Led by four total touchdowns from receiver Jeff Hughley, the 2012 South Division Champion Jacksonville Sharks picked up a third road win in as many weeks, taking down the Cleveland Gladiators by a 66-49 count at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night. With the win, Jacksonville improves to 3-0 for the first time in franchise history.
Though Jacksonville (3-0) scored first and ultimately led wire to wire, the game remained close until late in the final quarter. In fact, the two teams had combined to score on every possession of the second half before the Shark defense stepped up with a key stop. With their team ahead, 58-49, Aaron Robbins and Rashaad Duncan each sacked Cleveland (0-3) quarterback Brian Zbydniewski in a three-play span, forcing the Gladiators into a fourth-and-19 situation.
At that point, the Gladiators opted to attempt a long field goal, which missed wide left. Hughley returned the miss to near midfield and a few plays later, quarterback Bernard Morris hit Markee White for a 16-yard touchdown that gave the Sharks a three-score lead, icing the game with 1:00 left.
That touchdown was White’s third of the game, as the fourth-year receiver delivered the most productive game of his brief Shark career. White led the Sharks in all three major receiving categories, finishing with 10 catches for 122 yards and three scores.
While the second half belonged to White, Hughley catalyzed the Shark offense in the first two quarters. The fourth-year pro hauled in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Morris on the game’s first possession, then added two rushing touchdowns later in the half. Adding a receiving touchdown in the third quarter, Hughley led all players by hitting paydirt four times on Saturday.
Morris continued his mistake-free start to the 2013 season, throwing seven touchdowns without turning the football over. The Shark signal-caller completed 23 of his 35 passes for 282 yards and those seven scores, adding 20 rushing yards on his four carries. Morris has now opened the season by throwing 18 touchdowns without a pick through the Sharks’ first three games.
While the offense played nearly perfect ball in the second half, it was the work of the Jacksonville defense that gave the Sharks an early edge. Two consecutive first-half stops allowed Jacksonville to lead 21-7 early in the second quarter. As has often been the case this season, the Shark pass rush was a dominant force.
Entering the game with a league-leading eight sacks through two weeks, Shark defenders brought down Zbydniewski on four occasions Saturday night. A constant force in the middle, Duncan was credited with three sacks, tying a single-game team record that was matched by Jerry Turner just last week. Robbins added his aforementioned sack in the fourth quarter, while Matt Marcorelle disrupted several plays and forced hurried throws.
Thanks in large part to that constant pressure, Zbydniewski completed less than half of his pass attempts, ending the game 19-of-40 for 244 yards and five touchdowns. His favorite target throughout the game was Dominick Goodman, who led Cleveland with nine catches for 118 yards and three scores. Goodman also made a huge impact on special teams, racking up 157 kick return yards on six runbacks.
For the Sharks, Hughley returned seven kicks for 90 yards and totaled 184 all-purpose yards. Kicker Marco Capozzoli drilled a 34-yarder at the end of the first half – his first attempt of the season – and also hit seven of his eight extra points.
Though the Shark secondary did not record an interception, the team broke up a total of seven passes. Playing his home state of Ohio, Micheaux Robinson led the charge with eight solo tackles, a tackle for loss and three pass breakups.
After this season-opening three-game road trip, the Sharks will return home to host the New Orleans VooDoo on Friday, April 12 on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Kickoff is set for 8:00 p.m.