SaberCats steal the Thunder 55-28 to begin the playoffs
The San Jose SaberCats (18-1) took care of business night and secured their spot in the National Conference Championship for a second consecutive year, silencing the Portland Thunder (5-14) at the SAP Center by a 55-28 margin.
The Thunder received the opening kickoff, but the start of the matchup did not play out the way they intended. Wide receiver Jared Perry fumbled a reception after being tackled by Ken Fontenette, and David Hyland picked it up to give San Jose possession. Erik Meyer and the SaberCats' offense took its time to answer but managed to do its job, with a fourth-down conversion reception by Maurice Purify and eventually a four-yard touchdown reception giving San Jose the early 7-0 lead. Kyle Rowley and the Thunder executed well on their second drive, but ultimately turned the ball over on downs just one yard short of the goal line before the first quarter came to a close.
To start off the second quarter, San Jose entered the red zone, but turned the ball over on downs themselves, their first critical error of the night. Portland then took advantage, as Jamaar Howard received a 33-yard touchdown to give the Thunder their first score and tie the game 7-7. The SaberCats managed to respond immediately to the momentum shift with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Ben Nelson, giving their team back the lead at 14-7. San Jose's defense managed to keep that positive flow going on Portland's responding drive, as Hyland picked off Rowley. This set up a quick six-yard touchdown reception by Reggie Gray that increased the SaberCats' lead to 21-7. Another turnover on downs was forced near midfield on Portland's ensuing drive, and Meyer's 16-yard touchdown pass to Gray gave San Jose a controlling 28-7 lead heading into halftime after scoring 21 unanswered points.
The streak continued for San Jose on the opening drive of the second half, with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Nelson extending the SaberCats' lead to 35-7. On the following kickoff, Duane Brooks of the Thunder, who returned eight kickoffs for touchdowns this season, went 54 yards to break the scoreless streak and cut the lead to 35-14. At first, that play appeared to be a huge spark for the Thunder, as they managed to stop San Jose on fourth down inside their own five-yard line, but the SaberCats' goal line defense came up strong and forced a turnover on downs of their own, capping off with a sack by Francis Maka. But a fumble by Rich Ranglin gave Thunder back immediate possession, and this time they took advantage with a two-yard touchdown pass to Howard, cutting the lead to 35-21. Just as the third quarter came to an end, Reggie Gray put a halt on the Thunder's momentum shift with a 57-yard kick return for the score. After a missed extra point by Nick Pertuit, the score ended up at 41-21 in favor of San Jose after the third quarter.
Portland started off the fourth quarter well, but Fontenette came up with a critical interception for the SaberCats and returned it to midfield. On the succeeding drive, Meyer took the opportunity and ran with it, literally, from nine yards out for the score, giving San Jose a 48-21 advantage. Portland would respond on their next drive and make the score 48-28 with a nine-yard touchdown pass to V'Keon Lacey, but the SaberCats would successfully field their onside kick. Odie Armstrong took it in one yard out to increase the lead to what would eventually be the final score, 55-28.
Erik Meyer finished the night 20-of-36 for 215 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Kyle Rowley went 20-of-41 for 244 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Other key offensive contributors for San Jose included Maurice Purify (81 yards in seven receptions with one touchdown), Ben Nelson (50 yards in four receptions with two touchdowns), and Reggie Gray (36 yards in four receptions with two touchdowns). Key contributors for Portland included Jamaar Howard (87 yards in eight receptions with two touchdowns), Jared Perry (86 yards in five receptions), and V'Keon Lacey (45 yards in five receptions with one touchdown).