Changes abound, passes rebound, Howard flips ‘round: Thunder shine in opener
Bonk, Thud, Doink, Pow…A bunch of goofy, old school Batman sounds, I agree. However, they fit… brother do they fit. Those iconic animated still frames, which used to pop up on screen when Adam West would sock a baddie in the kisser, would have been just perfect jumbo-tron material at the Moda Center Friday night. The Portland Thunder opened the season with a 42-37 win over their expansion twin, the Los Angeles KISS and the Portland defense played a collective caped crusader.
In front of a 7100 plus crowd the second season for the Thunder got off to a good start with new head coach Mike Hohensee and crew checking the win column in the home opener for the first time in franchise history. The Portland defense was the star of the show with the aforementioned would-be sound effects courtesy of the D line. During a second half string of batted passes I counted eight balls sent ricocheting, visibly frustrating Adrian McPherson, the elusive KISS QB. New defensive PDX lineman Frank Trotter knocked 5 passes down with line mates K.C. Obi and Robert Hayes and line backer Redmond Willis chipping in with one a piece (unofficially). McPherson, who played his collegiate ball at Florida State showed his well known elusiveness at times but a newly agile, quick footed line up of pass rushers kept him under control most of the game.
The defense in Portland, an area of strength last year, has under gone a makeover replacing pure power players with those with a combination of both speed and strength. Gone are stalwarts such as Antron Dillon who signed with the KISS in the off season and Jake McDonough, who has moved to offensive line as well as Brandon Lockhart who is on IR. New pass rushers, cut more from the K.C. Obi mold, such as Richard Hayes and Frank Trotter join 2014 starter Marquis Jackson in what proved to be an agile, high motor group. Much of the new approach to the Thunder pass rush is facilitated by a level of fitness insisted upon by the new boss. After the win Hohensee, when asked about the consistent energy of his team referenced a reportedly tough training camp regimen. “I’m just excited for this team. I know we worked hard. I know we were in better shape than that (L.A.) football team, and it showed in the end. I believe our players saw that as well. Hopefully our guys see now why we work so hard, because it pays off.” In truth Coach Ho’ hit the nail on the head in that Portland may have not only out ran Los Angeles. Given the amount of times the ball ricocheted off one defender or another late in the game the Thunder may have just plain outlasted the KISS.
Besides a revamped D line other new members of the squad showed their importance all night. First year defensive back Andre Martin and veteran Okechukwu Okoroha tallied 14 tackles between them and fan favorite Bryce Peila was up to his old tricks to start the season. Good recovery speed allows Peila to, even when trailing by a step, take to the air and knock away a ball seemingly destined for pay dirt. It could also be that the Western Oregon grad made an impression in 2014 that stayed with veteran KISS receiver Donovan Morgan. In a crucial playoffs determining win last year Bryce introduced himself rather rudely when Morgan came across the middle late in the 3rd quarter. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cobwebs were just beginning to clear. In any case, Morgan managed to bat down 5 or more McPherson passes all by his lonesome…just saying.
In 2014 the Portland Thunder receiving corps was made up of many potent weapons in the persons of Eric Rodgers, Douglas McNeil III, Dwayne Brooks and Jamar Howard. Of that group Rodgers went on to win the CFL’s Grey Cup with the Calgary Stampeders and McNeil has signed a futures contract with the Seattle Seahawks. The new Thunder front office, seeing a need for new receiver blood, went a bit of a tear. Coach Hohensee, known for his eye for talent, recruited twin receivers from NIU Martel Moore and Perez Ashford as well as signing 2012 All –Arena receiver Aaron LeSue. The Thunder also brought in V’Keon Lacey formerly of the Philadelphia Soul presumably to fill a “possession receiver” void left by the departed McNeil. Against the KISS last Friday, Lacey did just that. Entering his 3rd AFL season and standing in at 6 foot four inch, 220 lbs Lacy averaged 11 yards per reception in Philly and about a TD per game. Lacey, true to form, caught a Rowley pass for score and caught 6 balls for 58 yards.
Soooo… what is the point? Well honestly, I’ve witnessed a lot of hand wringing and worry during the off season but despite the many departures and signings it seems like things are off to a sunny start. Many bemoaned the loss of Donte Paige Moss and I get it. Paige Moss was a great big chunk o’ entertainment for the dollar. However, his stats were not extraordinary outside of leading the team in sacks and piling up an awful lot of penalties. That said the kid was a projected high draft pick pre knee injury and young potential is hard to part with. The Thunder received in return Jordan Mudge, whose very name seems a polar opposite to an exotic “Donte Paige Moss”. Hey it’s a great football name I’ll grant you but if I’m grabbing an O-lineman…gimme Mudge.
To that end, another Hohansee rework met with stellar results, that being the offensive line or what I call, “The Great Wall of Portland.” The Thunder front three kept QB Kyle Rowley upright all night and it wasn’t close. The sole exception was a foot stompin’ that sent the veteran signal caller to the carpet for the KISS’ only sack. In fact it was the only real showing the KISS D-line managed despite the homecoming of last year’s fan favorite Antron Dillon.
Finally, coming full circle to last year’s inaugural contest, Jamar Howard running full tilt into the dasher-board in the end zone completed a triple Axl; triple Lutz two and a half front gainer, jack knife something-or-another catch that lit up the highlight reel league wide and landed Portland the week one AFL highlight of the week. (Folks, it was ridiculous.)
Tampa Bay visits the Moda center Friday and unless I miss my guess… Kapow! Zap! Boffo! By Saturday the Portland Thunder will be 2-0.