San Jose rains on Thunder debut
Monday night at Portland’s Moda Center began a new era in Oregon: The Arena Football League. The Portland Thunder opened their inaugural season with pyrotechnics, roaring Harley Davidson engines and (what else?) the AC/DC classic, “Thunderstruck.”
The feeling in the arena was, without exaggeration, truly electric. The raucous crowd filed in and got into party mode right away during the team introductions, and the noise would crescendo as the anticipation for the player many were waiting for quickly gained momentum. Though it did seem the Thunder were trying not to treat any player as the “star,” former Oregon Duck Darron Thomas received a goosebump-raising welcome, and the short but loud ovation must have shown the young signal caller that, while he may have been gone for a while, he was hardly forgotten.
In his two years at the U of O, Thomas led the Ducks to a classic national title tilt versus Auburn, losing by three in the final seconds, a game in which he shined as brightly as did Tigers star Cam Newton. Thomas and the Ducks continued their success the next year with a Rose Bowl victory over the Russell Wilson-led Wisconsin Badgers, and as his name rang out over the public address system, the fans showered the new face of the new franchise with a little Rose City love.
When the smoke cleared and the audience had been treated to a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem, the San Jose SaberCats got down to the job of welcoming the extremely young Thunder to the AFL. Things started quite well for Portland, as Thomas, wearing his trademark #1 jersey, led the team to a first possession touchdown. The 8,905 in attendance were perhaps already dreaming of greatness. However, while there was a great deal of reason for optimism, the Cats were apparently not in town to provide a storybook ending to the Thunder's inaugural contest.
On the kickoff following the Portland’s first ever TD, head coach Matt Sauk elected to onside kick to the crowd's delight, but San Jose came away with the ball. In a single short pass, it put up six points of its own. Almost from the outset and throughout the game, costly errors born of the young team's inexperience and lack of familiarity with its surroundings resulted in a 64-34 loss to a tight, veteran San Jose squad.
The SaberCats offence was efficient, polished and opportunistic, scoring touchdowns on its first two plays from scrimmage and victimizing the Portland defense twice after officials threw penalty flags. SaberCat quarterbacks Russ Michna and Nathan Stanley went 12-of-16 for 166 yards with five touchdowns and 8-of-14 for 89 yards with three touchdowns respectively and seemed in control most of the evening. The Thunder defense stiffened in the second half and even began to show characteristics that could well become its hallmark. Former North Carolina standout Donte Paige Moss had a jarring third quarter sack and Western Oregon’s own Bryce Peila intercepted San Jose and had a heavy duty hit on a Cats kick returner in the third quarter. Defensive back Dwight McLean accounted for six solo tackles.
In the end though, the experience of the Northern California squad, with the Thunder fielding 16 rookie players to San Jose’s three, was the obvious difference between the teams. Sauk said in his postgame press conference, “It’s frustrating to lose, without a doubt, but I’m proud of my guys. None of them quit.”
Sauk is right. In fact, the entire organization can give itself a pat on the back for putting on a really entertaining show.
Though while his stat line was unremarkable, (11-of-27 with a score and an interception), Thomas and compatriot Nathan Enderle were harassed by the San Jose defense and seemed too understandably unaccustomed to the speed of the arena game.
Thomas however, in typical likable fashion had no excuses. "I got a big wakeup call with the pressure. I’m going to work on getting the ball out quick next week," he said to the press. Despite all the growing pains, there was a moment when fans, rising from their seats, thought they were about to see a blast from the past with Thomas escaping from a collapsing pocket and slashing between and around defenders on his way to a spectacular score, only to be pulled down literally by the tail of his shirt as he broke into open field.
The signal callers were hardly the only Thunder players to have a less than perfect game. The offensive line wavered and then stiffened all game long, and the receivers dropped multiple catchable balls.
On the whole however, the young team reminds one of a nothing-to-lose University of Michigan fab five basketball team from Chris Webber era. With easy, loose interaction amongst teammates and a young, smart coach who, even after the loss, managed to keep his sense of humor, Thunder fans will have a great deal to cheer about soon.
The team is loaded with young talent. For example, wide receiver Duane Brooks, who was something akin to the spectacular, had seven receptions for 58 yards and two touchdowns, as well as a total of 269 all-purpose yards. Jeffrey Solomon had six catches, 56 yards and one score. Former San Jose receiving leader, Samora Goodson showed his toughness, taking the nights most vicious hit on an attempt at a reception that sent him head over heels over the dasher boards.
As for Thomas after his first night back on an Oregon football field, "It was nasty... the score got out of hand. On the offensive side, we all learned what the game is going to be." Thomas spoke with a wry smile that said as much about his happiness to just be playing football again as it did about the AFL season in front of him.