JACKSONVILLE - Kyle Rowley stepped in as an injury replacement and accounted for five total touchdowns, London Crawford exploded for the biggest game of his young career, and Terrance Smith notched his third two-interception game in the last five weeks as the Jacksonville Sharks (10-5) defeated the Orlando Predators (5-9) in front of 10,108 on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday night.
The victory improved the Sharks' overall regular-season record against Orlando to 7-1, as Jacksonville has now won six consecutive regular-season games against the Predators. Including the postseason, the Sharks have won seven straight against Orlando, sweeping the Predators in three consecutive season series. The victory reduced the Sharks' "magic number" in the South Division to just one. Should the Tampa Bay Storm fall to the Spokane Shock next week, Jacksonville would lock up its fourth division crown in as many seasons. Tonight's result also eliminated Orlando from the division race.
With the game tied at 27 in the final minutes of the first half, the Sharks moved the ball into the red zone. Starting quarterback R.J. Archer completed a short pass but stayed down after the play, leaving the game with an apparent leg injury. Coming off the bench, Rowley finished the drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to Jeron Harvey as Jacksonville took a 34-27 lead into the locker room.
The Predators kept pace for much of the second half, as Mykel Benson opened the third quarter with a two-yard rushing touchdown to tie the score at 34. On the ensuing drive, Rowley plunged in on a quarterback sneak to allow the Sharks to regain the lead. Orlando answered yet again in the third, as Aaron Garcia found Prechae Rodriguez from 14 yards out to even the game, 41-41.
As the game moved into the fourth quarter, the Shark offense backed itself up with three consecutive penalties. When the dust settled, Jacksonville faced a second-and-goal from the 25-yard line. At that point, Rowley dropped back to pass, looked to his left and hit Crawford, who sprinted past an Orlando defender into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown as the Sharks took a 48-41 advantage.
Playing in just third game since being activated from injured reserve, Crawford put together what was easily the biggest individual performance of his AFL career, leading the Sharks with 12 receptions for a total of 107 yards and three touchdowns.
On the first play of Orlando's next drive, Garcia looked for Jason Geathers on a quick pass to the left. As Geathers bobbled the ball, Smith snagged it away for his first interception of the game, setting his offense up with a first-and-goal situation. Two Rowley runs later, the Sharks had the team's first two-score lead since the second quarter, 55-41.
The Predators came right back with a touchdown, as Garcia hit T.T. Toliver on back-to-back passes to go nearly the length of the field for a score. But Jacksonville responded again, as Rowley hit Markee White up against the boards for an eight-yard score as the Sharks again took a two-score advantage. Orlando scored quickly yet again, as Geathers notched a 48-yard catch-and-run to pull his team within a single touchdown. After Marco Capozzoli's field goal attempt missed wide right, the Sharks needed one final defensive stand to seal the game.
Orlando moved down the field with a pair of first downs, but the Shark defense was able to corral receivers inbounds, forcing the Predators to use all of their remaining timeouts. With no time remaining, Garcia spiked the ball to stop the clock with 11 seconds left and the ball on the Sharks' 13-yard line. Hoping for the tying touchdown, Garcia tossed it toward the end zone but the pass sailed into the arms of Smith, who snagged his second interception of the fourth quarter and ran out the clock to end the game.
Smith has now recorded a total of 11 interceptions this year, tying Micheaux Robinson's single-season franchise record. Saturday was Smith's fourth two-pick game of the year, and third in the month of June.
The victory reduced the Sharks' "magic number" in the South Division to just one. Should the Tampa Bay Storm fall to the Spokane Shock next week, Jacksonville would lock up its fourth division crown in as many seasons. Tonight's result also eliminated Orlando from the division race.
Before leaving the game, Archer was in the midst of a phenomenal first half in his second start of the season, completing 16 of his 20 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns. Coming on in relief, Rowley went 13-of-24 for 130 yards and three scores. Partly responsible for the two quarterbacks' big games was the work of the Shark offensive line, which did not allow a single sack on Saturday.
In addition to Crawford's big game, White caught 10 passes for a team-high 112 yards and a score, while Harvey totaled seven receptions for 98 yards and two touchdowns. With 127 receptions in 2013, Harvey is now just five catches shy of eclipsing Jomo Wilson's franchise record for most in a single season.
On defense, Tracy Belton led the Sharks with 5.5 total tackles, and made a great one-handed tip-catch for an interception in the first quarter. Smith totaled 3.5 tackles and two pass breakups to go along with his two picks, while Robinson added 4.5 total tackles and a breakup.
Playing in his first game in Jacksonville since leading the Sharks to the ArenaBowl XXIV title in 2011, Garcia completed 19 of his 33 passes for 234 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. Benson scored a pair of rushing touchdowns for Orlando, while Rodriguez led the Predators with three touchdown catches.
Orlando defensive back Dominic Jones led all players with 9.5 total tackles (nine solo) and four pass breakups, as he also returned a kickoff for a touchdown and totaled 154 kickoff return yards. Anthony Shutt added 6.5 total tackles for the Predators.