By Shawn Whelchel
Riding the back of a historic night by receiver Reggie Gray, the San Jose SaberCats erased a sloppy start to come from behind and beat the Portland Thunder 55-49 in overtime at SAP Center on Saturday night.
Gray, who broke both the single-season franchise records for most receptions and receiving touchdowns, finished the night with 14 receptions for 130 yards and four touchdowns.
The outburst by Gray helped lead a come from behind effort that saw the SaberCats down as much as 20 points in the opening quarter amidst ugly play.
The San Jose SaberCats hardly looked like the AFL’s league leading team during the opening half of Saturday night’s contest, making mistakes on both offense and defense that allowed the Thunder to take a commanding 34-21 lead heading into the locker room at halftime.
Things got off to a rough start for San Jose after allowing two quick scores to the visiting team to open the first quarter. After striking on their opening drive, the Thunder found themselves with the ball again after forcing a fumble from Darius Reynolds on the SaberCats opening offensive play of the game. Portland would get points on the turnover after using three plays to go 19 yards for their second score of the game.
Things would not get easier for San Jose on their next trip out after quarterback Erik Meyers suffered a 12 yard sack on fourth down to set up a short-field situation for the Thunder, who would again cash in on the error with a diving catch by V’Keon Lacey to shoot out to a 20-0 lead.
But the SaberCats would stabilize their sinking ship on the back of the reliable Reggie Gray, whose 25 yard touchdown catch in the opening minutes of the second half would not only get the SaberCats on the board for the first time, but would also break the franchise record for most receptions in a season. Fellow wideout Ben Nelson would follow up Gray’s touchdown with a sliding touchdown despite heavy coverage to cut the deficit to six.
Just as it appeared that San Jose would amass a quick comeback, the Thunder struck twice to break the game open again. The SaberCats squandered a solid red zone opportunity after an interception by Ken Fontenette gave them good field position for the third straight possession. However, after failing to convert a fourth and one near the goal line, the Thunder rode the momentum of their defensive stop into a 24 yard touchdown pass with under a minute to go, widening their lead to 27-14.
The ugly half wouldn’t end there for San Jose, as a 24-second, four-and-out gave Portland the ball back on the 10-yard line with time to operate. Portland would rub salt on the wound on the first play of the drive, with their second touchdown in under a minute to make it a 34-14 deficit for the SaberCats. Again it would be Gray to salvage the sinking ship for the SaberCats.
With just 20 seconds left, the speedy receiver returned a kickoff 42-yards to give San Jose a first and goal opportunity. He would finish what he started by catching his second touchdown of the game with just two seconds left to keep his team in the game, heading to the locker room with a 34-21 deficit.
San Jose came out as a reinvigorated team to open the second half, using their renewed spirit to grab their first lead of the game after nine minutes of play. Darius Reynolds kicked off the scoring for San Jose, using a nifty move to break free on the sideline for a 19 yard touchdown. It was then up to Fontenette to get the ball right back for San Jose after recording his second interception of the game. Gray would cap the drive off with his third touchdown of the night, this one on a fourth and goal, to take a 35-34 lead.
Gray’s next touchdown would continue his historic night, as the wide receiver not only regained the lead for his team after Portland reclaimed it on the previous possession, but also secured the speedy receiver as the SaberCats franchise leader for touchdowns in a single-season with his 41st scoring reception on the year.
A second consecutive score for San Jose, this time on a Ben Nelson touchdown, would give San Jose an eight point lead. But Portland would not go down quietly. With just over three minutes left in the game, Kyle Rowley would sling his sixth touchdown of the game.After electing to go for two points, Portland would tie things up at 49 a-piece after completing the conversion.
San Jose received the ball with time to mount a final scoring drive, but questionable calls derailed their plans. On consecutive plays, receptions by Nelson and Gray were ruled incomplete, although it appeared the receivers could have held on for what would have been touchdowns. After a field goal attempt from 12 yards out was blocked by Portland, the game was sent to overtime.
The SaberCats used an efficient six play drive to go 48 yards for a touchdown to open up extra time, but failed to convert the PAT to lead by just six. Portland amassed a threatening drive, reaching the four yard line with plenty of time left, but Rowley launched a fourth-and-one pass high into the net to end the game in dramatic fashion for San Jose.
Gray’s 14 receptions and four touchdowns gives him a single season total of 147 receptions and 41 touchdowns, both franchise records for the SaberCats.