PHILADELPHIA – For the first time since 2011, the Jacksonville Sharks will be playing for the ArenaBowl championship.
On Sunday night, quarterback Tommy Grady led his underdog Sharks on the road against the favored Philadelphia Soul––the top seed in the American Conference playoffs––and pulled off the shocking upset of the 15-win Soul squad that was expected to blow through the AFL postseason on the way to ArenaBowl XXVIII.
Grady, in his first season under center for Jacksonville following three seasons with the Utah Blaze (2011-13) and one with the now-folded Pittsburgh Power (2014), is coming off his strongest season in terms of efficiency. Grady completed 67.2% of his passes and posted a 121.96 QB rating during the regular season, and in their nail-biting 61-56 Conference Championship victory he put the ball in the end zone nine total times.
As for Philadelphia, MVP candidate quarterback Dan Raudabaugh struggled early on against Jacksonville’s front line. Even without sack leader Joe Sykes on the field, Raudabaugh was pressured by Jacksonville’s defensive line early and often, and Jacksonville managed to force a few early mistakes and errant throws.
The veteran signal caller, who tossed for nearly 5,000 yards and 119 touchdowns in his fourth season under center for the Soul offense, led his offense down the field on a quick three-play scoring drive capped with a 31-yard touchdown to WR Shaun Kauleinamoku. But an SK fumble and an interception on the next two drives for Philadelphia led to a 21-7 Jacksonville lead early in the second quarter.
Former Philly WR Tiger Jones, now Jacksonville’s star wideout, caught two of Grady’s first three touchdown passes and he finished the game with four catches for 89 yards and a pair of TDs, while fellow Sharks WR Joe Hills caught five passes for 55 yards and 5 touchdowns.
With a 28-14 lead at the half, Jacksonville’s offense scored two more touchdowns in the third quarter, but Philadelphia managed to keep pace with three Raudabaugh to Marco Thomas touchdowns through the air. The fourth quarter was spent trading touchdowns, with Jacksonville striking first, but Philadelphia managed to keep pace until the one minute warning.
Thomas grabbed his fourth touchdown of the game (12 catches, 147 yards, 4 TD) with :39 to play, and head coach Clint Dolezel’s onside kick attempt failed. But a quick three-and-out from Grady (three straight incomplete passes to Joe Hills) and a missed field goal attempt from placekicker Julian Rauch gave the ball right back to Philadelphia with :18 to spare.
Down five points, Raudabaugh & Co. went back to work with two timeouts remaining and 37 yards to the end zone. Defensive end Scooter Berry sacked Raudabaugh for a loss of four on the opening play of the drive, but a couple of passes to Ryan McDaniel put the ball on the JAX 14-yard line with :02 remaining. One last heave to the end zone, however, was picked off by Laroche Jackson (his second of the game) as time expired. Game over, Jacksonville.
The victory, Jacksonville’s seventh playoff win in team history, means revenge for head coach Les Moss’ Sharks, who were bounced by Philadelphia in the 2013 Conference Championship. It was Moss’ Sharks in 2011 that defeated the Arizona Rattlers in ArenaBowl XXIV.
Jacksonville will set out on the road once again next Saturday night to take on the one-loss San Jose SaberCats at Stockton Arena. Can Moss, Grady and the Sykes-less Sharks pull off one last upset and capture its second league championship since its 2010 inception?