SaberCats Ultimately Triumph In 55-49 OT Thriller Over Portland
night’s Pacific Division matchup between the San Jose SaberCats and the Portland Thunder may not have appeared to be the most attractive matchup on paper. But with a 20-point comeback, a record-setting performance, huge momentum shifts in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, and a thrilling overtime period that came down to the five-yard line, all with playoff implications on the line, it turned out to be possibly the classic of the week.
Of course, while San Jose ended up with a critical victory, it definitely didn’t appear the game would be in their favor after a rough first quarter. The Thunder immediately followed their stellar fourth quarter performance from last week’s matchup against Jacksonville with a near-perfect first quarter in San Jose, taking advantage of two turnovers and jumping to a 20-0 lead. The SaberCats quickly answered with two consecutive touchdowns and appeared to be back in the game with the aid of a fourth-down stop and a key interception by Ken Fontenette. The Thunder, however, responded with additional fourth-down stops of their own and leaped right back up to a 34-14 lead in the final minute of the first half.
“They showed a lot of character,” Head Coach Darren Arbet said in reference to San Jose’s resilience to come back. “I like the guys, they kept their composure, they continue to fight.”
The ability to keep composure showed immediately after Portland took a 34-14 lead, as the ensuing kickoff was returned by wide receiver Reggie Gray to the inside of the Thunder’s 10-yard line. San Jose’s offense then took complete advantage of the opportunity with a four-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Erik Meyer to Gray, giving the SaberCats crucial momentum heading into halftime.
“These receivers never quit. I would never trade them for anyone,” Meyer emphasized when asked about his surrounding receiving corps. “We knew we didn’t play to our potential. Portland beat us that first half. But we came back and battled.”
Indeed the SaberCats did. After being stopped four times in the first half, San Jose managed to score a touchdown on all offensive opportunities in the second half except for one. With a second interception by Fontenette and an additional fourth-down stop, the SaberCats held a commanding 49-41 lead with under nine minutes to play.
But that was only when the intensity was just beginning. With the help of receivers Duane Brooks and V’Keon Lacey, quarterback Kyle Rowley led Portland’s offense down the field and managed to cap the drive off with a touchdown and a two-point conversion, tying the game 49-49 with just over three minutes to play.
On the SaberCats’ final drive of regulation, it appeared as if they would be able to close it out. Wide Receiver Darius Reynolds managed to draw a defensive pass interference penalty from De’Mon Glanton on a lengthy fourth down attempt with under twenty seconds left. The offense, however, was unable to gain any additional ground, leading to a 27-yard field goal attempt by Nick Pertuit with one second left. Frank Trotter of the Thunder came up with the team’s biggest play of the night, blocking the attempt to force overtime. The additional period was San Jose’s second overtime matchup of the season and Portland’s first overtime game in franchise history.
Just five weeks ago, the SaberCats found themselves in a similar position, except the momentum flow of the game was completely the opposite: they managed to tie the game with no time left in front of their home crowd against the Los Angeles KISS. night, Pertuit’s blocked field goal attempt stripped the SaberCats and their fans of positive momentum.
Yet, the result of their opening drive in overtime was the complete opposite of what happened against the KISS. Instead of a failure to convert on fourth down, Erik Meyer and the offense marched down the field and took the lead back with a four-yard touchdown pass to Ben Nelson. The positive vibe would be short-lived, however, as Pertuit would miss the extra point and leave the SaberCats’ lead at a seemingly minuscule 55-49.
On the Thunder’s ensuing drive, a fourth-down attempt was successfully converted with a five-yard pass to Brooks. After they reached San Jose’s five-yard line, it appeared as if it was yet another night for the SaberCats where a loss was simply destiny.
And then, after forcing another crucial fourth-down attempt, the Thunder’s coaching staff made the controversial decision of not calling a timeout to carefully set up the most important play of the night. As a result, Rowley’s pass flew incomplete out the back of the end zone. It was all over.
The overtime victory was San Jose’s first since 2012. The 20-point comeback was also the franchise’s first since 2006.
To top it all off, Gray ended the night with 14 receptions for 130 yards and four touchdowns. With 147 receptions and 41 touchdowns throughout the 2015 season, Gray now officially holds the franchise records for most receptions and touchdowns in a single season. In addition, he is only 36 yards shy of breaking the franchise record for most receiving yards in a season (currently held by Jason Willis with 1,606 in 2013).
“I just go out there and try to execute the game plan. In the heat of the moment when you’re fighting, you're not thinking about the records,” Gray admitted when asked about his individual performance. “After the game, the records are certainly great. But there’s a lot of things ahead of us to focus on.”
The SaberCats are now 15-1 and only need either an additional victory of their own or a loss by the 12-3 Arizona Rattlers to secure the number one seed in the National Conference. In their matchup with Arizona on , the SaberCats can also lose by 18 points or less to clinch the number one seed due to the Arena Football League’s tie-breaking procedure for playoff scenarios. Despite this, there is no doubt that the SaberCats will play for the win against the three-time defending ArenaBowl champions. They want to make a statement and prove that they are capable of defeating them with quarterback Nick Davila, historically one of the best in the game, behind center. Otherwise, the number one seed might go to waste.
But for right now, the SaberCats and their fans get to celebrate their most thrilling victory of the season with a bye week.