Charles McCullum threw eight touchdown passes, and Phillip Barnett and Tyrell Goodman collected four touchdowns each, as the Carolina Cobras routed the Jacksonville Sharks, 73-48, in NAL semifinal action last night at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Carolina offense scored on each of its first 11 drives – ten going for touchdowns – while its defense forced three turnovers and stopped the Sharks on five of their first six possessions as the Cobras took a 39-7 lead into halftime. In the second half, Carolina’s lead never dipped below three possessions and climbed to 41 points before its 11-drive scoring streak came to an end with 4:41 left.
So, how did a pick ‘em game turn into a wall-to-wall blowout? In this case, Carolina’s relentless chokehold on the defending-champion Sharks was augmented with a heap of the latter’s self-administered gagging. Jacksonville rolled into the Snake Pit with the bravado of a team believing they were destined to repeat as NAL champions, but like a lot of bullies who get hit in the mouth early, often, and with good force, the veneer stripped away quickly, leaving an exposed team pressing to cover inadequacies and imploding in the process.
The tone was set on the game’s opening drive when Carolina came out throwing deep on its first three plays. Sharks defensive backs Seth Ellis and Marvin Ross seemed unprepared for the early Cobra aggression, and each was penalized on those first three passes. In all, four flags were thrown on the Jacksonville defense in the 5-play opening drive that culminated with a 12-yard touchdown pass from McCullum to Barnett.
As the night unfolded, Ellis and Ross would become the poster children of a Jacksonville defense that had no discipline, no focus, and no poise, let alone any ability to keep up with a Carolina receiving corps featuring Barnett, Goodman, and Fabian Guerra, who also had a pair of touchdowns. Both D-backs were ultimately tossed, Ellis for a flagrant unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after throwing a ref’s flag into the crowd near the end of the first half, and Ross in the fourth quarter for his second unsportsmanlike conduct call.
In all, the Sharks defense collected 21 flags – several of which were declined – and they found themselves in bonus-foul jail during both halves. But the high-water mark of defensive frustration came early in the second quarter when Ross, who nearly intercepted McCullum at the goal line the play before, could not get out to the left flat in time to pick up Barnett as he reigned in the third of his four consecutive touchdowns to put the Cobras up, 26-0 only 21 minutes in. The touchdown proved the critical mass in the beat-down of this bully. After that, the Sharks played as if they knew they were up against a better opponent.
Nor were miscues contained to the defensive side. After successfully recovering their second onside kick with 4:07 remaining in the third quarter, Jacksonville had a chance to cut into Carolina’s 21-point lead. Quarterback Patrick McCain found Cody Saul wide open in the end zone on a second-and-seven from the Jacksonville 21, but Saul dropped the pass and the Sharks eventually turned the ball over on downs to the Cobras, who wasted no time regaining a 28-point lead.
Then, with the Sharks on the Cobras’ 19-yard-line and just over 11 minutes remaining, McCain drew an unsportsmanlike penalty on third down for removing his helmet to argue a late hit. On the next play, Derrick and Marvin Ross each picked up unsportsmanlike calls that earned the latter Ross his disqualification. Carolina took possession on the Sharks’ 7-yard line and extended their lead to 66-32 when McCullum hit Goodman for the third of his four touchdowns on the next play.
Whenever Jacksonville even hinted at a comeback, the stoic McCullum had an answer and delivered it comfortably behind an offensive line of center Antonio Foster and tackles Joe Harris and Chad Kolumber. The trio, augmented with fullback Faleaofa Russell, were impenetrable, incorporating blocking schemes that stymied a defensive front who struggled to get pressure on McCullum even during frequent mack blitzes. It’s often said that these games are won and lost on the lines, and that was the quiet story last night.
The NAL season is the longest in arena or indoor football, and is certainly the most forgiving. Each playoff team has been afforded a second chance at one point or another. The Cobras got theirs when Jacksonville’s loss to close the regular season gave them home field advantage last night, and again when the Columbus Lions knocked out the Massachusetts Pirates on Saturday, allowing the Snake Pit to play host to the National Arena Bowl on August 27.
The Sharks had their second chance, too. After starting out 1-3, they controlled their own destiny early in August and could have forced the road to the National Arena Bowl through Jacksonville. But no season is compassionate enough to hand another night to a team as arrogant and unprepared as the Sharks were last night. Now, the only road leading to Jacksonville is the lonely one they’ll be taking back to town and an awaiting offseason.