Smith, officials deny Rattlers' chance at four-peat
Reggie Smith 1, Arizona Rattlers 0.
In an all-time classic battle between the Arena Football League's two most bitter rivals Saturday night, officials tainted the game's ending by gifting the San Jose SaberCats a 70-67 "victory" over the Arizona Rattlers in the National Conference Championship Game.
The SaberCats will host the ArenaBowl next weekend but there should be an asterisk next to all their season accomplishments after Smith could not see what the rest of the nation could -- that late in the game, SaberCats wide receiver Reggie Gray fumbled on the game-winning play before breaking the plane of the goal line with the Rattlers' Jeremy Kellem recovering for what should have been a touchback.
Smith reviewed the play that occurred with eight seconds left, but deemed he did not have enough visual evidence to overturn the touchdown call on the field (the ref's standard cop out when there is a tough call to make). However, it was fairly clear Gray did not have the ball in his possession as he crossed the line.
So instead of heading to their fifth consecutive ArenaBowl seeking their fourth straight title, the Rattlers are left to ponder how the league can get better officials so a team's entire season isn't taken away on a bogus call.
The ugly finish capped one of the wildest quarters in league history. Tied 41-41 after each team scored just six points in the third quarter, Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila connected with receiver Chase Deadder for a 10-yard touchdown to give the visitors a 48-41 lead with 13:30 left in the game.
Gray (8 catches, 48 yards, 2 TD) tied the game up again at the 10-minute mark.
The teams then traded stops -- Davila misfired for Kerry Reed on fourth down but the Arizona defense responded as Cats quarterback Erik Meyer was sacked by Tyre Glasper then threw an errant pass on fourth down that was intercepted by Arkeith Brown.
Davila (22-for-37, 260 yards, 8 TDs), who had led his team to 10 straight playoff wins since losing on the final play of ArenaBowl XXIV in 2011, again was cool under the ultimate playoff pressure. He found Deadder once more, this time on the left from 20 yards out, but kicker Alex Zendejas pulled the extra point wide left.
With under four minutes in the game, Arizona led 54-48 and the fireworks (and failed onside kicks) were just beginning.
Gray sparked the Cats with a big kick return and Meyer lobbed a touchdown pass to big man Rich Ranglin who lumbered in from 10 yards out. Nich Pertuit was good on his kick to make it 55-54 SaberCats with 2:10 to go.
The SaberCats called for an onside kick but Ken Fontenette illegally touched the ball before it went 10 yards and it then bounced off Kellem back into the end zone. The Rattlers skilled defensive back recovered the loose ball for a wild touchdown. Arizona's attempt for two failed but they still led 60-55 at the 1:40 mark.
It was the Rattlers' turn to onside kick and it also did not work. Meyer then found Ranglin for an instant replay of their earlier connection -- a 10-yard strike to make it 63-60 San Jose at the one-minute warning.
The SaberCats again tried an onside kick but Rod Windsor batted the ball into the stands. Facing a third down with under 50 seconds to go, Davila hit Reed with a touchpass as the Rattlers' ironman faded away into the back corner of the end zone.
Arizona led 67-63 but left 40 seconds for Meyer to work with -- an eternity in the AFL.
Meyer, criticized in his career for consistently coming up short in the big game, delivered in the clutch but got some help to do it. He threw a laser to Maurice Purify (9 catches, 150 yards, 1 TD) to set up San Jose at the Rattlers' 12, setting the stage for Gray's very controversial score along the right-side boards.
With only two plays to work with, the Rattlers completed a short pass then Zendejas was short and wide right on what would have been a miraculous field goal.
Arizona was out of time and out of their minds with anger directed at the zebras. The SaberCats rushed the field as three years of frustration was over.
After just 12 combined points in the third quarter, San Jose outscored Arizona 29-26 in the fourth to advance to the league title game and avenge playoff losses to the Rattlers in 2012-14.
The first half was a showcase for two of the top offenses in the league. There were ten drives between the two teams and no stops for either defense.
On Arizona's first drive, you could tell the game plan was different than the game July 31 when the Rattlers were throttled at the SAP Center.
Davila was using a hard count and more three-step drops while Guy mixed in a couple running plays to keep the SaberCats defense honest.
It paid off when Windsor hauled in a touchdown for 14 yards out to silence 6,456 at the Stockton Arena and give the Rattlers a quick 7-0 lead.
Meyer (24-for-37, 351 yards, 9 TD) and the AFL's top offense responded a minute later. With the Rattlers jumping offsides, Meyer scrambled outside the pocket on a free play and lofted a 42-yard touchdown to Darius Reynolds (3 catches, 104 yards, 3 TD). The game was tied at 7-7 nearly six minutes in.
The teams traded scores again with Mykel Benson rumbling in from a yard out and former Rattler Purify victimizing his old team for a 24-yard score.
The Rattlers held the ball for nearly 12 of the 15 first-quarter minutes but San Jose's quick-strike offense kept the game on even terms.
Tied at 14-14, Deadder (7 receptions, 71 yards, 3 TD) nabbed a short pass and Benson got another rush to start Arizona's next drive. The Rattlers offensive line continued to keep the Cats' elite pass rush off Davila and the Latin Laser hit Windsor for a 4-yard touchdown as the second quarter commenced.
Arizona's defense had its best chance to get a stop on San Jose's next drive. Faced with a 4th and 20 at the Rattlers 21, Reynolds made an acrobatic grab in the corner of the end zone and got one foot down for a highlight-reel score.
The Rattlers had missed a huge opportunity to seize momentum as the SaberCats tied the game again at 21-21.
Not to be outdone, Windsor (8 catches, 104 yards, 4 TD) snagged a pass down the right sideline and discarded Fontenette on his way to a 42-yard touchdown.
The SaberCats immediately answered as Odie Armstrong, another former Rattler, dove in around the left side for a 1-yard touchdown plunge to make it 28-28.
San Jose failed on an onside kick attempt and Windsor made the defense pay with a 7-yard touchdown reception, his fourth TD catch of the first half.
Arizona left 42 seconds for the Cats to work with and Meyer would not be denied, connecting with D.J. Stephens on a short touchdown along the boards with 4 seconds left to make it 35-35 at halftime.
It is a true shame that one of the best games in the nearly 30 years of the AFL will be talked about for years to come for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps thinking in the back of his mind he might need to answer for this huge gaffe, AFL Commissioner Scott Butera managed to botch the name of the ArenaBowl in the postgame trophy ceremony.
Rattlers players and coaches could be heard yelling, "fumble! fumble!" as Smith viewed the replay. It was all for naught as the SaberCats completed the hat trick, beating Arizona all three times the teams met this season.
At least the first two were fair and square.