DULUTH -- In the Arena Football League that is known for high-powered offenses and scoring points in bunches, the Georgia Force turned to defense to pick up a critical win and climb into first place in the American Conference South Division.
A critical goal-line stand in the second quarter, a safety to end the third quarter and a pick-six late in the fourth quarter were the difference makers as Georgia (7-6) rallied from 18 points down to take a 56-39 victory over Jacksonville.
In fact, Georgia outscored Jacksonville 47-12 after the Sharks took a 27-9 lead with 9:31 to go in the second quarter.
The first defensive spark came in the in the opening half with Georgia trailing 27-16 as the Force defense stuffed Jacksonville four times inside the five yard line and sent the Sharks away with no points.
Georgia then moved to the Jacksonville 6 and got a Carlos Martinez 21-yard field goal as time expired to make it a one-possession game at 27-19 at halftime.
Then a safety on Jacksonville quarterback Bernard Morris by rookie Kris Cooke gave Georgia a 34-33 lead.
But it was a Jeremy Grier pick-six with 1:10 to go in the fourth quarter that put Georgia up 49-39 and sealed the deal for the Force.
“It was not only just about the defensive stops we got tonight, but it was about taking our possessions and turning them into points,” said Georgia head coach Dean Cokinos as the Force also halted a two-game losing streak. “We made critical stops and helped our offense settle down. It changed the momentum of the game. Overall, we had a great team effort.”
Not lost in all the defense excellence was a stellar game from Larry Shipp, who caught three TDs, ran for the go-ahead score and also threw for one late in the game to propel the Georgia offense.
Shipp caught TD passes of 12, 12 and 5 yards while rushing for another TD of one yard and throwing a 2-yard pass.
Shipp finished with 13 catches for 167 yards receiving for Georgia, which was missing C.J. Johnson with a hamstring injury suffered against New Orleans.
“This was a big game for us,” said Shipp. “If we would have lost this game, it would have put us in a tough position for the playoffs. We laid it on the line, because this was just like a playoff game with so much riding on it. You also know playing a South Division game that it’s going to be tough. Everybody in the division is coming after you every game.”
Georgia also got a solid effort from quarterback R.J. Archer, who was 27 of 43 for 284 yards, three TD passes and one interception.
Jake Allen added seven catches for 72 yards while Brandon McRae had five catches for 46 yards.
Jacksonville (6-6) struck quickly to take a 7-0 lead when Jamarko Simmons hauled in a 13-yard pass from Bernard Morris only 1:11 into the game.
After Georgia pulled within 7-6 on a Shipp 12-yard touchdown pass from Archer,
Jacksonville answered back with a Bobby Sewall 17-yard TD toss from Morris to increase the Sharks’ lead to 13-7.
Martinez kicked a 26-yard field goal for Georgia to make it 13-9, but Jacksonville scored the next 14 points to pull out to a 27-9 advantage.
Simmons caught his second TD pass of the night -- a 7-yarder -- from Morris, who was starting his fifth game of the season.
But the big play came when LaRouche Jackson, formerly of Clark-Atlanta, went 52 yards with a pick-six interception return to push the Sharks out to the 18-point lead.
Georgia didn’t go away as Shipp pulled in his second TD on a 12-yard pass from Archer to cut into the Jacksonville lead at 27-16.
Shipp has now caught a TD pass in all 13 of Georgia’s games and also has a five-game streak of at least two TD catches.
Georgia took the opening kickoff of the second half and scored as Archer hit Shipp on a third scoring toss from five yards as the Force got to within a point at 27-26.
Jacksonville responded with a 7-play, 45-yard drive capped on a Morris 5-yard TD pass to
Jeron Harvey, but the Sharks botched the point-after try to keep Georgia within seven at 33-26.
Mykell Benson, a 6-0, 275-pound fullback, completed a Georgia scoring drive on the next possession with his sixth rushing TD of the season on a 7-yard run around the right side, but Martinez pushed the PAT wide right to keep the Jacksonville lead at 33-32.
Georgia once again turned to its defense on the final play of the third quarter as Cooke got the safety as the Force took their first lead of the night at 34-33.
But Jacksonville also looked to its defense to shift the momentum as Scooter Berry sacked Archer, who fumbled, and Aaron Robbins put the Sharks offense in business at the Force 21.
Jacksonville capitalized as Simmons caught his third TD of the night from Morris -- this one from two yards out -- as the Sharks regained the lead at 39-34, but the two-point pass failed to keep the lead at five and the door open was left open for the Force.
And Georgia cashed in as Shipp scored his fourth TD of the night on a pitch from Archer on 4th-and-1 to give the Force a 40-39 lead.
Archer then hit Shipp on a two-point pass to increase the Force advantage to 42-39 with 1:44 left.
After Grier's interception return, Georgia later added a fourth-down pass from Shipp to Shay Hodge from three yards for the final 17-point margin.