Snakes alive -- Floyd interception saves Rattlers' season
PHOENIX, AZ - While the Arizona Rattlers' high-octane offense garners tons of attention, it was one critical defensive stand that saved the team's 2014 season Aug. 3.
Marquis Floyd intercepted a Kyle Rowley pass with under 10 seconds left to preserve Arizona's gritty, penalty-filled 52-48 conference semifinal win over the Portland Thunder at US Airways Center.
"I'm glad I made the last play because I had been frustrated the whole game," Floyd told Cox 7. "Give Portland a lot of credit, they fought hard, but we made a lot of mistakes on defense we need to fix."
That noise you might have heard outside? It was the collective sigh of relief from a surprisingly season-low crowd of 6,753 who thought they might witness the season and a chance at a championship three-peat slip away. But Floyd made the game-saving grab to overshadow 12 Arizona penalties and some questionable clock management that nearly short-circuited the Rattlers' run at another Foster Trophy.
"We didn't play playoff football today and we were lucky to get away with a win," said Floyd, whose 14th interception of the season was by far his biggest.
Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila looked more relieved than pleased following the heart-stopping victory.
"I knew our defense would eventually get a stop," said Davila, who threw for five scores and ran for another. "Marquis made a great play."
The Rattlers (16-3), seeking the Arena Football League's first three-peat since the Detroit Drive in 1988-90, found themselves in unchartered playoff territory with under a minute left in the game. They were trailing 48-45 and needed team leader Davila to calmly lead them down the field to pull out the win.
And that's just what the leading Most Valuable Player candidate did.
Davila hit on three passes to move inside the Portland 10, but each time his receiver hit the boards to stop the clock. Head Coach Kevin Guy was livid as the Rattlers did not make Portland burn any timeouts on the drive.
When fullback Alex Singleton rumbled over the goal line, the Rattlers again had the lead but there was 29 seconds left -- an eternity in arena football.
"At that point, we just needed to lock it down," said Floyd, whose interception three plays later sent Rattler Nation into a frenzy with 5.4 seconds left.
The playoff game marked the fourth time the two teams have squared off this season. And in the first half, the Thunder's game plan of short passes to keep Arizona's offense on the sidelines worked to near perfection.
Rowley (six passing TDs, 2 INTs) was checking down to receivers Jamar Howard, Douglas McNeil III and Jeffery Soloman, not looking downfield for the big play. Although the Rattlers held a 28-20 lead at the break, Portland (5-14) ran 32 offensive plays in the first half -- Arizona ran 13. The Rattlers also did not help their cause with nine first-half penalties, many for roughing Rowley late.
The Rattlers extended to a two-score lead early in the third as Davila connected with Rod Windsor (9 receptions, 113 yards, 4 TDs), who had another monster effort with Maurice Purify not playing due to injury.
Rowley connected with McNeil for a touchdown then Darron Thomas, normally a quarterback, intercepted Davila and took it to the house to bring Portland within 35-34.
"We had a couple hiccups. I have to take care of the football better," Davila admitted.
The teams traded scores before Rattlers kicker Craig Ratanamorn connected on a 40-yard field goal to put the Rattlers up 45-41. A few plays later, Rowley hit Soloman to give Portland its first lead and set the stage for a wild final minute.
Much credit goes to the Thunder, who fell to the Rattlers all four times but got closer with each successive game. They had a game plan, stuck to it and nearly pulled off a massive upset. Holding Arizona (averaging 64 points per game) to 52 points is no small feat. Portland Head Coach Matt Sauk has this group headed in the right direction but two crucial turnovers and 18 penalties were too much to overcome.
The Rattlers' win sets up a heavyweight battle with the rival San Jose SaberCats for the National Conference title on Sunday, Aug. 10 at 5 p.m. Arizona time. Arizona is 2-1 against San Jose this season but the Cats handed the Snakes their first loss of the 2014 season in convincing fashion back on June 27.
The Rattlers, heading to their fourth consecutive conference title game, will have to play much better than they did in the first round to get past a hungry SaberCats squad and qualify for ArenaBowl XXVII.
"It's going to be big -- that's my old team," Floyd said. "It would be great to beat them here in the Snake Pit."
Davila agreed with his teammate.
"We know San Jose has a great defense but we will be ready to go," the Arizona quarterback said. "All that matters today is that we won and it's on to the next one."
Matt Loeschman is the business editor/city reporter at the Williamson County Sun and a color commentator for SHN Sports in Georgetown, Texas. As a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he bleeds burnt orange but is also an avid fan of the Arizona Rattlers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Stars, Texas Stars, Houston Rockets, Houston Dynamo and Austin Aztex. With nearly 20 years of experience in print journalism and radio, Matt has covered sports ranging from high school to the pros along with local news. He has followed the AFL since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter @MattLoeschman.