Rattlers show championship form in dominating Cats
Tired of hearing criticism from a month's worth of lackluster play, the Arizona Rattlers were in championship form during their 72-56 dismantling of the rival San Jose SaberCats in the National Conference title game at US Airways Center.
"Our guys were relentless, played physical and that's the locker room I know," Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy said following the victory. "It's all about mindset -- we had them mentally right where we wanted them going into that game."
Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila fought back the emotions as the clock counted down to clinching Arizona's fourth straight ArenaBowl appearance.
"This means everything for our team, our fans and our organization," Davila told a national television audience on ESPN2.
That league championship game, set for Aug. 23 at Quicken Loans Arena, will be a destiny versus dynasty matchup between the Cleveland Gladiators, who dispatched the Orlando Predators earlier on Aug. 10, and the Rattlers. Whereas Cleveland (19-1) will look for an unprecedented 20th win in a single season and their first title, Arizona (17-3) is gunning for a three-peat and its fifth AFL championship overall.
"Now we get to find out who is the better team, us or Cleveland," Guy said. "They had a great record this year and we look forward to seeing them up there."
To set up the matchup Arena Football League fans have been waiting for, the Rattlers would need to beat the Cats for the third time in four games in 2014 and make an embarrassing late June loss at San Jose a distant memory. As predicted, it was playing their most bitter rivals that brought out the best in the Rattlers.
Things couldn't have started much better as a raucous crowd of 8,581 was just settling into its seats at the Snake Pit.
Arizona's defense set the early tone, making San Jose quarterback Nathan Stanley uncomfortable and forcing a turnover on downs. Davila wasted little time, connecting with Rod Windsor (6 receptions, 107 yards, 3 TDs) for a 17-yard touchdown.
The teams traded scores before Kerry Reed, playing jack linebacker, made a one-handed interception to halt the SaberCats' momentum. This time, Davila did the honors himself, sneaking in from one yard out to make it 21-7.
San Jose Head Coach Darren Arbet had seen enough of Stanley and subbed in veteran Russ Michna, who had not played since being injured in the same building May 31. Michna (21-for-37, 269 yards, 6 TDs, 1 INT) quickly found Reggie Gray, who was virtually unstoppable all night, for a 9-yard score.
Reed (6 receptions, 80 yards, 2 TDs) caught his second touchdown of the night and Dominique Curry countered to keep the Cats within one score.
Davila found Tysson Poots (2 receiving TDs) for a six-yard touchdown and a 35-21 lead. Gray set up the Cats with a big kickoff return and then caught another touchdown strike from Michna.
The SaberCats recovered an onside kick but that was canceled out by a Marquis Floyd interception.
Looking to score last in the half, Davila threw a screen pass to lineman Michael Huey, subbing in at fullback for Alex Singleton. The former Texas Longhorn looked more like a tight end than a lineman, breaking a tackle and hurdling another defender for a 14-yard touchdown with 4.9 seconds left that put Arizona up 42-28.
Guy offered the perfect answer at halftime when asked what adjustments he planned to make.
"They need to make the adjustments right now. We're going to keep our foot on the gas pedal," said Guy, who added nearly 30 new plays to the Arizona playbook this past week.
Arizona's top-ranked offense continued to hit on all cylinders in the second half.
Davila scored his second rushing touchdown of the night. Michna found Gray again for a 32-yard scoring strike. The SaberCats failed on an onside kick attempt and the Rattlers cashed in with a 25-yard field goal from Craig Ratanamorn to make it 51-35.
Arizona's defense, led by Anttaj Hawthorne and Leon Mackey (two sacks each), stood tall again by forcing another fourth-down stop.
"Our pass rush took over the game," Guy said.
Windsor hauled in another touchdown and Rattler Nation was starting to sense their team was again heading to the ArenaBowl. Some fans started a "three-peat" chant.
When the dust settled, the Rattlers had scored on 11 consecutive possessions and finished their 2014 home slate with an 11-0 record. Arizona became just the second team in 20 games to score 70+ points on the vaunted San Jose defense. Any thoughts of the 2-3 five-game stretch where the Snakes struggled to score 53.2 points per game were long gone.
The Rattlers' offensive line, physically whipped in their last matchup against the SaberCats, kept the pocket clean all night. In fact, Arizona totally turned the tables -- the Rattlers sacked San Jose quarterbacks five times while Davila went virtually untouched the entire game.
When the lights shine the brightest, Arizona's "Latin Laser" is at his best. Davila, gunning for his second league MVP award, completed 20-of-34 passes for 276 yards with 10 total touchdowns (eight passing, two rushing) and no turnovers. The Rattlers' quarterback has thrown 140 touchdown passes this season.
Three turnovers were lethal for the SaberCats, but Gray's 321 all-purpose yards (148 receiving, 173 kick returns) were the second-most ever in an AFL playoff game.
Davila and his teammates will now focus on accomplishing something that has been done just once previously in Arena Football League history -- winning three consecutive titles. It would be a perfect ending to a difficult season where the Rattlers quarterback dealt with the death of his father.
"Everything I've been through this season, I can't even explain it," Davila said. "It was just an awesome team effort from everyone tonight. But now it's on to the ArenaBowl."
Seeking another Foster Trophy to add to their collection, Arizona's head coach is supremely confident.
"I don't care where we play the ArenaBowl, I like our chances," Guy said.
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.