07/31/2010 3:25 AM -
The Jacksonville Sharks roared into the Arena Football League playoffs with a 64-49 victory over the Spokane Shock on Friday night before a second consecutive sellout crowd of 13,011 at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
The Sharks (12-4) will be the top seed in the American Conference and will play host to the Orlando Predators next Friday night in the playoff opener. Jacksonville would also host a second-round game and could be at home for the Arena Bowl championship game on Aug. 20.
Spokane (13-3) still finished the regular season with the best record in the AFL. The Shock will be at home for as long as it stays alive in the playoffs.
Jacksonville quarterback Aaron Garcia, who suffered a separated shoulder only two weeks ago, threw seven touchdown passes, three of them to Jackson High graduate Jeron Harvey and three to Jason Willis.
And the Sharks defense forced four turnovers, scoring on one of them: a 47-yard fumble return by nose guard Jeff Littlejohn.
The Sharks also intercepted Spokane quarterbacks three times, twice by Micheaux Robinson and another by Jason Perry in the end zone that thwarted a Shock drive.
"When we play well, that's what happens," Sharks coach Les Moss said. "We got after their quarterback all night, and the guys in the secondary made some plays."
Garcia completed 25-of-37 passes for 293 yards. and after he fumbled and Spokane recovered on the first drive of the game, the Sharks converted every possession that mattered the rest of the game. Garcia said he felt some pain from his injury, as expected. He credited his pass blockers' protection and offensive coordinator Chris Siegfried's play calling for escaping without taking a hit.
"Our line plays like that, it's [shoulder] not going to matter," Garcia said. "Chris and Aaron called a great game," Moss said "He kept Aaron out of trouble, and the offense was clicking tonight."
After the Sharks took the lead for good at 21-14 with 8:02 left in the first half on a 3-yard pass from Garcia to Willis, the Shock drove from its 5-yard line to the Jacksonville 3.
As Kyle Rowley handed the ball to fullback Clay Harrell, Bill Alford punched the ball loose and into the hands of Littlejohn, who rumbled all the way the other way.
"I just ran to the ball and there it was," Littlejohn said. "I could see to my left, but not to my right so I didn't know if anybody was coming. I kept trying to hand it to RaJohn [Myles], but he didn't want it, so I kept it and kept rumbling with it. That's a defensive lineman's dream come true."
"Jeff Littlejohn played his tail off," Moss said.
With coaches allowed one challenge per half in an AFL experiment during the NFL Network telecast, Spokane coach Rob Keefe appealed the fumble ruling. But the replay affirmed the call before the 315-pound Littlejohn could catch his breath.
It was the fifth touchdown scored by the Jacksonville defense this season. Moss also got to use his first-half challenge in the final seconds of the half when Kirby Griffin's attempt to score from the 1 was denied.
That play wasn't overturned, either, but on fourth down, reserve quarterback Bernard Morris rolled out and scored for a 33-21 halftime lead.
Garcia finished the half with 186 passing and three touchdowns, the two to Willis and one to Dallas Baker. In the second half, Garcia threw his first three touchdowns to Harvey, who was playing his first game since coming off the injured reserve list. Harvey dropped the first pass thrown his way, but then he turned three of his four receptions into touchdowns of 10, 7 and 48 yards.
"I had to settle down. I hadn't played in so long," said Harvey, who also caught three touchdowns in the Sharks' first game against Spokane (a 67-57 loss). "When the opportunity presents itself, I got to make the play."
Spokane's Rowley threw for 183 yards and three scores to Markee White. Rowley and White hooked up for five touchdowns altogether. Brian Zbydniewski, Spokane's No. 2 quarterback, played the fourth quarter and threw a pair of touchdowns to Huey Whittaker.