By Shawn Whelchel
SAN JOSE, Ca.-The San Jose SaberCats made a statement against the conference rival Arizona Rattlers on Friday night, crushing their nemesis by a score of 56-29 to secure home field advantage in both the opening and conference rounds of the playoffs.
After what started out as a back and forth game through the first two quarters, The SaberCats used a massive second half explosion of both offense and defense to put the nail in the coffin of the Rattlers.
A familiar friend would turn enemy for Arizona, as former Rattlers receiver Maurice Purify helped to demolish his old team with a 108-yard night that ended with three touchdowns. Reggie Gray followed his new teammate’s performance up with three touchdowns of his own on 88 yards receiving.
The fierce divisional rivalry got underway in dull fashion Friday night as both teams went four-and-out to open the game in a lackluster manner. However, both teams quickly cleared off the rust and were off to the races from there on out. Arizona struck first, concocting an efficient 6-play, 45 yard drive before Mykel Benson plunged into the end zone for his 16th rushing touchdown of the season.
The SaberCats would respond with an efficient drive of their own, using eight plays before the team’s touchdown leader, Reggie Gray, would add on to his franchise record with yet another touchdown to even things up at seven a piece. Things got shaky for the SaberCats after that, as Arizona quarterback Nick Davila would find his go-to receiver, Rod Windsor, wide open in the end zone to put his team ahead.
After yet another defensive stop by Arizona left his team with good field position, Davila would widen his lead margin using just one play, a 20 yard bomb to receiver Kerry Reed to put his team up 20-7 after a missed PAT.
But the SaberCats refused to let things get out of hand, as QB Erik Meyers slowed the bleeding by responding with a solid drive of his own that ended with former Arizona star Maurice Purify hurting his old team with his first touchdown of the night to pull to within six. The league’s leading defense helped their own cause on the following drive as well, as an aborted snap by the Rattlers lead to San Jose reclaiming the ball.
The SaberCats would make good on their opportunity as a heavy dose of Reggie Gray moved them downfield before FB Odie Armstrong would rumble ten yard out of the backfield for a touchdown. After missing the PAT, the game was tied at 20.
The next drive ended in unusual fashion for both teams involved, as the Rattlers retook the lead on another Windsor touchdown after an ill-advised onside kick try from San Jose gave them the short field. However, the SaberCats special teams made yet another stand on the PAT, this time blocking the ball before Rodney Fritz returned it the length of the field to give San Jose two points of their own, making it a 22-26 ball game.
With under a minute left, the SaberCats mounted one last drive, as Meyers connected with three different receivers before Purify would outmuscle his defender in the end zone to make a leaping grab for his second touchdown of the game, giving the SaberCats a 29-26 advantage heading into halftime.
The Rattlers reclaimed the ball on the opening kickoff after a fortuitous bounce of the goal post shot the ball out to the 20-yard line and into the hands of Arizona for a turnover on the kickoff. Arizona wasn’t able to find the end zone, but Fabrizio Scaccio used his leg to tie the game up at 29 with a 27-yard field goal.
Gray would put the SaberCats ahead after a nice double move in space opened him up in the back of the end zone for his second touchdown of the game, putting his team up six after another rare Nick Pertuit miss.
The SaberCats would follow up with a pair of highlights on both sides of the ball, as DB David Hyland would make a spectacular leaping pick of a Davila pass to give way to Purify on offense, who would take the ball 34 yards down the field after spinning off a defender for his third touchdown of the night. San Jose would enjoy a commanding 42-29 lead after the spectacles.
San Jose’s defense would return with a vengeance on the next drive as well, forcing three hurries and gathering a sack to force a turnover on downs that would give the SaberCats a first and goal. After a series of setbacks, it would be Gray who would again make good on the scoring opportunity as he tallied his third touchdown of the game for a 49-29 lead for San Jose.
The SaberCats continued to add clips to their highlight reel after D.J Stephens made a dime-stop to slip under a defender before sneaking into the end zone to expand the lead to 56-29 in the fourth quarter, effectively nailing the coffin in their rival’s comeback plans.
Reggie Gray broke the SaberCats’ single-season receiving-yards record with a 12 yard catch in the second quarter of Friday night’s game.
With the win, the SaberCats secured home field advantage for both the opening and conference rounds of the playoffs.
David Hyland’s interception would add on to their league leading tally, now leaving them with 31 on the season.