SaberCats Dominate Historic Rival Rattlers To Clinch Home Field Advantage
Another chapter of the Arena Football League’s infamous western rivalry comes to a close, as the San Jose SaberCats defeat the three-time defending champion Arizona Rattlers 56-29 in a critical matchup just two weeks before the postseason is set to begin. While anything is certainly capable of happening in the playoffs, the SaberCats are now in a favorable spot after successfully clinching the number one seed in their conference for the first time since 2007, the last season in which they came out on top as ArenaBowl champions.
“They were focused all week. This game really meant a lot to them,” head coach Darren Abet said in complimenting his players’ attitudes and mindsets. “We didn’t play well these last two weeks in our mind, and we wanted to come out and have a good showing.”
Wide receiver Reggie Gray, who broke the single-season franchise record for receiving touchdowns two weeks ago against the Portland Thunder, reached another historic mark on Friday. His 88 yards against Arizona put his 2015 season total at 1,659 yards, passing James Roe’s 2013 mark of 1,606 yards for the franchise record.
Despite Gray’s three-touchdown performance, he still wasn’t the most prominent receiver of the night. Former Arizona Rattlers receiver, Maurice Purify, had 108 yards in 10 receptions plus three touchdowns. He was recently acquired by the SaberCats but did not have a notable performance until Friday night against his former team.
“You throw the ball up to [Purify], and he does the rest,” stated quarterback Erik Meyer, who went 29-of-40 for 286 yards and eight touchdowns. “He’s got a big body. He’s strong, and he’s got some speed as well.”
One of the most notable stories of the game was, once again, the defense. In addition to successfully stopping Arizona on fourth-down three times, Donte Paige-Moss recovered a botched snap in the second quarter, and defensive back David Hyland managed a key interception in the third quarter. Despite MVP quarterback Nick Davila playing behind center against San Jose for the first time this season, the SaberCats managed to hold the Rattlers to just three points in the second half and 29 points total. The defensive performance was all San Jose needed to erase a 20-7 second quarter deficit.
“There’s never a doubt in anyone’s mind, no matter what the score is,” Erik Meyer said in describing the team’s will to comeback. “Two weeks ago when we were playing Portland, we were down by 20 two different times. Nobody ever hung their head. We know that there will eventually be a play later in the game in which we can switch the momentum.”
While it was certainly a meaningful victory for the SaberCats in both clinching home field advantage throughout the postseason and making a statement towards their rivals in the desert, it obviously doesn’t mean the season is in the books just yet. The three-time defending ArenaBowl champions are capable of making their way through the postseason, even when times are difficult.
“Arizona’s a great football team,” Darren Arbet willingly admitted. “Kevin and his staff are going to rebound and they’re going to be okay.”
Indeed, the Rattlers are a team that can very much rebound, considering the talent and postseason experience that they have maintained over the years. Coming into the playoffs, where everything is on the line in a win-or-go-home situation, Arbet is well aware of the resilience his main competitor has. Barring another upset on a similar level to the Los Angeles KISS, it is extremely likely and expected that these two teams will fittingly meet again in the National Conference Championship.
But first, we have one final week of the AFL regular season, which is essentially irrelevant for these two division winners, and the National Conference Semifinals, which both of these teams should be favored to win. San Jose’s first postseason opponent is still to be determined, but it will certainly be someone who they can and should defeat. At the same time, it’s the Arena Football League, and anything can happen. The SaberCats may be 16-1 for the first time in franchise history after dominating the three-time defending champions in a regular season contest, but the toughest moments of the season are yet to come.