By Shawn Whelchel
SAN JOSE, Calif. The San Jose SaberCats steamrolled the Portland Thunder during opening round of the 2015 AFL playoffs on Friday, cruising their way to a 55-28 at SAP Center.
The SaberCats, who have dominated the Thunder in four consecutive matches this season, jumped out to an early lead while riding the back of dominate defensive effort that forced a pair of interceptions, a fumble and numerous turnovers on downs to reach the National Conference Championship at the SMG Stockton Arena.
Leading the way for the SaberCats were Ken Fontenette, who had an interception and forced fumble while totaling a team high 9 tackles, and Reggie Gray on offense, who had two touchdowns on four receptions while adding a 57 yard kickoff return to his stat-line as well.
The SaberCats will now face either the Spokane Shock or the Arizona Rattlers in the Conference Championship game, which will be determined on Saturday.
The SaberCats’ league leading defense was on full display during the opening half of the game, forcing four turnovers while allowing Portland to post just seven points over the first two quarters. Things got underway for San Jose during the opening drive by Portland, as Ken Fontenette showed the value of hustle by punching out the ball from behind after initially overrunning his man, forcing a fumble to be recovered by San Jose. After extending the drive with a fourth-and-long reception earlier, Maurice Purify would finish what he started with a 3-yard touchdown reception to put San Jose on the board first with a 7-0 lead.
The first quarter would remain devoid of action after a goal line stand by the SaberCats and a painfully long, eight minute drive by San Jose that ended in a turnover on downs. But Portland wouldn’t waste time on their third drive of the game, as QB Kyle Rowley tied the game up with a 33-yard bomb to Jamar Howard after he broke free of the SaberCats secondary.
San Jose would respond with a pair of scores, however. The first of the two highlighted receiver Ben Nelson’s athleticism, as the receiver had to make a mid-air adjustment with his body to snag the ball in the corner of the end zone. The SaberCats defense would set up the next score as David Hyland would make a leaping snag of Rowley’s pass over the middle to haul in the interception. Shortly after, Reggie Gray made the turnover hurt as he was lofted a pass across the end zone to make it a 21-7 lead.
San Jose would close out the half with one more touchdown after forcing a turnover on downs with 39 seconds left. Meyers and the offense worked efficiently down the field before yet another sprawling catch by Gray in the end zone would land his team a 28-7 lead heading into the locker room.
The SaberCats opened the second half much like they closed out the first, by finding their way into the end zone. Meyers used a steady helping of Purify and Nelson before the latter would bounce his way off defenders into the end zone for a 35-7 lead.
Unable to break the SaberCats defense, the Thunder instead attacked their special teams, as WR Duane Brooks broke free of the pack for a 54 yard touchdown return, closing the margin to 35-14.
The SaberCats clean play was marred in the third quarter after OL Rich Ranglin fumbled the ball after being cut from behind on a dump-off from Meyers. San Jose was on the cusp of recovering and mounting their third goal line stand of the game, before Rowley threw a perfect back shoulder fade to Howard for their second consecutive touchdown of the game.
But Big Play Reggie Gray would shore up any attempts of a comeback from Portland by taking a kick return of his own to the house, sprinting through the pile for a 57 yard touchdown to make it a 41-21 game.
After spreading the offense to many of his teammates throughout the game, Meyers decided to get in on the action himself on the SaberCats next score, scrambling to the left to find a wide open field before taking off to the end zone for a 9 yard touchdown and a 27 point lead.
The Thunder would return to score one final touchdown in garbage time, but would come up far short as a 55-28 final would sink their playoff hopes.
With David Hyland’s interception in the first quarter, the DB has now had three straight games with a pickoff.
SAP Center will be unavailable for next week’s Conference Championship, which is why the game will be hosted at the SMG Stockton Arena. However, the SaberCats will be providing a free shuttle bus to the Stockton Arena from Fry’s Home Office at 550 E Brokaw Rd. San Jose, CA, 95112 prior to the game.
Tickets to the game will be made available to the public on Ticketmaster on Monday, August 17th at noon.