60-41, on Friday night. It was their eighth in nine all-time meetings.
Things couldn’t have started out better for Jacksonville, as a long Terrance Smith kickoff return turned into a nice drive finishing with an R.J. Archer touchdown sneak. The Sharks didn’t need long on defense, as returning Jack linebacker Charlie Hunt recovered a second fumbled snap. When Archer got shaken up on a sack by Tampa Bay DL Richard Clebert, the man of the hour, Aaron Garcia, warmed up and stepped into the game. One pass, one hit, one touchdown, a 24-yard pass to Mardy Gilyard. Garcia was a little slow to get up, but he walked off the field and that was the end of his night.
Tampa Bay started to find their offensive rhythm, and started to trade scores with Jacksonville, who started to play a little sloppy. Defensive penalties and a lack of offensive precision helped the Storm gain a 21-20 lead halfway through the second quarter. R.J. Archer didn’t find himself on the same page in the frame, leading to two missed fourth down conversions.
With their backs creeping against the wall, Jacksonville turned to their pride and joy, their defense. Terrance Smith, already making an imprint on special teams, grabbed his third interception in two home games, setting up a London Crawford end zone catch with six seconds left to give Jacksonville a 26-21 lead going into the locker room.
Jacksonville picked up where they left off on defense in the second half, getting a sack fumble that LB Aaron Robbins recovered in the end zone to increase the lead to two scores. DB Xavier Brewer joined in on the fun, intercepting Tampa Bay QB Randy Hippeard, leading to Mardy Gilyard’s first touchdown of the night and a 39-21 lead.
Tampa Bay found their way back into the game, first on offense as WR Joe Hills tripped up a defender on his way into the end zone, then on defense as R.J. Archer threw a pick six to pull the Storm to within four at 39-35.
It didn’t take long for the Sharks to recover from their second scare of the night, as Mardy Gilyard started to get wide open, and got into the end zone again to end the third quarter with a Jacksonville up 46-35.
The fourth quarter was almost academic, as DE Justin Parrish joined the sack fest on third down, and DB Micheaux Robinson breaking up a pass one play later. FB Jared McGriff-Culver put the game out of reach on a run along the right side into the end zone, his fourth straight game with a touchdown. When Tampa Bay scored on a long drive, it was too little, too late. London Crawford scored one last time, Robinson broke up one last pass, Parrish got last sack, and Charlie Hunt picked off backup Storm QB Stephen Garcia one more time to make it almost official. The only thing that prevented a perfect ending was R.J. Archer’s last pass taking a crazy bounce off the net and landing in Tampa Bay’s hands.
The one overarching theme was the physicality. R.J. Archer, Mardy Gilyard, and London Crawford all took major hits and had to miss at least a play during the course of the game.
Archer had another solid offensive night, going 23-for-36 for 202 yards, five touchdowns, the two interceptions, and his touchdown run to start the game. In regards to the performance, he both gives credit and acknowledged the team’s limitations with a short week. “It was a little rough. The defensive lines on both teams were good. We worked hard, but there were a lot of little things. We left a couple plays out there.”
In regards to the Aaron Garcia situation, Archer primarily focused on his situation. “I didn’t know AG was gonna come back. I’m just happy to be out there, and I’ll be his eyes on the sideline. I just control what I can control.”
London Crawford was one of Archer’s main targets, with a team-high 10 catches and three touchdowns. He praised the team’s approach heading into the game. “It always feels good to get a great win. We came out fired up, and we pointed out things to get right.” He noted the various speeches both he and his teammates gave at halftime “We gotta get a win, we gotta keep pressing. It feels good that the team listened.” He quickly focused on next week’s game in Philadelphia.
Mardy Gilyard also had some fun, catching nine passes for 108 yards and three touchdowns, earning Offensive Player of the Game honors in the process. “I just did my job, see ball, catch ball. We have excellent quarterbacks and a number one defense.” He praised the team for the collective effort and amazing turnaround from last week’s game. “To play as bad as we did against Arizona in all phases, we focused on the fundamentals [this week].”
On defense, the team got back to their old ways. The team that set a record last year got five sacks. Jerry Turner (1.5), Darnell Carter (1.0), Rashaad Duncan (0.5), and Aaron Robbins (0.5) all got pressure and made Tampa Bay’s night miserable. Micheaux Robinson reminded everyone why he’s nicknamed “Pit Bull” with four pass breakups and 5.5 tackles.
Charlie Hunt made his return a great one, recovering a fumble, forcing another, and getting an interception. “It’s great to be back in Jacksonville. It was my first real live contact in a year and a half. It was great to get the win, and we played awesome as a defense. I fed off the rest of the guys.” He also said the bright spot was the ability to force turnovers and bad passes.
It was an average night for Tampa Bay, as QB Randy Hippeard completed 21 of 37 passes for 239 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. WR Justin Hilton had a game-high 11 catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns of his own, while Joe Hills and Amarri Jackson each caught a touchdown. Jean Fanor led the Storm on defense with 8.5 tackles, while De’Audra Dix had 6.5 tackles, two pass breakups one tackle for loss, and an interception.
Now the task at hand is the 1-3 Philadelphia Soul, as the Sharks will go back on the road to face the team that beat them in the last two American Conference championship games. Kickoff is set for 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 19, and the game, as every game this season, will be broadcast locally on WBOB AM 600.
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